1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “As you know, Passover begins in two days, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
3 At that same time the leading priests and elders were meeting at the residence of Caiaphas, the high priest, 4 plotting how to capture Jesus secretly and kill him. 5 “But not during the Passover celebration,” they agreed, “or the people may riot.”
6 Meanwhile, Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon, a man who had previously had leprosy. 7 While he was eating, a woman came in with a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his head.
8 The disciples were indignant when they saw this. “What a waste!” they said. 9 “It could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.”
10 But Jesus, aware of this, replied, “Why criticize this woman for doing such a good thing to me? 11 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me. 12 She has poured this perfume on me to prepare my body for burial. 13 I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed.”
14 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, went to the leading priests 15 and asked, “How much will you pay me to betray Jesus to you?” And they gave him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From that time on, Judas began looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
This passage shows yet again Matthew’s genius in ordering and framing his Gospel account. He begins by quoting Jesus to show that for all that happens from this point forward, the crucifixion was Jesus’ deliberate choice. The religious leaders start plotting, and Judas moves to betray, after Jesus announces what is going to happen. Unlike in Mark, where Judas is offered money, Matthew has him ask for a reward, which heightens Judas’ betrayal. He is not tempted to betray by others, he actively seeks out an opportunity and a personal benefit.
Like shadows added to draw attention to a painting’s main features, the betrayal and plotting together serve as a frame for what takes place at Simon the Leper’s house. Jesus is hanging out with the sort of people his last teaching just talked about – the least of these – and one such woman gives an extravagant gift to Jesus, pouring an entire bottle of expensive (Mark puts the value at a year’s wages) perfume on Jesus. This makes his disciples angry (and Matthew likely intends us to relate this to Judas’ decision to betray Jesus “then”) because, after all, Jesus has just told them how their eternal salvation hinges on care for the poor. This perfume could have funded a great deal of care for the poor. Jesus’ response, “you always have the poor with you,” has often been used (quite out of context) to rationalize not caring for those in need, but given what we read yesterday, such can only be regarded as a misuse of Scripture.
There are important lessons for us here. First, Jesus moves to protect the woman from the disciples’ angry critique of her actions. She didn’t need their permission or approval to do for Jesus what was on her heart to do. She most likely did not know she was anointing Jesus for his burial, Jesus gives that prophetic interpretation of her action. But this is how it happens with us many times, we feel strongly about doing some good thing, some act of service or worship (or both, more on that in a moment), and only later do we realize the significance of what we are doing, sometimes only after someone else has prophetically shown it to us. When you feel like God has given you something to do, you have prayed and thought about it and are willing (eager even) to commit a significant amount of personal resource to doing it, then you should go ahead and do it. Others may not understand, they may actively argue against you, but you should go ahead and pour that sweet perfume on Jesus’ head no matter what they think. Jesus will receive your act of worship and defend it and you just like he did for this dear woman.
Second, what Jesus said about always having the poor with us needs to be interpreted in the light of his identification with the poor in what we read yesterday. I don’t mean that his statement here should be given less weight and the other more weight, rather, what he says here accentuates what he said before. He told us yesterday in clear terms that what we do for the least of these we are doing for him. Now he is telling us that what this woman did in pouring out her life savings on his head was a good thing, and that while we can’t do this for him directly as she did, we always have people in need – the very people he equated himself with. So we too can pour out our love and our lives on people in need. We can give to them as extravagantly as this woman gave to Jesus and in so doing we pour our perfume on Jesus’ head too. This is her act of service and her act of worship. The same should be true for us as well. Serving those in need and worshipping God are inseparable.
Or we can live in the shadows where the plotting, griping, and betraying go on. But who wants that? Do what God puts on your heart to do. Worship Jesus and serve those in need in your own way with all that you have. And let all the plotters, gripers, and betrayers be no more than frames of your story of extravagant love for Jesus and people.
The New Living Translation (NLT)Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.