Wherever This Gospel Is Preached

What kind of gift would you give a king? Matthew 26:1–13 records a gift for the King.

Honor Christ as your King. Appreciate the appropriateness of this offering. The setting is Bethany, shortly before Christ’s betrayal and death. Jesus has been invited to dinner at the home of “Simon the leper,” perhaps healed by Jesus. A woman, unnamed by Matthew or Mark, but apparently Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus (John 12:1-11), brings an alabaster jar of perfume, made of pure nard. The value was over 300 denarii, or a year’s wages. Despite a culture which reduced women to a secondary status and frowned upon their public intrusion into a dinner party like this, she enters the room and breaks the jar open. In a gesture of love and appreciation she pours it on the Savior. She shows her own unworthiness and Christ’s greatness. Her act of devotion, however, is immediately criticized by the disciples. John specifically focuses on the objections of Judas. Matthew’s placement of the account of the anointing in the middle of a description of the plot to murder Jesus (verses 1–5 & 14–16) heightens the treachery.

Recognize that Christ is central in the kingdom. Christ accepted this lavish gift and protected the giver from her critics. Yes, they have a point, but they overlook the fact of the presence of the messianic King. Jesus is not unconcerned about the poor. Don’t read this passage as an excuse to be hard-hearted and tight-pursed about charitable needs. Jesus’ response, verse 11, refers to Deuteronomy 15:11, which, in context commands practical concern for the poor. Jesus presents himself as the truly poor of Psalm 34:6. In this messianic Psalm (see verse 20), Christ is the poor one who is redeemed by the Lord in contrast with the poor who are always with you. Charity is important, but it does not replace Christ. Serve, but don’t forget to sit at Jesus’ feet. Evangelize, but remember that Christ is the One to whom you are bringing people. Seek to serve your Lord in every area of your life, but don’t forget to spend time in prayer and fellowship with him through his Word. The woman’s gift is worthy of a king, and Jesus accepts it as such. Similarly, he expects your total commitment, honor, and service.

Worship Christ as your anointed Priest. Jesus accepted this anointing for his burial. Jesus states that the woman had anointed him to prepare for his burial. Perhaps it is reading too much into the text to assume that she had full awareness of the manner of his death and the impossibility of a proper anointing at that time (although those executed as criminals were the ones whose bodies did not receive proper burial). Nevertheless, this woman does seem to be more aware than others, including the disciples, of the impending suffering of the Savior. Mary was, perhaps, the best listener to Jesus during his earthly ministry. “Mary always listened whenever the Lord Jesus was at their house; her heart was receptive to His words. Thus she had come to understand more than the disciples. She had understood that in the Lord Jesus, God’s love appeared to them. She also paid attention to the words He spoke about his suffering and death…. Mary had seen something of Jesus’ approaching suffering and death; she understood what not one of the disciples wanted to understand. When she poured the ointment on His body, she was preparing for the anointing He would receive at His burial.” (S. G. De Graaf, Promise and Deliverance, Vol. 3, pages 137–138) Jesus is the one who mentions his burial. That hardly seems to be a topic to raise at a festive dinner celebration! But the woman is to be left alone. What she has done is “a beautiful thing,” for it was done to prepare for Christ’s burial. Matthew’s focus is not on the woman and the generosity of her gift, but on the Savior, who is very conscious of his impending suffering and death. His priestly work will culminate in his offering himself as the great sacrifice to God, a sacrifice that does not just symbolically cover sins, but actually removes all of the guilt of all of the sins of all of his people. The earthly priests had been anointed with oil as they were set apart to their priestly work. Jesus is anointed as he goes to the cross and the tomb to complete his work as the great high priest. Jesus doubtless thinks back to the prophecies of his work. Isaiah 53:9 foretells the association of the humble Messiah with the rich in his death. Jesus sees that fulfilled, not only in Joseph of Arimathea’s provision of his own rock-hewn tomb, but also in this extravagant anointing in anticipation of his burial. Precisely because of her focus on the person and work of Christ, wherever his gospel would be proclaimed, there her act of worship would be recognized.

Serve your crucified and risen Lord. Worship Jesus because he gave himself for you. Mary understood at least something of Jesus’ self-sacrificial love. She responded with a lavish display of her gratitude. You can appreciate Christ’s redemptive work even more clearly than she did. How do you respond? Give your gifts to a risen Savior. You live in a different phase of redemptive history than Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. You cannot anoint the body of Jesus. And today Jesus is not asking to be worshiped with perfume. Instead, you live in an age when Jesus is present by his powerful Holy Spirit in the life of his church, as well as in the lives of each of its members. “The deeds and titles of many a king, and emperor, and general, are as completely forgotten, as if written in the sand. But the grateful act of one humble Christian woman is recorded… and is known all over the globe. The praise of man is but for a few days. The praise of Christ endureth for ever. The pathway to lasting honour, is to honour Christ.” (J. C. Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Vol. 1, p. 348)

You still have the poor with you. You can still use your gifts to provide for them, in Jesus’ name. In fact, concern for the poor is one of the signs of a church’s love for her Lord. The proclamation of the gospel throughout the world is here anticipated by Christ, verse 13. “The preaching of the gospel is no less a proof than the miracles that the kingdom of heaven has come.” (Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, p. 71) This good news must and will be proclaimed. Your gifts can still be used to help extend the kingdom of your Lord, both locally and throughout the earth. There is a lavish gift which the Lord does seek from you, a gift more precious than Mary’s nard. That is a life that is humbly and obediently dedicated to him as your king. Even more than the expensive perfume, it is the humble dedication which made Mary’s gift priceless.

As people who belong to Jesus, you can never ignore the atmosphere of his death. There is something funereal about the scent of the nard. But Jesus’ acceptance of the gift looks beyond the grave to the glory of his resurrection. As your Priest and King he accepts the fragrance of your life as an offering to him.

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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