In the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, there is a line that has always fascinated me. Joseph has been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. They really intended to kill him. It was that important to them to get rid of him, and to get him out of their lives. In the end, though, a measure of sanity emerged, and so they threw him into a pit. Time went by, and eventually the brothers sold him to a passing caravan of traders on their way to Egypt. Many years went by, and one day Joseph’s brothers discovered themselves in a face to face encounter with Joseph, who, over the years, had become a high-ranking official in Egypt. As the brothers stumbled over themselves trying to come up with a reasonable and fitting apology for their treachery, Joseph quieted them, and said something extraordinarily profound: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” (Gen 50:20)
I absolutely marvel at that statement. It fills me with awe every time I think of it. It even sounds better in the old King James Version: “But as for you, yee thought euill against me, but God meant it vnto good, to bring to passe, as it is this day, to saue much people aliue.”* But I marvel at it, because it tells me flat out that God is not hindered or limited by my evil ways. I can plot evil, I can engage in treachery, I can even seek to destroy someone’s life, as Joseph’s brothers did, but God can take the whole mess that I’ve made and turn it around into something that is very good. And God can do that, because God ultimately and always triumphs over evil, even if it requires the unwitting and unwilling cooperation of thoroughly evil people. And that is exceedingly good news, because the same exact thing is happening in our passage this morning.
Jesus has got to go. He needs to be gotten rid of. He is a problem. He’s a trouble maker, he doesn’t always play by the rules, and he doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of respect for the traditions of institutionalized religion. But the worst thing about him is that he is wildly popular. He gathers huge crowds wherever he goes, and if he remains unchecked, he could very well be a dangerous and eroding influence on the power and authority of the religious leaders. From their point of view, Jesus is a threat not only to everything that is sacred and holy, but also to their very way of life. If Jesus continues on as he is, the religious leaders could very well become irrelevant. And so there’s a measure of self-preservation at work as they conspire to eliminate Jesus.
It has always been a bit of a mystery to me though, in terms of how these religious leaders could stoop so low. They know the law, they’re the keepers of the law, they know that murder is forbidden, it’s one of the Big 10. They are not evil people by nature, in fact they are the champions of good. And yet, in their stubborn determination to get rid of Jesus, they must have justified their action as a necessary evil. They might even have convinced themselves that they were acting on behalf of God, or that God was actually leading them to do this. Sometimes, when we really want to do something that we know is wrong, we can deceive ourselves into thinking that God is standing with us on it, that God is good with it, and maybe even that it is God’s idea. Such is the nature of deception.
But whatever was the motivation or the justification or even the rationale, what the religious leaders are up to is evil, pure and simple. Matthew tells us that they intend to arrest Jesus by stealth. And implied in Matthew’s statement is the innocence of Jesus and the guilt of the co-conspirators. The word translated “stealth” in our Bibles is mostly used to describe evil people who sell shoddy goods at inflated prices to unsuspecting poor people, or to describe people who further oppress the poor by paying them substandard wages. We would call it trying to get away with murder.
In any event, the conspirators have got to do this deed carefully. The Passover is coming up, and they are all agreed that the timing is off. Jesus is handy by, he’d be easy to grab, but he’s also likely to be surrounded by hordes of supporters. Better that we wait until after the festival when everyone’s on their way home, especially with the Romans being so ticklish about civil unrest these days. We can’t afford a riot.
So…the evil plan is in place. But curiously, and amazingly, the good plan is running along parallel to it. What the chief priests and elders mean for evil, God intends for good. As Joseph of old so wisely understood, God is not thwarted or limited by the plans of evil people. When Joseph said, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today,” he probably did not know the he was speaking as a prophet. He probably did not know that centuries hence, that the Son of God would be about to fulfill the divine plan of salvation that had been in place since before the beginning of time. Even the chief priests and elders could not have known that the evil plans that they were hatching represented an unwitting and certainly unwilling cooperation with God’s will. What they intended for evil, God intended for good. They could not have, would not have imagined that the death of one man that they plotted for the preservation of their own skins, would ultimately result in the salvation of billions. But that’s the rub of it. Jesus willingly died to provide salvation and eternal life for those who willingly killed him. It is a paradox of paradoxes.
And now, Jesus is at the house of Simon the leper. Simon’s more than likely been cured of his leprosy, but names are sometimes difficult to shed, even when the reason for them has gone away. There’s probably someone somewhere out there whose nick-name is “Bean Pole” but would probably better be called “Beach Ball” these days, but that’s how it goes. But while Jesus was at the house of Simon the leper, an unnamed woman came to Jesus, and poured out a jar of very costly ointment on his head, and oh my goodness, the disciples went ballistic! They were outraged! What a waste! What an evil thing this woman has done! What was she thinking? This stuff could have been sold! The money could have gone to the relief of the poor! And now its just dumped out all over the place.
I like it that Matthew includes all of the disciples in this display of righteous indignation. In some of the other Gospels, it is just Judas who objects, and that seems right. We love to hate him, he did, after all, betray Jesus. But Matthew is willing to admit his own culpability in this, and that’s wonderful. And its wonderful, because we are all disciples, and sometimes we react out of righteous indignation, too.
Now had the disciples been a little more insightful, they would have realized that they were guilty of calling a good thing an evil thing. They saw the good thing that this woman did, and they criticized it as being an evil thing. So Jesus had to straighten them out. I’ll cut them a little slack, though. Cutting folks some slack is a good thing, once in a while. Sometimes we get a little bit too crispy when it comes to judging others or being self-righteous. I read verses 45 and 46 as part of this passage to remind us that Jesus had just been teaching the disciples about how they should be treating the oppressed and the disadvantaged of this world, and so they’ve got reaching out to the poor on their minds. They’re thinking that they could have done some good for the poor if they could have gotten their hands on the ointment first.
But Jesus tells them that the woman has done yet a greater thing with it; she has done a greater good, she has anointed him for burial. It turns out that there will always be plenty of good to do for the poor. The poor aren’t going away any time soon, and there will always be an opportunity to minister to them. In any event, Jesus has already made it plain that when we serve the poor, when we reach out to the disadvantaged and oppressed, we are in actually serving him. All of our offerings, all of our gifts, and all of our service is ultimately to Jesus.
I especially like to though, that this woman is unnamed. It may be that Matthew is being a little chauvinistic here, it may be that he never did learn her name, but it may also be that he is inspired by the Holy Spirit. By leaving her unnamed, she becomes every one of us here this morning. Every one of us here this morning has the capacity to honor Jesus with utter and absolute devotion. Every one of us has the potential to act lavishly and to act in faith.
Our lavish acts of service and devotion may very well be misunderstood by some, and criticized by others. But they will never be misunderstood by Jesus. He is the one who gave his life for us. He is the one who loved us to his death. And while we will never be able to match that love, it is appropriate that we offer him our whole lives, and that we give him as much of those lives as we possibly can. It was, after all not just the guile and deceit of the religious leaders that caused our Lord to suffer and die on the cross, it was our own sin as well. But it was for this he came to this earth: To give life to those who would receive it from him. And we have certainly received life, haven’t we?
*1611 KJV, with all of the strange spellings that come with it.