The disciples were on to it. That alabaster jar of very costly ointment could have been sold, and the money could have been used to help alleviate the struggle of some poor person’s life. As Jesus reminds us, poverty is ever before us. There is no escaping it. Followers of Jesus have a clear calling from the Scriptures to ease the burden of those who live in poverty. And responding to the Scriptures is a struggle in and of itself, because some of us believe that the poor are lazy and unmotivated and ill-bred. And if that is the case, then we will probably not have much compassion for the way of those who live in poverty. If however, we believe that Christ can change hearts as he has changed ours, then a whole world of creative opportunities and ministries will open up to us.
I am convinced that Jesus’ comment in verse 11, is really an invitation to reconsider our attitudes toward the poor. Followers of Jesus cannot intentionally ignore the poor, or pretend that poverty does not exist, because our Lord has clearly pointed out that we will always live side by side with those who live in poverty. Here are the poor, Jesus has said, choose your response. And like every other choice that Jesus offers us, our response must be carefully considered, because much hangs in the balance, perhaps, even, the destiny of our souls.
Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, in chapter 19, a young man, pleasantly provided for with much wealth and many possessions, came to Jesus inquiring of him what good thing was necessary to be accomplished, in order to secure eternal life. This young man was an observant and faithful Jew. He was a keeper of the commandments. He was convinced that he loved God and that he loved his neighbor, as he loved himself. But Jesus had a suggestion about loving his neighbor that sent the young man away from Jesus with a broken heart. Jesus said, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
And then just verses away from our passage this morning, in chapter 25, we read these frightening words from Jesus: “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me…truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Serving Christ is inextricably connected with serving others in their need. This was a struggle for the wealthy young man and it is a struggle for all who consider themselves to be industrious, motivated and well-bred.
In his Inaugural Address, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” That is the mission and the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is also the mission and the ministry of those who are called to be the followers of Jesus Christ.
And yet, in the midst of the mission and ministry to which we are called, there will almost always be some challenges interjected that will give us pause to think and to ponder. These challenges have the potential to stir us up a bit, and to push us to a deeper level of thoughtfulness and faithfulness. One of those challenges is very present in our passage this morning.
We are in the town of Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Bethany is not far from the city of Jerusalem. At most it is a leisurely walk of about an hour and a half, up one side of the Mount of Olives, and half-way down the other. We know this town best as the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. Simon, unfortunately, has a nick-name that he seems to be saddled with for life. It is very clear from the text that Simon is no longer a leper. He has been healed, and most likely by Jesus himself. We know that Simon is no longer a leper, because he is hosting a meal. And no active leper could possibly do that. It would be like eating at the home of someone who has the coronavirus. In a broken world, nick-names often last with a person even though they have long since become irrelevant. Consider the person who has struggled to clean up a tarnished reputation, only to have some unkind person begin to blather it about again. It is good that God never remembers our pasts. God never focuses on what we have been. God only sees what we can become.
This meal at Simon’s home is only a handful of days before Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus is very close to the time of his death; perhaps this is Tuesday or Wednesday of the last week of his life.
Sometime during the meal, a woman entered the dining area, and poured some very costly ointment over Jesus’ head. Matthew chooses not to name this woman because she lives out the potential that everyone of us here this morning has within us. We are her and she is us. She exemplifies the devotion and adoration of Jesus that we all must emulate. But while we, the readers, are intended to see this act as an act of generous devotion and adoration, the original participants would not have shared our perspective. Where we see generosity, they saw waste, and it was a huge waste that they saw.
When Mark tells this same story in his gospel, we learn that the ointment was valued at about a year’s salary for the average worker. Like the disciples of Jesus, I can easily imagine how I might spend that money for the benefit of the poor. It won’t solve the problem of world wide poverty, but it could certainly ease the burden of several folks who struggle to provide even the basic necessities of life.
And Jesus’ disciples can see this clearly. As the ointment runs down over the hair and the face of Jesus, they can smell a terrible waste in progress. They are quick to point out that a tremendous opportunity has been lost. In their minds, they are thinking that someone, some poor, desperate soul is going to go hungry and thirsty and naked, and nobody seems to care that this woman has done a very foolish thing. Far better that she had kept the ointment for herself, rather than creating a public spectacle of extravagant waste. But now it is too late, much too late to do anything about it. The damage has been done. What was this woman thinking?
Actually, it is the heart of this woman and the hearts of Jesus’ disciples that stand in stark and utter contrast. The disciples are being good followers of Jesus. They have the needs of the poor in their hearts. They want to do something about the problem of poverty. Their thoughts are not wrong at all. Above all else, they want to do the right thing. They’ve been taught by their Lord to do the right thing. They have heard Jesus preach and teach countless times about how they ought to respond to those in need. Their motives are good; very good. But the woman’s motives are pure. Her behavior is motivated purely by her love and adoration and devotion for Jesus.
So, how do we bring this woman’s deep devotion and adoration of Jesus, and the disciples’ commitment to easing the burden of the poor together? How do we understand them? How do they interact with one another? We know for certain that the disciples are thinking in honorable ways and that the woman has done an honorable thing.
The lesson here is that sometimes just doing the right thing isn’t quite enough. We all know how to do the right thing. We’ve done it as individuals and we’ve tried to do it as a congregation. But where are our hearts when we are in the midst of doing the right thing? Do we do the right thing because it is the right thing, or do we do it out of utter love and devotion and adoration of Jesus Christ? This is where the woman can teach the disciples. If we respond out of love and devotion and adoration to our Lord, something miraculous happens. We move from a faith that lives in our minds to a faith that lives in our hearts, and then flows out of our hearts.
The disciples, as wonderful as they were, and as wise as they were, were reacting out of their heads. And in their heads, they were speaking rationally, and sanely and intelligently. They were being intensely practical. But the woman was responding from out of the depths of her heart. These two responses, with the help of the Holy Spirit can come together. Extravagant devotion and practical mission and outreach can go hand in hand. They just need to both be there at the same time, because sometimes devotion can be insanely extravagant. Devotion doesn’t always follow the rules of practicality. But, practicality, without devotion, is nothing.
And Jesus makes that perfectly clear in this passage. Jesus tells his disciples that this woman’s extravagant act of devotion has prepared him for burial, and that what she has done will forever be told in remembrance of her. And it has been told throughout the centuries, and it is now, once again being told this morning.
Had the disciples, acting out of their heads, been able to do the right thing, by grabbing that jar of ointment out of the woman’s hands before she wasted it, they certainly could have done something very good with it. And for a time, their good deed, their brave rescue, would have been remembered, talked about, and even appreciated. But the woman, acting out of her heart, is remembered forever for what she has done. Her unmitigated act of love and devotion stands as a permanent memorial to remind us all that the true home of faith is in our hearts. The passage ends with Judas. Judas never understood or accepted the mission and ministry of Jesus. He never once bowed this knees in devotion or in adoration of Jesus. He lived and died as a reasonable and practical man. And even today, he is still asking, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” Sometimes he asks that question by using our own voices. And that is an ominous way to end a sermon.