Mark 14:3-9: And while [Jesus] was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
To my mind, this story is asking us to consider our values as Christians. It reveals a conflict of priorities which Jesus places in a proper perspective. As we read this story I invite us to ask: What ought we to value highly, and how does that influence the way we live?
As the story begins, we find Jesus resting at Simon’s home, where an anonymous woman anoints him with some very expensive ointment. Unless she is very wealthy, which seems unlikely, considering she is the guest of a leper, her acquisition of this ointment had probably taken years of saving. This is a substance which only had practical use for the very rich and for kings. And she takes it and uses it all on a poor man from Nazareth. It is gone in a moment. Clearly, she thought that this was a good use for it, but the other guests in the house thought otherwise.
They start muttering to each other under their breath. How can this woman be so wasteful? Why would she pour this out on Jesus when it would obviously have been better to trade it for money to give to the poor? How can she live with herself knowing there are starving people on the street? Then they lay all these criticisms on her.
But Jesus has a different opinion. He doesn’t have any problem with the woman’s action; in fact, he commends it. He reasons with the guests that “’You always have the poor with you. . . but you will not always have me.’”
Jesus is implying that spending great wealth simply to give him honor in this moment is more important than helping the poor. Does Jesus really think that he is more important than helping people in need? Has Jesus become vain in his popularity? Is Jesus merely praising the woman because she has fed his pride as a miracle worker?
This might cast a bad light on Jesus, except for one critical truth which transforms how we see the world. Jesus is the Son of God, who was very soon to die for the salvation of the world and reign with power in heaven. This woman is seemingly the only one in the room who recognizes Jesus for who he truly is, and she honors him by giving him a burial ointment fit for a king, acknowledging him as her savior who dies for her, and as the king of heaven and earth. Far from being wasteful, this woman is the only one to give Jesus the honor and thanks that was really due him. For this, Jesus proclaims that she would be remembered for her gesture wherever the gospel is preached.
So, with Christ’s high praise of this gesture, why ought we to remember this story today? I think it can be observed that the conflict between the woman and the other house guests is still going on in the church today, and this story can help us move towards a proper orientation of how we view Christ and serve him.
Have you ever heard anyone express a negative opinion about a church for not focusing on the “right” kinds of ministry, like for being too oriented on spiritual matters? For example, a church may be criticized for not doing enough in its community, like helping the poor or supporting various causes. Many of these churches are instead more focused on sharing the gospel with others, and teach and preach with no greater end than to bring church members into deeper personal fellowship with Christ. Conversely, these churches may accuse their critics of being too focused on life here and now, and of having missed the central message of the gospel.
How does scripture sort out these mutual accusations? As can be seen in the house guests in this story, there clearly is a danger of becoming so focused on doing good works that Christ himself is overlooked even if he is present in the very same room! As much good as it does to care for the needy here and now, proclaiming and living out the message of forgiveness of sins in Christ, reconciliation with the Father, and the life to come is a greater good that ought to not be neglected.
We have seen that the woman’s “wasteful” gesture with the ointment was not wasteful at all to Jesus, but rather a beautiful and honoring confession of him as God’s Son and her king. Even in a life full of good works, it is important to keep Christ Jesus and salvation in him central.
On the other hand, focus on Christ and spiritual health should not be to the neglect of good works. Jesus assumes that when he is no longer present with his disciples, they will help the poor. Indeed, a necessary consequence of faith in Christ is a desire to serve him and our neighbors with good works. Or as James puts it in his epistle, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26b).
Jesus’ point in this story concerns our perspective and priorities, and how they affect the way we live out our lives. Like the anonymous woman, we are to worship God as our king in costly ways that honor Him alone and deepen our faith, but we are also to serve Him by sharing the gospel and doing things to help the needy in their lives here and now. In that way, I hope that the anonymous woman’s deed continues to live on in the memory of the church.