October 22, 2012
In Mark 14, we meet a woman who poured an expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head in an act of extravagant worship. Some observers were angered by what they considered a wasteful misuse of resources—but Jesus determined that it was an act of humble devotion. Alistair Begg reminds us that while such devotion to serve Jesus is often met with the displeasure of friends, it is ultimately God’s judgment that should concern us.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I want to invite you to turn to Mark 14, if you have a Bible, if you can see a Bible, and I’m going to read these opening verses.
“Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’
“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of … Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly.
“‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’”
It’s Lennon and McCartney who wrote,
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed,
Some forever, not for better;
Some have gone and some remain.
All these places have their memories,
The lovers and friends I still can recall;
Some are dead and some are living,
But in my life, I’ve loved them all.
Places anchor events in our lives. And if we had the opportunity to be in the company of anyone who was present on this particular occasion, recorded here by Mark, it is very difficult to imagine that they would say that of all the things they remembered in terms of their following and being in the presence of Jesus, this one was not right there at the top. I would be surprised if that were the case.
And what Mark tells us in this little section is that the ongoing drama which is taking place—as described in verses 1 and 2—of the Pharisees, the scribes, the religious leaders moving now, inexorably, to the place where they’re going to finally get ahold of Jesus of Nazareth and, from their perspective, be done with him once and for all—against all the darkness and blackness, if you like, of that agenda, we have the magnificent light that shines out from there, from the house of Simon the Leper.
Sometimes in the evening, when the clocks change and it’s dark, I actually go around the small neighborhood of ours, attracted by the lights from the people’s homes, and sometimes fireplaces. I’m always intrigued to see how they’ve laid out their living room. Not that I’m a Peeping Tom; I don’t go up the driveway. But it’s virtually impossible if you are in the darkness not to be drawn to the light. And the surrounding verses of 14—1 and 2, they were looking for him; verse 10, Judas now enters into their dark plot—they provide the context in which you have this amazing and memorable encounter.
I want us to consider it this morning, and perhaps, if I go too slowly, on Wednesday morning as well—or, if I don’t make sense and have to try it a second time, Wednesday morning as well. But I want to look at it just by noticing the way in which the story unfolds.
First of all, we’ll consider just one little phrase there in verse 3, “A woman came.” “A woman came.” And in looking that, we’ll consider her actions. And then, in verse 4: “Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another…” In the English Standard Version, which I was reading in preparation for this, it actually says, “They scolded her.” “A woman came,” “They scolded her,” and then thirdly and finally, the explanation and the commendation of Jesus: “She did what she could.” So it’s very straightforward. Even for an intelligent group such as yourselves, you need something to hang your hat on, and here you have it.
First of all, then, “A woman came.” Let us consider her action.
It’s actually surely worth noting that the events that Mark records for us in chapter 13—and this is a homework assignment for you to check—in 13, where you have the Apocalyptic Discourse, or the Olivet Discourse, as we refer to it, after the announcement of Jesus that the temple is going to come crashing down, and the disciples say, “Well, when will the end of the world be?” because they couldn’t imagine a world without this great temple—on either side of that amazing discourse or address by Jesus, you have the account of two ladies. Chapter 12 ends with a lady, and chapter 14 begins with another lady. And the one lady at the end of chapter 12 is a lady who is doing with money something that says something about her heart. And it’s not our purpose this morning to consider that, but if you go back and look at it, you will realize that Jesus is pointing out to his disciples the values of his kingdom. He’s been doing this all the way through: “The first’ll be last, the last will be first.” He’s turning things upside down, and because they’re upside down, when he does that, he’s really turning them the right way up.
But these disciples are slow to understand this. And so, their ears must have been pinned back when he says to them on that occasion, at the end of 12, “Do you see this wee lady here? Do you see what she’s just done? She has actually put in more than all the rest.” Well, that didn’t make any sense at all. Into those vast trumpets, as the coins were placed, the number of coins that went in—the density of the coin—would rattle as an indication of just the gesture that had been made. But for this little lady to come with two tiny coins, it hardly made a noise at all.
“This poor widow,” says Jesus, “has put in more than all the rest.” Why? Because it’s measured by sacrifice, not by the amount. Because it’s measured by proportion. Two cents out of two cents is a factor of one. One thousand out of ten thousand is a factor of a tenth.
It’s quite interesting that the disciples don’t then ask Jesus to work this out for them. But the challenge of that little lady’s action is immediately followed by a question about architecture. It’s not dissimilar to what happens when you hear the Bible preached. The temptation is not to actually pay attention to the challenge that comes but to begin to talk about where you’re going for Sunday lunch or whether your Aunt Mabel is going to be staying for an extra two days from Minneapolis. It’s a complete triviality; it means nothing at all to anybody. But it is a way of saying, “That was a little too close for comfort. I didn’t like that stuff about a little lady showing the rest of us up. These are magnificent buildings, I must say.” Jesus says, “You see these buildings? These building are going to come crashing down. There won’t be one stone left on top of the other.” Wow.
Then it follows. Then the plot thickens. Then the lady comes. “A woman came.” Fabulous! Why did she come? Because she wanted to. She comes carrying something. She comes with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume made of pure nard.
I must confess to you that I do not like the word “nard.” I don’t know if you do. It just doesn’t strike me as… anybody that’s doing a marketing campaign for a very nice perfume, I think would be… it would be a dumb move to call it “nard.” Only a nerd would buy nard, as far as I’m concerned. And it would be foolish for me, as well, to try and impress you with the depth of my understanding of the way in which the plants of the foothills of the Himalayas were used in the production of this, because you would say to yourself, “He must have got that out of a book.” Of course I did! Where do you think you got it? Unless you were just wandering around the foothills of the Himalayas lately and did your own research. No! So it’d be a complete waste of time. You shouldn’t—and this is just a sidebar for those of you who want to teach—don’t waste your time on stuff like that. Everybody knows you don’t know anything about it, so you’re not impressing them; you’re annoying them.
So, we’ll leave that. All we need to know: it was very expensive. That’s all. We don’t know where it came from, really, and they did. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t something that the average lady would have had in her purse. It’s not something that she would have picked up in Nordstrom on the way for an evening at the house of Simon the Leper.
Incidentally, we don’t know who Simon the Leper was. You can read books about that as well. Maybe Jesus healed him, or maybe he didn’t. And maybe he used to be a leper. Maybe he wasn’t even there; maybe it was just his house. But that’s, again, the kind of stuff you shouldn’t talk about. Just leave it alone, all right?
No, the real issue here is the cost that’s involved. The cost that’s involved. And he is very, very careful to describe for us both the container and the content and the cost. It’s an alabaster jar, or an alabaster flask—translucent material that in itself would be fragile and important and relatively precious. Not as precious as what was inside it; what was inside it, as we see, is this ointment, this embalming oil, this perfume—whatever you want to think of it—and that is established as significant on account of its cost.
So it was the cost of what was taking place here that was the occasion for the disapproval of some—verse 4—who were present. Perfume that costs a year’s wages certainly could never be regarded as ordinary. I’d be very surprised if there is any man here who ever bought his wife perfume that cost him a year’s salary. And if you are here, I’d like to meet you afterwards—and take your temperature!
The monetary value—the monetary value—was probably the least part of this. Because an item like this would be something that may actually have been a family heirloom—the kind of thing that may have been in a home from one generation to another, or something that had been secured by a father and given to his daughter for a very, very special purpose. So that as she looked at that alabaster jar, let’s say, in her bedroom, or in a place of prominence in the house, she looked at it and imagined using it, hopefully, on the occasion of her wedding as a dowry, or perhaps on the occasion of her death, used by someone to prepare her for her burial.
In other words, that alabaster jar represented her future, in some measure. Represented her hopes, in some measure. Represented her destiny, in some measure. Represented, in some measure, her security. The kind of thing that you could actually say, “Well, if I lose my job and everything goes south, I always have the alabaster jar. Because I could live for a year on the strength of that.”
So, to purposefully remove that jar from its location and take it with her on this occasion to the house of Simon the Leper was a significant decision. Remember, Shakespeare tells us that “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken [on] the”—and in the affairs of women, incidentally—“that, taken [on] the flood, leads on to fortune.” Oxenham says,
To every one there openeth a way, and a ways, and a way,
And the high soul climbs the high way,
And the low soul gropes the low.
And in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro.
And to everyone there openeth a high way and a low;
And every soul decideth the way their soul will go.
So, what we have here is, in the public arena, in the context of this home, a decision that has been made by this woman in the privacy—in the secrecy, if you like—of her own life. A decision made in private that is now revealed in public.
Is it wrong, is it too elaborate, to suggest that by this action she was pouring away her future on the head of the Lord Jesus? That by her action she was surrendering, in some measure, her own personal plans and ambitions—her aspirations for the future? And judging from the reaction here, she was also sacrificing her social acceptability in the present. What a strange thing for this lady to do! Oh, it was customary for anointing to take place. It was routine for hosts and hostesses to be extending this kind of courtesy to their friends. But this was far more dramatic than anything they had ever known.
Because you will notice that we’re told that she chooses not to pour out a little drop of it, but she actually broke the jar. She broke the jar. It’s almost as if it’s an expression of complete abandonment, isn’t it? I mean, it would be one thing if you took along, and you took the little top off, if there was one, and then you said, “Now, I’ve got to be very, very careful with this, because this is very important for my future. I don’t mind giving a little bit of this to Jesus, but I certainly don’t want him to have too much of it. I certainly don’t want to break—oh, for goodness’ sake! Nah. Nah, well, I suppose so.” No. No, it’s an act of extravagant generosity. It’s an expression of peculiar commitment.
Having served its purpose, the jar would never be used again. The archeologists tell us that these jars are often found in the tombs, where people have embalmed bodies, preparing them for their entombment, and then they have left the jar lying, or the broken pieces of the jar were actually laid out on the bodies of the deceased as an expression of what has taken place. And that is the kind of framework that is for us here. It is an act of peculiar commitment. It is an impulsive gesture of self-forgetfulness that emerges from a decision that was premeditated.
Did you get that? So in other words, it’s not that she has abandoned her mind. No, let’s put it in Romans 12:1−2 terms: “Therefore, I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice to God.” So, if you like, in the privacy of her own thinking, she has already considered who Jesus is. I think this lady has an understanding of who Jesus is that is beyond even the fatheaded disciples who are present in the room. She moves to this appointment in the privacy of her own heart, recognizing that for her to make this commitment in full view of others may well incur their displeasure—as it does! But the premeditation that has given rise to the action does not diminish the fact that she gestures in such an extravagant, extravagant fashion.
Now, here’s a thought. Jesus received this. When you read John or Matthew or Luke— you read the parallel passages—you realize that some says that it was on his feet or whatever. It just descended on Jesus.
Now, remember: outside, in the dark, Jesus can no longer move around freely before the Jews. That’s why in the next section he’s gonna have this strange direction to his disciples to find a guy carrying a water pot. The secrecy that is attached to that, it’s not because Jesus is fearful but because he is moving according to God’s predetermined plan, and he is making plans in that way. And outside, in the darkness, all of this plot is unfolding. And here, as Jesus faces what he knows is the giving up of his life, this lady comes and blesses him.
I can’t… This is conjecture on my part. I imagine Jesus, ’cause he quotes the Psalms so much, saying, “Father, you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over,” as a result of the engagement of this woman, who is anonymous in Mark and identified by John, taking the extreme risk of incurring the disapproval of those who are present on that occasion, because in the secrecy of her own life she has determined, “I am going to give my future, I’m gonna give my everything, to this Jesus of Nazareth.”
So we leave her action in the awareness of the fact that it was unique in its thoughtfulness, it was generous in its bestowal, it was timely in its provision. How well did it go over? Well, we’re told: “[And] some of those present were saying indignantly to one another…” There’s a lot of harrumphing and snorting going on, a lot of growling. You’ll notice these people, they always talk to one another: “Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another…” That “they scolded her,” as the ESV puts it.
Now, John is careful enough to tell us that Judas was the leader in this charge. And you can see that for yourselves if you read there the record in John. But the group together engaged with him, grumbling to themselves and growling at the lady—an expression of their anger and displeasure.
Now she becomes the occasion of angry glances and the whispers of shocked disapproval. Because they regarded her action as extravagant, which it was, and as wasteful, which, of course, it wasn’t. And they regarded it as a misuse of resources, which it wasn’t either. Their expressed concern for the poor was disingenuous. It was a thin disguise for the fact that they had cold hearts and that they had tight fists.
The disciples are now once again making it clear that they haven’t understood the values of the kingdom at all. They’ve not understood what C. T. Studd would get in his day, when he said, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I could ever make for him could ever be too great.” They hadn’t come to that yet. They still didn’t get that. Judas in particular was following Jesus for what he could get. He had no concept at all of what it might mean to give himself away to God like this.
Jealousy combines with their stinginess. Oh, “in between, on the misty flats, the rest drift to and fro.” You ever call somebody a fanatic? You ever call one of your Christian friends a fanatic? I bet I know why you did: ’cause they love Jesus more than you. That’s the easy way to deal with it. Instead of saying, “You know what? You’re right. I should…” No. “You know what your problem is? You’re just a fanatic.” And that’s the way they could handle it here: “This is ridiculous. This is the kind of thing we’re talking about. This is just absolutely absurd.”
J. C. Ryle, in the nineteenth century, has a wonderful quote, and I’m going to use it now, so pin back your ears:
The spirit of these narrow-minded fault-finders is unhappily [all] too common. Their followers and successors are to be found in every part of Christ’s visible church. There is never wanting a generation of people who [deny] what they call “extremes” in religion, and are incessantly recommending what they term “moderation” in the service of Christ. If a man devotes his time, money, and affection to the pursuit of worldly things, they do not blame him. If [she] gives [herself] up to the service of money, pleasure, or politics, they find no fault. But if the same individual devotes [themselves], and all [they have], to Christ, they can scarcely find words to express their sense of … folly. [“They’re besides themselves.” “They’re out of their minds.” “They’re an enthusiast.” “They’re a fanatic.”]
But you see, the broken jar and the fragrance which John tells us filled the entire house—the fragrance and the brokenness—testified against their calculated pragmatism. If this lady had waited for the approval of the group, she would have never done what she did. If she’d come in and said, “Now, listen, guys. I’ve got with me an alabaster jar. I was thinking, might be a nice time—Jesus is here, Simon the Leper, it’s a nice evening, and so on—I was thinking, I’m just gonna smash it and anoint Jesus,” they would’ve had a hundred reasons to tell her, “No, that’s not a… No. No, no, no, that’s not a smart move. Don’t be doing that now.” They would be playing the YouTube of George Bush—not George W.—“Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent. Not at this juncture.”
Few people who have amounted to anything for God have amounted to something for God as a result of sitting down and waiting for their friends on the misty flats to get the picture. If you’re gonna go for it, you’re gonna have to go for it. And there is no alternative but to go for it.
Think about it. The philanthropy of Gates and Buffett—which is wonderful to give away all that money. The ecology—that is, concern for the welfare of the world in which we live—is understandable too. Cleveland is littered with medical facilities bearing the names of generous people. No one has a problem with that. But the idea that a lady would give it all up for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth? I never heard of such a crazy thing.
And so, realize this: if we, like this woman, do our best and with proper motives seek to serve Jesus, don’t be surprised if you meet with the disapproval of your friends. But remember this: at the end of the day, it’s not what we say about ourselves, or what others say about us, that matters. It’s what God says about us.
It’s for that reason that we know the name of Jim Elliot. He was like all his classmates, like you, seeking to get a good education at a good college. Admittedly, not as good as this one, but nevertheless, a good college. Wheaton’s pretty good. (I say that just so I can go back to my friend, the president, Phil Ryken. He’ll send me a note, but that’s by the way. I was just being facetious.) But remember, he writes in his journal, he says that he wasn’t really trying to get a Bachelor of Arts. He was trying to get an AUG, studying to show himself “approved unto God.”
Well, that brings us to the third and final phrase, and I’ll just note it for you, and then we’re done. Jesus says, “Listen, leave her alone. She’s done what she could.” The disciples, you know, are quite a group, aren’t they? I mean, they are just such… I don’t mean to be smug or anything, but they really are a hopeless bunch. I know they were chosen by Jesus, but they’re a hopeless bunch. I mean, they’re on the wrong side of the equation almost every afternoon. Go through the Gospels and look.
“Jesus, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we told him to stop.”
He said, “Don’t tell him to stop.”
One of them’s going, “See, I told you not to say that. That was stupid! What do you mean, we told him to stop? I was telling him, ‘Do it!’”
“No, you were not. You said stop as well.”
“Oh, be quiet!” Jesus says, “What a bunch!”
“And could you move the kids, please? Get the kids outta here. We’re trying to do evangelism with Jesus of Nazareth. Get them… No, just move them. Just move them. That’s all we’re saying. Pardon? Pardon? Oh, oh, you want to… you want to bring ’em up so they can sit on your knee? Oh, yeah. See, I told you that. I told you, that’s what he wants. He wants that kind of thing.”
“We’re just back from a Samaritan village, Jesus. Didn’t go very well. Not a good response; not one of our better campaigns. In fact, they were downright nasty. Would you like us to call down fire from heaven?”
“Nah, I don’t think so. Not this afternoon, at least. No.”
And now, here they are. They scolded Jesus. And Jesus says, “Guys, leave her alone. She’s done what she could.”
And he explains, “The poor are our responsibility. They’re our obligation all day, every day. But this,” he says, “is a one-off. She either does it today, or she doesn’t do it. She’s done something beautiful.” The word there in Greek is kalos. It’s not agathos. Agathos is intrinsically good. Kalos is beautifully good. “She’s done something that is beautifully good. She’s anointed my body—an act of costly and humble devotion.”
All the commentators—and I want to stop now, ’cause I got forty seconds—all the commentators, without exception, say that when Jesus says “She has anointed my body for burial,” she was doing something that she didn’t know she was doing, because she couldn’t. I’m not convinced by that. Why couldn’t she know? Why couldn’t she have an insight that others didn’t have?
How did the thief on the cross finally say, “We’re up here getting what we deserve, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Where did that come from? Isn’t it possible that a tuned-in lady with a huge, big heart and a generosity of spirit saw something that these disciples never got? God does that for people. He may do that for you.
But know this: the self-contained people, the sensible people, the scolders will fade into obscurity. It is the rash extravagance of the humble that will be remembered whenever the gospel is proclaimed. And long after human eloquence and human brilliance are forgotten—when the deeds and the titles of emperors and kings and presidents have been buried in the dust—Jesus says, “This beautiful, significant, timely act will be remembered.” The pathway to lasting honor is to honor Christ.
Her gesture was unique in its thoughtfulness, costly in its bestowal, timely in its provision, challenging in its impact, and lasting in its memory. And the very fact that we’re thinking about it here, in this beautiful place, in the twenty-first century, is testimony to what Jesus said.
Father, thank you that the Bible is a lamp for our feet and a light for our path. Confirm in us all that is of yourself. Banish from our recollection anything that is untrue, unhelpful. Pour out your Spirit upon this place in increasing measure. Meet with us in the secret places of our lives, so that our public displays of affection and commitment to you may not be acts of hypocrisy but may emerge from the reality of a life wholly given over to you. Thank you for this day, which we now commend to you. In Christ’s name. Amen.
 John Lennon and Paul McCartney, “In My Life” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Mark 13:4 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 20:16 (paraphrased).
 Mark 12:43 (paraphrased).
 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4.3.
 John Oxenham, “To Every Man There Openeth” (1930). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Romans 12:1 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 23:5 (paraphrased).
 See John 12:4–5.
 Quoted in Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1946), 129. Paraphrased.
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Mark (New York: Carter and Brothers, 1879), 288–89.
 See Mark 9:38–39; Luke 9:49–50.
 See Matthew 19:13–14; Mark 10:13–14; Luke 18:15–16.
 See Luke 9:52–54.
 Luke 23:41 (paraphrased).
 See Psalm 119:105.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.