Now we come to the recounting of the last couple days of Jesus’ life in the longest chapter in Matthew. It starts with him predicting his death yet again, and his enemies plotting for a way to kill him. But they can’t be too obvious about it because they’re afraid of a riot. Despite all their efforts, they have not been able to discredit Jesus before the people.
Next, Matthew inserts a story that according to John 12 happened six days before the Passover, and just prior to his triumphal entry. If you didn’t know this you’d think it was just prior to the Passover and his arrest, but Matthew doesn’t say when it happened. He just introduces it by saying, “While Jesus was in Bethany . . .” This little village was just outside of Jerusalem, and the home of his friend Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead, and his sisters Martha and Mary. He always stayed there when he went to Jerusalem.
He was at the home of someone called “Simon the Leper.” Simon was a very common name then, and since there were no last names people had to be differentiated in some way (the study of names in the Bible is a fascinating one in itself). This Simon may have been healed by Jesus himself because he certainly wasn’t a leper anymore. While there “a woman,” whom we know from John was Mary, pours very expensive perfume on Jesus’ head that he says is to prepare him for his burial. We don’t know why Matthew doesn’t identify her, other than it’s not important who she is for the purpose of his telling of the story, but it is to John in his telling.
Then we come to another criterion of embarrassment moment. The disciples completely miss what’s really happening:
8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Indignant is a strong word, and Jesus’ reply implies that they were giving the woman a hard time. Like many people who come to the Bible, and the stories of Jesus, they don’t realize that everything is about Jesus. It’s not about the poor. Or us. Or morality. Or religious observance. It’s about Jesus! Everything is relatively important, but only one thing, or person, is ultimately important, and that he came to save us from the guilt, penalty, and ultimate consequences of our sin.
We’ve just gone through the parable of the sheep and the goats in chapter 25, where Jesus seems to make service to the needy the key to our eternal destiny. But Jesus is saying here, in effect, don’t absolutize poverty. In fact he says, “The poor you will always have with you . . .” Progressives in America in their hubris actually thought through government policies we could eradicate poverty from the human condition. One of our presidents even declared a “war on poverty.” But we will always have poor people because fallen human nature cannot be changed. Yes, service to the needy is a fundamental part of the Church’s mission, but when it looses site that Christianity is all about Jesus, and our relationship to a holy God through him, it distorts the faith and inevitably becomes another thing.
You may remember a story told by Luke of another time Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Martha and Mary. There Martha is busy about preparations that had to be made for her guests, but Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” Again we see that Mary gets that it’s all about Jesus, so her anointing him with oil this time doesn’t surprise us. Skeptics tell us that the Bible is a misogynistic book, as is the Christianity that springs from it, but in fact the New Testament, and especially the gospels, show us a revolutionary treatment of women for the time. They come off looking intelligent, heroic, and faithful, while the men often come off as feckless and self-centered. Mary was the only one in this story who realized that, as Jesus says, “you will not always have me.” And he predicts:
13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
And indeed it has.