“Jesus replied, ‘Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a noble thing for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can do what is good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body in advance for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been the victim of unfair criticism? That’s never a fun place to be. I once had someone come sit down with me in my office to offer “constructive” criticism. He came prepared a 4×6 note card filled front and back with everything he thought I was doing wrong. His complaints were all rooted in personal preferences of pastoral style rather than anything biblical, but he was convinced, as he told me, that I just didn’t preach the Gospel. Maybe you’ve been through something similar. Much to this man’s credit, he did not air his grievances publicly nor share them with a small group of others in an effort to build a coalition against me. And when it became clear we were not going to find common ground on some of them, he left quietly and found a church more to his liking. Other folks with less character and genuine intent to honor Christ with their life would have made a production of leaving. I respect him for that. Being criticized, no matter the source, is hard. When a woman made an incredible gesture of worship to Jesus, she faced intense criticism for it. Fortunately, she had Jesus in the room to defend her actions. Let’s look at the results this morning.
As we started talking about last week, this particular story near the end of Mark’s Gospel probably did not happen in this particular sequence. The literary purpose of this story’s being located here is to offer an explanation of Judas’ ultimate betrayal of Jesus, setting up the crucifixion. Still, it probably did happen sometime during Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem. During that final week, while Jesus spent His days in Jerusalem, mostly in the temple, teaching and engaging with the religious leaders of the Jews, He stayed in Bethany, a suburb located a couple of miles outside of town. One of those nights, a man with leprosy or some other socially isolating skin disease, hosted a dinner party in His honor. During this affair, something happened that was as unexpected to the crowd as it was shocking. A woman (whom John identifies as Mary Magdalene) anoints Jesus’ body with a fantastically expensive perfume while He was reclining at the dinner table. As we talked about, this would have been an intensely sensory experience that no one in the room could have escaped.
Watching all of this unfold, Judas, no doubt as deeply uncomfortable as all the rest of them, spoke up in criticism of the whole affair. Why did she waste this perfume in such an ostentatious way? Rather than producing such waste, she could have sold the jar and helped out the poor in the community. The jar of perfume was worth a whole year’s wages. That’s a lot of folks who could have eaten a meal instead of starving that was being poured over Jesus’ body in this scandalous public display.
Now, because it was Judas offering up this criticism, we are quick to jump to the woman’s defense along with Jesus. After all, Judas was the villain of the story who offered up Jesus to the chief priests to do with as they pleased for 30 pieces of silver. Any position he was taking at this point in the story we should naturally take the opposite. And yet, if this kind of a public display of worship was done today, you can all but guarantee there would be critics quick to offer their negative and judgmental perspective on Twitter. The identity of these critics would depend on the politics or social positions the person offering the worship had taken previously. A person doing this known to be more liberal would have conservative commentators and social observers blasting the hypocrisy of the whole affair. A more conservative worshiper would have liberal icons bemoaning the extravagant waste of resources that could have been used more efficiently. We may talk a big game, but we would have quickly stood in the place of Judas if we thought it was going to score us points with our target audience.
For His part, Jesus quickly jumped right to her defense. He knew Mary’s motives and Judas’ motives. He could hear the loud thoughts of everyone else in the room who was probably thinking along the same lines even though they had enough control to keep those thoughts in their heads (I’ve always been a little surprised Peter didn’t speak up on this occasion). Jesus made clear that her actions were noble and good. She was giving Him a gift no one else would give.
He didn’t just defend her generally, though. He addressed the specific complaint Judas offered. If you want to serve the poor, you will always be able to serve the poor. They’ll always be with you. Much commentary has been offered on this observation from Jesus. It is often assigned a great deal of spiritual significance that, honestly, I don’t think it deserves. Jesus wasn’t trying to make a deep observation on the nature of poverty. He was offering up a somewhat snarky rebuttal to Judas’ duplicitous criticism. There will always be poverty in need of being addressed. And believers should absolutely be involved in poverty relief. But this was a specific gift given to Jesus that she would soon be unable to give. Whether she really understood it or not, she was preparing Him for His burial in advance.
Jesus went further than that, though. He made a prediction about her gift and its impact. He said that wherever the Gospel is preached in the future, the people doing it would include mention of her story to forever memorialize what she was doing. And, of course, He was right. Her story made it into the Scriptures and is indeed still being told.
Okay, but what are we to do with this story? Well, we tell it for one. We continue to make Jesus right in His defense of her actions. I think the point we can take away here goes deeper than that. This woman offered an incredible gift to Jesus. She had her critics, yes, but Jesus knew her heart and that’s what mattered. She was giving Him a gift that was precious. But don’t miss what made it precious. It was not the cost or the identity of the perfume that mattered. It was the heart behind her giving that so captured Jesus’ praise. She was not simply giving His body an anointing. She was giving Him her heart. That was a great gift. Great gifts to God have a way of sticking around. When we give ourselves to Him in nothing but humble devotion, the dressing on the gift ceases to matter. The gift may be incredibly costly in worldly terms, or it may be nothing more than two mites like the woman at the end of chapter 13 gave; the heart of the gift is what matters most. This is because God is after our heart. If He can get His hands on that, whatever the means are become insignificant in comparison to the treasure He has gained. And treasure in heaven never goes away.
So then, what great gifts have you given to God lately? What are the ways you have endeavored to give Him your heart? Where is your heart? When you give Him the things that normally capture your heart so that He can have it instead of those other things, you will be giving Him what He wants and you need most. Those will always be gifts worth giving. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of the gift. If your heart is at the heart of the giving, God will be honored and He will honor you in return.