Passion Week is right around the corner. It’s called Passion Week because of the “passion” or suffering Jesus underwent in the final week leading up to the crucifixion. Consider this. In the gospel of Matthew, out of twenty-eight chapters, eight are devoted to the final week of Jesus’ ministry. I’d say this week coming up is pretty important. Historically, it’s been called “holy week.” It’s simply a designation used to capture all that happened in the final week of Jesus’ ministry. It begins with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and ends with his resurrection.
Matthew 26 is a transition chapter. It picks up at the close of the Olivet Discourse, the sermon that Jesus preached in chapters 24 and 25 and it leads to his arrest at the end of the chapter. I want to focus our study today on Matt 26:6-16, which is the anointing of Jesus with an alabaster jar of oil by a nameless woman. Her expression of extravagant love is a powerful picture of our response to the life of Jesus.
Let’s start by putting this anointing of Jesus in the context of the rest of this chapter. v1-5, we see that we are only two days from the Passover and already the conspiracy has been set in motion by Caiaphas, the high priest, along with the chief priests and the elders who want to not only arrest Jesus but to kill him. Then, the anointing of Jesus with oil, which we will get to in a moment, followed by v17-30, the famous Last Supper upon which our Lord’s Supper is based, where Jesus has his final meal with the 12 and Judas is identified as the one who will soon betray Jesus.
As if Judas’ betrayal is not painful enough, Jesus also predicts Peter’s denial in v31-35. I’m sure as one of the closest disciples, if not THE closest disciple to Jesus, this one had to hurt. Peter responds to Jesus’ prediction, saying boldly, even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you. Haven’t we all made similar bold statements? As we know, this bold commitment from Peter ends up being empty words as he ends up denying Jesus 3 times.
Next, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane located at the foot of the Mount of Olives to pray with his disciples on the very night that he was going to be betrayed and arrested. There, he pleads with his disciples, sit here while I go over there and pray. Then, he takes Peter, James and John, his three closest disciples and he shares with his inner circle in v38–
38 Then He said to them, “My soul is swallowed up in sorrow —to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with Me.”
Three times he prays, three times the disciples fall asleep. Jesus must have felt utterly alone in his final days here. In the context of the conspiracy hatched by the religious leaders, Judas’ imminent betrayal along with Peter’s denial and all the disciples falling asleep during an anguishing, lonely night of prayer, amidst all this darkness, this anointing of Jesus with oil stands out like a shining star.
Who is this nameless woman? I believe that there are two anointings recorded in Scripture in which two different women take a jar of expensive oil and pour it out on Jesus in an act of lavish love. There is one in Galilee where Jesus is anointed by a woman known in the town as a sinner. Jesus responds to this extravagant act of love in Luke 7:47–
47 Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much. But the one who is forgiven little, loves little.
This could be Mary Magdalene but her name is not given so we are left to speculate. The other anointing is in Bethany and this second anointing is recorded by Matthew, Mark and John.
Who is this second woman? The gospel writer Mark doesn’t reveal the identity, but he does add some helpful details. Mark’s version in Mark 14 adds the detail in v5 that the amount of the pure nard or fragrant oil was estimated to be more than 300 denarii. This same amount is recorded in John’s version. This is a large sum of money. If a denarius is a full day’s wage, 300 12-hour days at our minimum wage, then this 16-ounce flask of nard weighing a pound would be worth today about $25,000. This is in stark contrast to Judas who Matthew mentions betrayed Jesus for 30 silver coins, which is a much smaller amount, like on the order of $1,000.
Now let’s turn to John 12:1-8. Here, the identity of the nameless woman is revealed. Plus, John adds some important details as to the motivation behind this anointing as well as the motivation behind Judas’ betrayal.
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for Him there; Martha was serving them, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. 3 Then Mary took a pound of fragrant oil—pure and expensive nard—anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped His feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. 4 Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray Him), said, 5 “Why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it. 7 Jesus answered, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of My burial. 8 For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.”
The gospel writer John reveals the identity of this woman. The woman who anoints Jesus with $25k worth of oil is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. What is the motivation behind the anointing? What happened in the previous chapter? In John 11, Mary and Martha are weeping over the death of their brother Lazarus. Jesus arrives onto the scene. Martha is the vocal one of the two sisters. She says, Lord, if You had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. You’re too late, but only if you had been here, maybe things might have been different. Jesus responds to Martha, saying, in John 11:25–26–
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die—ever. Do you believe this?
Then, Jesus weeps alongside the family. And he performs one of the greatest miracles recorded in all of Scripture. He takes a dead corpse and breathes life into it. He raises Lazarus from the dead.
This is the backdrop for the scene in John 12 and Mark 14 and Matthew 26. Jesus has been invited to Bethany to celebrate the resurrection of Lazarus. This is a thank you dinner. Martha is showing her gratitude by doing what Martha does. She is cooking up a storm. She’s serving the guests. She has the gift of hospitality. Every church needs someone like Martha. Lazarus is a guy and guys have a hard time expressing gratitude. Maybe his brain is still not fully resurrected. After all, he was completely brain dead not too long ago. Maybe he still has a few cobwebs in the head. He is not saying much, he is just there, reclining at the table. Maybe he is just in awe of Jesus, the one who gave him life. Without saying or doing anything, just by being there, Lazarus is Exhibit A of the wondrous compassion and power of Jesus.
The climax of the evening is John 12:3–
3 Then Mary took a pound of fragrant oil—pure and expensive nard—anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped His feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Matthew records it like this in Matt 26:7–
7 a woman approached Him with an alabaster jar of very expensive fragrant oil. She poured it on His head as He was reclining at the table.
We already covered the extravagance of the act. $25k poured out in one shot. Matthew underscores the fact that this was not your normal Old Spice. This is an alabaster jar of VERY expensive oil.
Since this is a dinner to honor and thank Jesus for his gift of life, Mary will now make her presentation. Perhaps the whole family planned this moment. Perhaps they pooled their savings to buy this gift. Or perhaps it is a priceless family heirloom that has been passed on for years, and now the time has come to pour it out. We don’t know. But the point is, all 3 of them must have been overflowing with thanksgiving.
If someone buys you a Coke, you’re appreciative. You say, thank you, and you move on. But if someone saves your life, the level of appreciation is much greater. You’re indebted to that person. You will never forget that person. You will want to show thanksgiving in the most extravagant way that you know how.