At week’s start Jesus had triumphantly entered Jerusalem. The paraders hoped he was Messiah. Yet why a little donkey, not a majestic stallion? The next day Jesus had angrily shut down the temple business, which led to Jewish authorities debating him in the temple courtyard the following day, hoping he’d incriminate himself. He hadn’t (11:1–12:44). Leaving the city late Tuesday afternoon and stopping on the nearby Mount of Olives, Jesus predicted wars, famines, earthquakes, false messiahs, persecution for the future, and then the temple would be ravished (13:1-23). It fell to the Romans 40 years later. Finally, Jesus told of an indeterminate period after which heavenly bodies would quake before the Son of Man’s coming with great power and glory for his chosen ones (13:24-27). They must “stay awake” (13:28-36).
Now in 14:1-11 Mark shows us an unexpected scene of beautiful adoration sandwiched between two covert kill-plots.
Kill-Plot Scene One. It’s Tuesday night. Chief priests and law-teachers are meeting privately . . .
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” (12:1,2).
The Greek word translated “sly way” is dolos—literally “bait for fish.” The authorities still want to “bait” Jesus so he’ll “hook” himself on his own words and they can arrest him. He’s been on their kill list for years , way back when he first broke the Sabbath law (3:6). According to Exodus 31:14, that called for the death penalty. But now, since he desecrated the temple, their plot takes on greater urgency. Still, they must wait until after Passover and the seven-days of Unleavened Bread or his followers will riot and bring down the Romans on them all.
A Beautiful Thing. Meanwhile, Jesus and his disciples are spending the night, as usual, in nearby Bethany.
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as 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” (14:3-9).
Mark (informed by Peter) doesn’t identify the woman. Who she is is less important than what she does. She carries a white, translucent jar of very valuable perfume extracted from the nard plant (native to India). Approaching Jesus at the table, she breaks the top of the jar and pours the costly oil on his head. As the scent fills the room, disciples rebuke her for such waste when the oil could have been sold to help the poor.
Jesus silences them. “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Ignorance: the disciples are ignorant of the authorities’ plot; the woman is ignorant of the hour’s darkness. Events rush inexorably toward Jesus’ death. Unknowingly, the woman has “poured perfume on [Jesus’] body beforehand to prepare for [his] burial.” A beautiful thing. An act of adoration. She has played a precious part in the heart of the Gospel. “She did what she could.” At worst, it seemed a waste. At best, an inconsequential act. Jesus called it “a beautiful thing to me.” And promised her humble homage would be told wherever the gospel would be preached.
Kill Plot Scene Two. That same night, while the chief priests were meeting . . .
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over (14:10,11).
Judas would find a way to hand Jesus over. The priests were delighted and they would pay the traitor. From that moment on, he would watch for the right moment.
The Continuing Contrast. The authorities, whatever their motivation, are assassins. They’re asking, “How can we kill Jesus?” The woman, whatever her motivation, is a worshiper. She’s asking, “How can I show Jesus my love?” And both are acting at the same moment.
Except perhaps for radical Islamists, I doubt many people want to do away with Jesus today. More typically, Jesus gets treated with indifference (except for emergencies). Like clicking “off” on a TV remote, people mostly turn him off. A bloodless form of rejection by people who want to manage their lives as they wish.
Are there many unknown women today? Women who approach Jesus with whatever their best is? Women who break open their hearts and pour out words of devotion and praise? Doing what they can to honor him, even if no one else understands?
I’m an old man of little consequence. In the world’s cities the wealthy and powerful rule the nations—and fight to keep their prominent places . They don’t know whom they’re rejecting. Meanwhile, let me be content to go to Jesus in a simple house and bring him the best I have. Let me give him words of adoration and a life of love that spring humbly from my heart. And may Jesus say in response, “He’s done a beautiful thing to me.”