14 Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
3 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.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
(Mark 14:1-11 NIV)
As we begin chapter 14, we see Jesus and His disciples still in the Jerusalem area. Mark gives us a date reference – it is two days before the beginning of the Passover celebration. Jesus has finished his public ministry; He is now spending time with friends.
Mark uses one of his familiar literary structures – the “bookends” – to frame this section. We see the hateful, envious, and murderous intent of the religious officials (vv. 1-2) and their greedy, traitorous, and willing accomplice (vv. 10-11) as the two bookends. Sandwiched in between is the story of a selfless, loving, and extravagant gift from an unnamed woman being used to bless Jesus.
Jesus is at the home of Simon in Bethany. We don’t know who Simon was; some speculate that he was a relative of Jesus’ friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. The NIV identifies Simon as a leper; the words used in the Greek indicate an unnamed skin disease, but probably not leprosy.
Mark tells us that this perfume is made from pure nard. Historians tell us that this perfume was made from the roots of plants imported from India – a very rare and expensive perfume to import, process, and bottle. The bottle was made of alabaster, which would preserve the perfume for decades. The bottle was sealed; to use it would require breaking the long, thin neck of the sealed bottle and use it all at once.
Mark also tells us that all the participants recognized the perfume and its incredible value – basically a year’s wages. Someone in the group complained that the bottle should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Matthew’s account narrows the complainers down to the disciples (Matthew 26:8); John’s account specifically calls out Judas Iscariot as the one objecting (John 12:4-5). Judas, often acting as the treasurer for Jesus and the disciples, was dipping into the funds for himself, and saw the tremendous opportunity to make some money if he were allowed to sell the perfume. When the bottle was broken and opened, the opportunity was forever lost.
Jesus tells the complainers to leave the woman alone. Jesus says that she has done a “beautiful thing” for Him. The Greek word Jesus uses is “kalos“, which means an honest and morally upright act of goodness and kindness done in a pure and loving way. This was not something this unnamed woman did out of obligation; this was something she did from a deep heart of humility and love.
Jesus goes on to tell the dinner guests that this woman has done something far more significant than even she realizes. In fact, Jesus says, wherever the gospel is preached around the world, what she has done will be remembered as well. Indeed, she gave her all, the very best she had to give to the Lord. She could have sold that bottle and lived quite nicely from the proceeds; instead, she chose to bless Jesus the best way she knew.
After Jesus’ rebuke, Judas Iscariot makes his fateful deal of betrayal with the religious leaders. Judas likely realized that his association with Jesus would not make him wealthy or powerful like he had hoped. He was ready to jump ship and switch sides.
As we contrast the motives and actions of the religious leaders and Judas Iscariot with those of this unnamed woman, which one do we more identify with?
Are we jealous, selfish with our money, time, and possessions, and greedy for gain?
Or are we selfless, extravagant with our time, resources, and love for the Lord and for people that cross our path (our “neighbors”)?
May we choose the “beautiful” (“kalos“) thing today.