Following the breaking news of Jesus to his followers of his impending death two days away, Matthew takes us back to a meal taking place the previous Saturday. Jesus’ revelation provoked the memory of a dinner party because of strange talk about ‘not being with them’ and ‘anointing for burial’. It now made sense in the light of the closeness of his death and departure from them. Matthew is in a sense saying now I understand what that was all about!
Jesus’ closest friend, John, gives us a little more detail on this dinner party in his account of Jesus’ life. Jesus was in Bethany being hosted by ‘Simon the leper’ in his home. At least 17 people attended the feast. Jesus, Simon the leper, Lazarus, the 12 disciples, Martha and Mary. It must have been strange, looking around the table as they reclined to eat that evening. At least two of their number would have been absent through ‘circumstances beyond their control’ just a short time ago.
Having spent all my formative years in a small village in the north of Scotland, not much larger than the village of Bethany at the time of Jesus, I realise if someone is given a nickname it can stick for life. I always knew one of my friends’ mum by the name of ‘Glasgow Ellon’. At some point in the distant past, she had been an ‘incomer’ moving to the village from Glasgow. To my knowledge, this nickname stuck till the day she died, many decades after arriving at her new home. In a small village, everyone knows everyone else’s business and also have long memories. So, Simon, even though he was now healed and whole by the touch of Jesus, is still known as ‘Simon the leper’. Once unclean, banished from his home, distanced from all human contact, scraping an existence on the fringes of society, Simon is now throwing a party in appreciation of Jesus his healer. Sitting next to him was Lazarus, not unclean and banished, he was dead and buried, but now fully alive by the call of the master. I can’t help but wonder at the disbelief and wonderment that would have been on the faces of those present as Simon and Lazarus broke bread and drank wine with Jesus. The disciples were dumbfounded, Lazarus’s sisters overjoyed and Simon’s family may have cried tears of joy to have their husband and father back home.
I am sure the dinner table was vibrant with animated discussion. Possibly someone asking Lazarus, what it was like to die? Was there a bright light? Simon recollected long nights when he could have only dreamed of feeling the embrace of his wife and Martha did what she did best showing her love and appreciation by serving the guests.
What happened next took everyone by surprise. Mary, the emotional one always wearing her heart on her sleeve, grieving deeply and now celebrating extravagantly. She kneels at Jesus’ feet, not carrying a bowl of food or a goblet of wine but a glass of expensive perfume. Estimates vary wildly on the value of the perfume but, some have suggested the equivalent of a year’s wages for an agricultural worker of that time. Whatever the current comparable value in present-day pounds and pence, it is safe to say it was incredibly significant for those reclining around the table for dinner and their reaction to what happens next gives a pointer to its immense value.
Mary places Jesus’ feet in a bowl, uncorks the jar, and pours treasured perfume over his feet as she wipes them with her hair. The conversation quiets and laughter abates as the room comes to a standstill as all the guests attempt to process what they are witnessing right in front of them. For what seems like an eternity all that is heard are the quiet sobs of Mary and the trickle of the precious liquid across the dirt floor. Mary, who wept tears of grief for a lost brother, was now shedding tears of gratitude and thankfulness to Jesus who brought him back to her. All the disciples are aghast. Matthew uses that word again that he used to describe the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus earlier, indignant! They were mad and it showed all over their faces. Then Judas verbalises what everyone else is thinking. Why waste this huge amount of money when it could have done so much good!? (John does make it clear to us that Judas was being insincere and already as treasurer had helped himself to the communal pot)
Mary waited for her rebuke from Jesus but instead, she received his respect. She had done a ‘beautiful’ thing. Where in the world is waste, beautiful?! When it is worship given from the overflow of a grateful heart.
‘Jesus wants you to waste your life like Mary wasted her perfume. For it is no true waste. It is true worship. A poured-out life of love for Jesus that counts worldly gain as loss displays how precious he really is. It preaches to a bewildered, disdainful world that Christ is gain and the real waste is gaining the world’s perfumes while losing one’s soul in the process.’ – Jon Bloom
Heavenly Father, I pause today to meditate on everything you are to me and everything you have done for me. I am sorry if I have taken your presence or your provision for granted. As I contemplate your unbounded grace towards me, I am almost stuck for words. Help me today to live in a way that every moment is marked by extravagant love, excessive thankfulness and, what will look to others, acts of wasteful worship.
More From This Series
View the other Devotionals in our “For the Joy” series