·Our passage is Matthew 26:6-13, where an un-named woman anoints Jesus by breaking an alabaster flask of precious oil and pouring the contents over his head. In John’s Gospel, the woman is identified as Mary of Bethany and anoints his feet rather than his head. Unless there were two separate but similar events, which is unlikely, Mary must have anointed first his head and then his feet, finally wiping them with her hair (John 12:1-8). This portion of Scripture has much to teach us about the nature of genuine worship, and it is from that perspective that we shall approach it.
‘And when Jesus was at Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him.’
·Why do we need to be told where he was when this all happened? (Mark 14:3 even tells us that he was eating a meal.) Perhaps to emphasize the woman’s act in coming to him. This is where worship starts, as we come consciously to Christ. Not to rituals, evangelical performances, or even to hear the preacher, but to Christ himself. ‘Draw near to God and he will draw near to you’ (James 4:8). How? By ‘a better hope, through which we draw near to God’, says Hebrews 7:19. That hope is Christ, our Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:11-19).
‘ … having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on his head as he sat.’
·So eager was the woman, that she actually broke the flask (Mark 14:3). The flask would have had a narrow neck, designed to release its precious contents drop by drop. To pour the oil, she had to break the flask, itself of no small value. We see here several ingredients of true worship. First there was the eagerness; true worshippers do not come reluctantly to worship but with keen anticipation. Next there was the extravagance; nothing was too good to bestow upon her Lord. Then (and it is a different point) there was the cost to herself. Perhaps this represented her ‘life savings’. Worship involves the life of the believer, and following Christ is costly in many ways. Fourthly, of course, it was fragrance she bestowed. True worship, in which Christ is preached and honoured, is fragrant to God, whatever its outcome (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
‘But when his disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “To what purpose is this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.”’
Sadly, the disciples had no concept of the love she had for Christ. Yet love is the fount of true worship, since it alone shows that we have understood what Christ has done for us. ‘We love him because he first loved us’ (1 John 4:19). The pious expression of concern for the poor was a cover for their embarrassment (and in Judas’ case, greed; see John 12:6). Are we embarrassed when others show their love for Christ? Are material things more important to us than he is? Are we so preoccupied with good works that we put activity before the worship of God?
‘Jesus … said …”Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for me. For you have the poor with you always, but me you do not have always.”’
·Normally we would consider helping the poor to be ‘a good work’, and so it is. But Christ here reminds us that it is a better work to value him and sit at his feet (compare Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42). We must get our priorities right. ‘These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone’ (Matthew 23:23). Real good works follow from true worship, for they are then done out of love for Christ.
‘For in pouring this fragrant oil on my body, she did it for my burial.’
·The cross of Christ lies at the heart of all true worship. ‘God forbid that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Galatians 6:14). Why is this? Because it is through Christ’s atoning work, by grace alone, that we have access to God the Father. By the cross we were reconciled to God (Romans 5:10). By the cross we have fellowship with God and with his Son (1 John 1:3,7). By the cross we are liberated from the power and penalty of sin (Romans 6:6-7). Because of the cross, ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).
‘Assuredly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.’
·What, then, is so special about this particular incident, that it should be given such prominence? The answer can only be that it teaches us so much about genuine worship, and the love for Christ which it always displays.