While Jesus was in Bethany, while he was reclining at a table in the house of Simon the leper, there came a woman who had a phial of ointment of pure nard. She broke the phial and poured it over his head. Some of them said indignantly to each other, “To what purpose is the waste of this ointment? This ointment could have been sold for more than ten pounds, and the money could have been given to the poor.” And they were angry at her. Jesus said, “Let her be! Why do you trouble her? It is a lovely thing that she has done to me. You have always got the poor with you, and you can do something for them any time you like, but you have not got me always. She has done what she could. She has taken my body and anointed it beforehand against my burial. This is the truth I tell you–wherever the good news shall be proclaimed throughout the whole world, the story of what she has done will be told, so that she will always be remembered.”
The poignancy of this story lies in the fact that it tells us of almost the last kindness that Jesus had done to him.
He was in the house of a man called Simon the leper, in the village of Bethany. People did not sit to eat; they reclined on low couches. They lay on the couch resting on the left elbow and using the right hand to take their food. Anyone coming up to someone lying like this would stand well above him. To Jesus there came a woman with an alabaster phial of ointment. It was the custom to pour a few drops of perfume on a guest when he arrived at a house or when he sat down to a meal. This phial held nard which was a very precious ointment made from a rare plant that came from far-off India. But it was not a few drops that this woman poured on the head of Jesus. She broke the flask and anointed him with the whole contents.
There may be more than one reason why she broke the flask. Maybe she broke it as a sign that all was to be used. There was a custom in the East that if a glass was used by a distinguished guest, it was broken so that it would never again be touched by the hand of any lesser person. Maybe there was something of that in the woman’s mind. But there was one thing not in her mind which Jesus saw. It was the custom in the East, first to bathe, then to anoint the bodies of the dead. After the body had been anointed, the flask in which the perfume had been contained was broken and the fragments were laid with the dead body in the tomb. Although she did not mean it so, that was the very thing this woman was doing.
Her action provoked the grudging criticism of some of the bystanders. The flask was worth more than 300 denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin worth about 3 p which was a working man’s daily wage. It would have cost an ordinary man almost a year’s pay to buy the flask of ointment. To some it seemed a shameful waste; the money might have been given to the poor. But Jesus understood. He quoted their own scriptures to them. “The poor will never cease out of the land.” (Deut.15:11.) “You can help the poor any time,” Jesus said, “but you have not long to do anything for me now.” “This,” he said, “is like anointing my body beforehand for its burial.”
This story shows the action of love.
(i) Jesus said that it was a lovely thing the woman had done. In Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos (GSN0018) which describes a thing which is morally good; and there is kalos (GSN2570) which describes a thing which is not only good but lovely. A thing might be agathos (GSN0018), and yet be hard, stern, austere, unattractive. But a thing which is kalos (GSN2570) is winsome and lovely, with a certain bloom of charm upon it. Struthers of Greenock used to say that it would do the church more good than anything else if Christians would sometimes “do a bonnie thing.” That is exactly what kalos (GSN2570) means; and that is exactly what this woman did. Love does not do only good things. Love does lovely things.
(ii) If love is true, there must always be a certain extravagance in it. It does not nicely calculate the less or more. It is not concerned to see how little it can decently give. If it gave all it had, the gift would still be too little. There is a recklessness in love which refuses to count the cost.
(iii) Love can see that there are things, the chance to do which comes only once. It is one of the tragedies of life that often we are moved to do something fine and do not do it. It may be that we are too shy and feel awkward about it. It may be that second thoughts suggest a more prudent course. It occurs in the simplest things–the impulse to send a letter of thanks, the impulse to tell someone of our love or gratitude, the impulse to give some special gift or speak some special word. The tragedy is that the impulse is so often strangled at birth. This world would be so much lovelier if there were more people like this woman, who acted on her impulse of love because she knew in her heart of hearts that if she did not do it then she would never do it at all. How that last extravagant, impulsive kindness must have uplifted Jesus’ heart.
(iv) Once again we see the invincible confidence of Jesus. The Cross loomed close ahead now but he never believed that it would be the end. He believed that the good news would go all round the world. And with the good news would go the story of this lovely thing, done with reckless extravagance, done on the impulse of the moment, done out of a heart of love.
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