This sermon is part of the sermon series "Searching the Soul". See series.
Valentine's Day is tomorrow and I'm jittery. I love my sweetheart—no doubt about that—but I confess that Valentine's Day gives me the heebie-jeebies. I mean, we've been married 32 years, and I wasn't much of a romantic in the first place. After all those years, I've said all my sweet nothings a bunch of times. I read where, "More than half of men—57.8 percent—say they'll buy flowers, and almost one in five plans to purchase jewelry for Valentine's Day." I also read that a survey "found that the average consumer will spend $97.27 on Valentine's Day." Oh, man, I am so not there!
Here's the thing that really bothers me. Maybe I'm too introspective, but I wonder if this dullness with romantic expressions really says something about my heart, about my love for Susan. Maybe I take her far too much for granted, and that's why I can't really come up with a five-star expression of my love for her.
Today's text is a kind of Valentine story that poses the same question to all of us—when it comes to our love for our Savior, Jesus Christ. We are in the season of Lent—"a season for searching the soul." For the next six Sundays, as we study Matthew 26-27, we will search our own souls through the lenses of the people closest to Jesus in his last hours. This is a season for spiritual introspection, and I hope you will join me in giving yourself to this spiritual exercise for a few weeks.
One of the things that struck me in reading these last three chapters of Matthew is the juxtaposition of stories. Today's text—Matthew 26:1-16—is a case in point. The events described are not, strictly speaking, in chronological order, but Matthew has arranged these three sections to make a spiritual point, because his purpose is that we search our own souls as we consider these stories.
The fulcrum of God's sovereign control of human history is the cross of Christ.
In verses 1 and 2, the Bible says, "When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 'As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.'"
This was not the first time Jesus had discussed his death with his disciples. Take a little Bible walk with me. A turning point in the book of Matthew (and Mark as well) is in Matthew 16:15-16: "'But what about you?' he asked. 'Who do you say I am?' Simon Peter answered, 'You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'"
Now look at verses 21-23: "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 'Never, Lord!' he said. 'This shall never happen to you!' Jesus turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.'"
The next story is Jesus' transfiguration on the mountain with the three disciples, Peter, James and John. Look at Matthew 17:9: "As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, 'Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.'"
Then, in verses 22-23: "When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, 'The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.'"
Some time passes, and Jesus and his disciples set out for Jerusalem. Then it reads in Matthew 20:17-19: "Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, 'We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"
In the next story, the mother of James and John asks Jesus to show special favor to her sons. At the end of Jesus' response to her, he says, "Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28).
So here in Mathew 26 when Jesus says again that "the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified," it wasn't a new revelation.
But I also think that to the disciples Jesus' talk of the cross was a horrible, looming intrusion. They hoped it would go away; that things would work out. But, of course, the cross is not an intrusion. It is the centerpiece of the Christian story.
Some years ago I read a very popular novel entitled, Joshua. Joshua—Jesus—appears incognito in a town and all are eventually changed by his example. It was a inspiring story—made me want to be a better influence on others. But something was nagging at me, and it was this. Jesus doesn't change us by his example. He changes us by his death, by being our ransom. Jesus' first disciples had trouble getting that and so do disciples today. Matthew wants us to remember that the cross is where disciples must start.
Matthew connects that statement by Jesus with what was happening behind the closed doors of his enemies: "Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. 'But not during the Feast,' they said, 'or there may be a riot among the people'" (Matthew 26:3-5).
Do you catch the irony here? Jesus has already predicted his death during the Passover Feast, but his enemies have decided the Feast time is too risky. One of the things that is very clear here in Matthew is that Jesus was in charge of the events surrounding his death. It was necessary for Jesus to be the Passover Lamb, so whether these chief priests and elders knew it or not, their evil plotting was going to be co-opted by the sovereign God for his eternal purposes. The Psalmist wrote in Psalms 2:1-6: "Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. 'Let us break their chains,' they say, 'and throw off their fetters.' The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, 'I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.'"
It is true that all that the enemies of God do is co-opted by God, but that is most vividly true when it comes to the death of Christ. The nefarious and ingenious plotting of Satan and men fell perfectly into the great redemption plan of Almighty God. This is always true: the most determined enemies of Jesus Christ are but bit players in God's script.
And that brings us to our first point: You cannot be a disciple of Jesus without embracing the cross. And you cannot be an enemy of Jesus without being broken on the cross. It is God's fulcrum. Here, on the old, rugged cross, Almighty God sets his mighty crowbar and changes the course of history. Here, likewise, God pries his disciples free from sin. Here he forces open the gates of death.
The disciple who understands the cross asks, "How much can I give?"
Now we come to this saintly Valentine story in verses 6-13: "While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man know as Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. 'Why this waste?' they asked. 'This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.' Aware of this, Jesus said to them, 'Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Some background on this story:
There are two somewhat similar stories in the gospels. Luke tells of a woman "who had lived a sinful life" anointing Jesus at the home of a Pharisee who was critical of Jesus. I'm sure that is a different story than this one.
Mark and John tell this same story, and John tells us a great deal more in John John 11-12.
First of all, he makes it clear that this woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and that this incident happens at a dinner attended by both of those people shortly after Lazarus had been raised from the dead by Jesus. We read here that this happened in the home of "Simon the Leper" which I assume means Simon the healed Leper. So it was an occasion of wondrous stories of Jesus' healing.
The expensive perfume spoken of here would make Chanel look like a Wal-mart special. It was nard, probably imported from India, and worth about one year's wages. It was about 12 ounces and intensely fragrant. Twelve ounces equals a can of soda. Something this valuable may have been a family heirloom, perhaps passed from one generation to another. Remember, Mary's own brother had recently died and this treasure had not been used even for his funeral.
Mary poured out this powerful oil over both Jesus' head and feet. I imagine 12 ounces of such valuable perfume must have been very nearly overpowering, as was the display itself. Imagine you saw someone pour out perfume valued at a year's salary, all at once, over someone. And there, in a moment, it is all gone—all used—when normally people would use a few drops, and then only for special occasions. I do wonder if that fragrant oil did not leave its scent on Jesus all the way to the tomb six days later.
The most curious question in this story is whether the woman knew that she was anointing Jesus for his burial or if he simply applies this outpouring of love to that purpose, as if to say, "she is doing more than she even realizes." Most commentators are rather skeptical that she realized that she was anointing Jesus for his burial, but I've become very convinced that she knew indeed. Remember, this was Mary, and as William Hendriksen put it, "Mary of Bethany was perhaps the best listener Jesus ever had. The woman who now anointed Jesus' feet was the same one who had previously been sitting at his feet (Luke 10:39). If even the enemies of Jesus knew about the predictions Jesus had made concerning himself (27:63) [his death and resurrection], can we not assume that Mary knew fully as much?"
Furthermore, this is the sister of Lazarus, recently summoned from the grave after four days. Here was a woman who understood death and life from a whole new angle. I think Mary was the first person to grasp the wonder of the gospel even before Jesus died and rose again, and it was from that sense of wonder and worship that she made such an extravagant offering.
Valentine's Day giving is hard when you're just trying not to get in trouble! When you're just trying to keep the Valentine rules. Worshipping Jesus is a lot like that. We worship because we don't want to seem ungrateful; because we want to do what we ought to do. But such a disciple in our midst as this woman makes us see ourselves for the pikers and cheapskates we are. So what shall we do? Try to ratchet up our worship? Take up another offering? Re-sing a hymn to se if we can mean it more this time? Try to prove our love for Jesus through some feat of spiritual derring-do?
To be like this woman, we need to think like this woman. Mary was so extravagant in her love for Christ because she had spent so much time learning from Christ and thinking about him. We pour out so little because we fill up so seldom. Think of the scene. This was a dinner in honor of Jesus, at the home of Simon the healed Leper, with Lazarus as the guest of honor—a man who came back from the dead after four days in the grave. And yet they thought Mary's worship was excessive. Any chance our worship is like that? We appreciate Jesus, to be sure, and marvel at what he can do; we're honored to be included among his friends, but our hearts are not deeply stirred.
Each week of Lent, I suggest we try a spiritual exercise to help us search our own souls. This week's exercise is simply this: Before we gather again next Sunday, serve Jesus extravagantly. Pour out something precious upon him. For me, since time is so precious to me, I think it may be an extended, unclocked time of personal worship. For you, maybe a precious gift given in Jesus' name to someone else. Maybe you'll write a poem or give a couple hours to reading Scripture.
Don't begin by thinking about your gift; begin by thinking about his gift—his death on the cross, till your heart starts to fill, and then search for some perfume you can pour out upon the Lord. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you in your weakness and dullness. How wonderful it would be to sense Jesus saying to you, "You have done a beautiful thing to me!"
The disciple who does not understand the cross asks, "How much can I get?"
Matthew puts this story against a stark opposite in chapter 26:14-16: "Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, 'What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?' So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over."
No one knows for sure why Judas turned. John tells us that it was Judas who spoke for the disciples in asking why the money wasn't given to the poor. John 12:6 says, "He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it." It is true that part of the Passover practice was giving money to the poor, but make no mistake, this wasn't really about the poor. I am sure of one thing about Judas. At the heart of his betrayal was the cross—he had no room for a dying Savior. The cross is always the stumbling block to the faithless. Anyone who tries to follow Jesus without putting the cross at the center of the relationship will, in the end, not have Jesus at all.
The looming irony here is the way Matthew sets the story of the woman's lavish love over against Judas's question in v.15: "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" What Jesus was worth, it turned out, was the smallest amount allowed in the law for the accidental death of a slave. They had tort reform in those days, and according to Exodus 21:32, the damages were capped at 30 pieces of silver. So that's what Jesus, the Son of God, was worth. Judas got exactly what Jesus is worth in the world's currency—the price of a dead slave.
There are disciples who have embraced Jesus because they want him to make life better, not because they want the cross. Like the seed sown on rocky places, they shrivel under trouble or persecution, or like seed among thorns, their spiritual life is choked out by the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth.
There is a Judas gene in most of us, I suspect. That is why we need this "season for searching the soul." The main difference between the woman and Judas, I'm convinced, is that she understood Jesus' cross and Judas did not. Not many disciples, even at their worst, come to that dark place that Judas came to where the devil entered into him, and "he watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over." But there are disciples—perhaps here this morning—who might be induced by disappointment or sin, if not to hand Jesus over, at least to give Jesus up.
There is a verse that is out of place in this passage. It is in the story before this, but it belongs here: "When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. 'Why this waste?' they asked." How terrible to be offended by worship and oblivious to betrayal!
In the harbor of Genoa, Italy, there is a statue of Jesus called "The Christ of the Abyss". This statue of Jesus with arms wide and face uplifted is actually underwater there in the harbor, intended to bless divers, sailors and fishermen. It was placed there in 1954. Of course, 50 years under water took its toll on the statue, and somewhere along the line one of the hands was broken off. So a couple of years ago, they brought the 8-foot, 4,000-pound statue to the surface for cleaning and repair, and now it is back on a new underwater pedestal, returned to its original beauty.
When I read that I thought, "That is what I need to do with Jesus. Bring him up from that deep place in me so I can clean off the barnacles of my neglect and repair damage I may have done to our relationship. This passage, and this season, is intended as a time when we search our own souls to see whether or not we treasure our crucified and risen Lord as we should.
I think Matthew positioned this saintly Valentine story here at the beginning of the story of Jesus' passion to say to us, do not be like that disciple who does not understand the cross and asks, "How much can I get?"
Rather, like this woman whose fragrant perfume still fills our worship, be among those who ask, "How much can I give?"
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.