Friday, May 14, 2010

The anointing and subsequent betrayal of Christ

In this post I will examine the incident of Christ’s anointing, the varying expectations among those involved, probe the misunderstandings it caused among the apostles, and show how this set in motion the events of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion.
6 Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,
7 There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.
8 But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?
9 For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
10 When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
11 For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
12 For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.
13 Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. (Matthew 26:6-13, compare to Mark 14:3-9)
This story raises many questions in my mind.

Why did this woman anoint Jesus for His burial while He was still alive? Isn’t that premature? It seems like the equivalent of measuring someone for their coffin or something. How valuable was this ointment? Why were the apostles so hung up on the anointing? Why were they focused on waste instead of the appropriateness of the woman’s worshipful gesture? Why did Jesus call it a good work? Sooo many questions..

The version of this story in Mark says that the ointment could have been sold for 300 pence, which was a lot of money. One pence was a day’s wage for a laborer, according to the parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-2, so 300 would be nearly a year’s salary. In our modern terms, it might be around $30,000.

This leads me to another question—how did she get so much of it?

To acquire that perfume, the woman may have scrimped and saved for years. Perhaps she had been using it as her life savings, as something that could easily be converted into cash if she needed it. Maybe it was her one luxury that she enjoyed in life. I envision her occasionally opening the bottle on a bad day and smelling it to cheer herself up. And in one moment she poured it all out on Jesus. Why?

Or might she, like Simeon or Anna, have dreamt of a day when she might meet the Messiah? Might she have thought about what she would do if she ever did? Maybe she had such faith in the prophecies of a coming Messiah that she decided to prepare a fitting tribute and had been accumulating it for that purpose. Perhaps it was her way of keeping her hopes up and building her anticipation; the longer she had to wait, the more ointment she could accumulate and the more dramatic her tribute would be.

I bet everyone was living in anticipation that Jesus as the conquering hero who would take over Israel, liberate it from the Romans, and restore it to its rightful place of glory and prosperity. (This could possibly be indicated by the nearness of the event to the triumphal entry.) Even the apostles didn’t understand that Jesus was going to be killed by the Jews, even though He told them multiple times throughout His ministry, after his crucifixion, they asked Him when He would restore the kingdom to the Jews. (see Acts 1:6)

In this context, her anointing had to have been an act of adoration and worship of the Man she anticipated would shortly be crowned King. She would not have done it if she didn’t believe He was the epitome of greatness. She felt that He was worthy of the honor.

So, did she intend to anoint him for His burial? Probably not. If she had, she probably would have done it with weeping and wailing and made a big scene. But if she did it in anticipation of his Messiahship, why then did Jesus say she did it for His burial?

I think Jesus knew why she did it but chose to put a different construction on it to testify of His mission. Jesus knew that she had anointed Him to honor Him as a future king, and it was a very flattering gesture. He could have let it go to His head, and let it persuade Him that maybe He wouldn’t have to die. But no, He was determined not to let this distract Him from His mission of redeeming the world through suffering and death. So how would He react to the woman? She had been very kind, and He couldn’t chastise her for that. Interestingly, He chose to try to use it as a teaching tool to reiterate His upcoming death. So He pointed out that she had done a good thing to anoint Him for His burial. This was true; the perfume probably was strong enough that it would persist on His body and His clothes for a good long time afterwards, through the scourging and abuse He suffered and through His crucifixion. (After Jesus was dead, the women had to wait for the Sabbath to end before they would be able to anoint His body and then when they went to anoint Him on the third day after He was buried, but He was already risen.)

The apostle’s reaction is also very interesting. It is one of those times when Jesus and the apostles are at odds with each other. How did this happen? When the woman poured the expensive ointment on Jesus, the apostles undoubtedly thought of Jesus’s counsel to sell all and give to the poor and felt like the woman’s generous gesture had been misguided. They must have thought, Pouring that stuff on Jesus benefits only Jesus, but selling it and giving the profit to the pour would be a much more socially beneficial act of worship.

Then Jesus turned everything upside down and declared that the woman had done right and she’d be remembered forever for what she did!

This must have been hard for the apostles to swallow. They may have felt that their judgment was being disregarded. They were trying so hard to follow Jesus’s counsel and now He throws this curve ball at them. Perhaps they wondered if He was starting to get too big for His britches. Maybe they thought He had suddenly fallen into the temptation of self-aggrandizement and exalting Himself by putting Himself before the poor. (He was really pointing out that when you have a choice between A) doing it to Christ by doing it to one of the least of these with proxy service and B) doing it directly to Christ, it was preferable to do it to directly to Christ while He was still around. After Christ was ascended to heaven, He would be completely satisfied with proxy service.)

Another factor that may have made the woman’s act acceptable to Christ was that somehow it must have been necessary in order to fulfill Messianic prophesy about Him. I went looking for scriptures about anointing and I found these verses from Psalms that could have some bearing:
7 Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.
8 All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia, out of the ivory palaces, whereby they have made thee glad.
9 Kings’ daughters were among thy honourable women: upon thy right hand did stand the queen in gold of Ophir.
10 Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear. . .
11 So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty: for he is thy Lord; and worship thou him.
12 And the daughter of Tyre shall be there with a gift; even the rich among the people shall intreat thy favour. . . .
17 I will make thy name to be remembered in all generations: therefore shall the people praise thee for ever and ever. (Psalms 45:7-12, 17)
Again, it the apostles didn’t realize that and were angry because their judgment was disregarded and contradicted. How angry were they? Angry enough that one of them couldn’t stand it any more, as the story immediately following Jesus’s anointing indicates:
14 Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests,
15 And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.
16 And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him. (Matthew 26:14-16)
But Jesus knew all about that. Very soon afterward, He commented on it.
21 And as they did eat, he said, Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.
22 And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I? (Matthew 26:21-22)
I used to wonder why it was that each one of the disciples were sorry and asked if they would betray Jesus until I realized that it indicated that each of them had recently been offended by Him. They had been angry with him for allowing the woman to anoint him and for His reproving answer to their objections. So when Christ pointed out that one of them would betray him, they remembered their anger and were instantly pricked in their hearts. They each wondered if their resentment had taken them to the point of betraying Christ and they became very sorry for their anger.

All except for Judas.
23 And [Jesus] answered and said, He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me.
24 The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.
25 Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, Master, is it I? He said unto him, Thou hast said. (Matthew 26:21-25)
Finding the connection between these incidents has shown me that no matter how good we may be, there is still a possibility that we may become offended and betray Christ and the truth. In the case of this story, it arose from a clash over which principles should take priority at the moment—care for the poor versus worship of the Savior, and expectations of His kingship versus His mortal mission as suffering servant-redeemer. These moments can come unexpectedly and it takes great humility to defer to greater spiritual authority.

  1. The woman was anointing Jesus to honor Him as conquering Messiah, consistent with the hope of His followers that He would save Israel from the Romans.
  2. Jesus chose to use the incident to point to His mission as suffering servant.
  3. His statement that her act was good made the apostles angry because it seemed inconsistent with what He had been teaching them about charity and giving to the poor.
  4. This incident was the impetus for Judas’s betrayal
  5. Jesus’s prediction that one of the apostles would betray Him pricked the other apostles’ consciences and humbled them to repentance.


Michelle said...

Very interesting thoughts! I agree with statement 2 in the summary. But I can't feel that the apostles were angry, except for Judas. I think they were humble enough, having giving all to follow Jesus, to simply not understand, without anger entering into the equation.
I love the passage you shared from Psalms--I had never noticed the relevance of that to the anointing.
I like the way you use questions a lot in your study. I need to do that more.

Michaela Stephens said...

Well, if you have an alternate theory for why the apostles were very sorrowful and every one said "Lord is it I?" I would be delighted to hear it. I don't think they would have felt so convicted if they hadn't been equally angry before.

Any thoughts from our other readers?