HH Sir Godfrey Gregg D.Div
And it came to pass when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.—Matthew 26:1-2
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, 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. —Matthew 26:6-7
Jesus Was Calm on His Way to the Cross
We are now approaching the last days of the earthly life of Jesus in our study of Matthew’s Gospel, and our lesson opens with the clear declaration from our Saviour’s lips that in two days He would be crucified. There is a singular interest in Matthew’s little preface to these words: he tells us that it was “when Jesus had finished all these sayings” that He spoke plainly about His crucifixion. That means, I take it,
- that the mind of Christ was calm;
- that there was order and quiet progress in His teaching;
- that He moved forward through His many lessons with a deliberate and sure advance, till His hearers were able to bear the news of Calvary.
How apt we are, when a great secret holds us, to blurt it out in an ill-considered way! How thoughtless and how unkind we often are, in the eager telling of unpleasant things! The narrative of Matthew deepens our impression of the noble self-restraint of Jesus. Matthew had felt in Christ that sweet reserve without which love is sure to prove a wastrel. Observe, too, that when Jesus foretells His death, He does not say He is going to be betrayed. He says, “The Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified” (Matthew 26:24). That intimates that in the heart of Judas, Christ read the deed as if already done. In the thoughts of the traitor everything was planned, and Jesus is a discerner of men’s thought. The secret imaginings of our today are the open sins and failures of our tomorrow. There is a deep philosophy of conduct in the advice of Paul, to bring every thought into captivity to Christ. I fancy that God sees, hidden in every acorn, the beauty and the gnarled strength of the oak tree; so Jesus, in the dark and brooding heart of Judas, saw the arrest in the garden, and the cross. And one point more: The high priest is called Caiaphas (Matthew 26:3). But it seems that Caiaphas was only his distinguishing name. His personal name was Joseph, but there were so many Josephs that men called him Joseph Caiaphas, perhaps Joseph the Oppressor. Can we recall a similar Bible instance where the name of Joseph has been almost forgotten? “Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, which is, being interpreted, the Son of Consolation” (Act 4:36).
In the House of Simon the Leper
Then follows the beautiful scene at Bethany, and we cannot too closely note the setting of it. It is immediately preceded by this black conspiracy (Matthew 26:1-5); it is immediately followed by the traitor’s bargain (Matthew 26:14-16). On the one side, fear and jealousy and hatred; on the other side, treachery and bargain driving. And in the center (a rose between the thorns) a love that forgot everything and lavished all. Who Simon the leper was, we do not know. I like to think he was that leper we read of, who had cried, “Lord, if Thou wilt, Thou canst make me clean” (Matthew 8:2). Whoever he was, no doubt our Lord had cleansed him: and yet men called him Simon the leper still. You see how old names, like old reputations, stick. Men keep them alive with a kind of evil pleasure. There would be many who could never talk of Simon but they would add, “Of course, you have heard he was a leper once?” And yet I think that Simon loved his name. It was a standing memorial of one glorious morning. He never could think how he had been a leper but it led him to think of how he had met the Lord; and now that that same Lord was at his table, he may have been saying, “My cup is running over.” It was then that this woman, whom we know to have been Mary, performed this act that was to live forever. She broke the alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on Jesus’ head as He reclined at meat. And the disciples were indignant and thought it sheer extravagance; but Jesus crowned the act with immortality. Just note that in the ancient world rare ointments were commonly held in alabaster vases. Herodotus tells somewhere that among the presents sent by King Cambyses to the Ethiopians there was an alabaster vessel of nard like Mary’s. Now, if this woman were indeed the sister of Lazarus, may not the ointment have been purchased to anoint his body, and so have been given with a double meaning to the Lord who had raised her brother from the grave ?
The Lord Can Read the Glory of Humble Acts
The first thing to impress us in this story is Christ’s rich interpretation of the deed. It was a simple action, done by a sinful woman, yet Jesus drew a wealth of meaning from it. To the disciples it was a foolish exhibition. Even the best of them thought lightly of it. Christ had no need of it, so they began to reason; He came not to be ministered unto but to minister. Were there no paupers in the village of Bethany? And might not the ointment have been sold for their benefit? A murmur of disapproval ran round the table, scarcely audible, perhaps, when it reached John, but loud and positive when Judas voiced it (John 12:4). And then, had you asked the woman what she meant, I dare say she would have stammered in reply. She might have said she had never stopped to reason; she had only listened to her heart, and there she was. None of the disciples knew what she was doing; I question if she really knew herself. Only Jesus saw the meaning of the deed, and felt its glory in the love that filled it. Never forget, then, that we serve a Lord who can read the humblest actions gloriously. The Son of man in the midst of the seven candlesticks has eyes as it were a flame of fire (Revelation 1:14). He sees in the simple deed, inspired by love, meanings and purposes we never dreamed of. He so interprets our poor and tangled service that we shall hardly know it in the morning. All which is fitted to make us very hopeful when, loving the Master, we first try to serve Him; and to restrain us from judging or troubling anybody when they serve in ways we fail to understand.
Mary’s Act of Sacrifice Was a Symbol of Christ’s Cross
But the heart of this exquisite story lies in this, that this deed was the dying of Jesus, in a figure. It was not merely because love inspired it that Jesus crowned it with unequalled praise. It was because He found in it the very Spirit that was leading Him on so steadily to Calvary. Had Mary stopped to balance or to weigh, we should never have heard of the alabaster box. Had the gift been calculated to a nicety, it had never been part of the undying Gospel.
- But the love of Mary never asked how little;
- the love of Mary only asked how much.
With a magnificent and glorious disregard, it broke the box and lavished everything. Now there is no need to make the alabaster box a type and figure of the body of Jesus. It was not the vase that was like the body of Christ; it was the act that was kindred to His death. For Jesus, like Mary, never asked how little. He lavished everything in saving men. He gave with a glorious fulness like that of Mary’s, when He gave Himself to the cross and to the grave. And wherever the love of Christ is known and felt, and the wonder of its lavish sacrifice awakens, “there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”