Mixed Messages

1 It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:1-9 ESV

It is Wednesday and, as Mark indicates, the celebration of Passover is just two days away. The events surrounding Jesus’ earthly ministry are quickly coming to a climax. Whether His disciples fully comprehend it or not, their Master’s days are running out. Mark makes special mention of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This particular feast, which accompanied Passover, was an important part of the annual celebration. It was to act as an additional reminder of the miraculous deliverance God had provided for the people of Israel.

And you shall offer the Passover sacrifice to the Lord your God, from the flock or the herd, at the place that the Lord will choose, to make his name dwell there. You shall eat no leavened bread with it. Seven days you shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste—that all the days of your life you may remember the day when you came out of the land of Egypt. No leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory for seven days – Deuteronomy 16:2-4 ESV

Leaven represents sin. It has an invasive quality to it, that left unchecked, permeates and spreads, influencing everything with which it comes into contact. For seven days, the Israelites were to remove all leaven from their homes and eat bread made without leaven. While the original Passover provided the Israelites with divine deliverance from the bondage of slavery in Egypt, it foreshadowed an even greater deliverance to come. Jesus, by being sacrificed during the Feast of Passover, was offering Himself as the Bread of Life. He was the sinless Savior who was willing to lay down His life for the sheep.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:51 ESV

With the sacrifice of His life, Jesus would offer a way for sinful men and women to be delivered from their bondage to sin and death. But Mark’s mention of the Feast of Unleavened Bread had another purpose. It juxtaposes the actions of the religious leaders who were feverishly plotting the death of Jesus. During the seven days in which they were to remove all leaven (sin) from their homes, these men were devising a strategy to end the life of the Son of God.

And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” – Mark 14:1-2 ESV

They didn’t view their actions as being sinful and, therefore, they saw no need to purge their lives of greed, anger, malice, jealousy, or hypocrisy. In their twisted minds, they were in the right and fully justified in their hatred for Jesus. They truly thought they were doing God and the nation a favor.

But with the image of the heavily “leavened” religious leaders fixed in our minds, Mark refocuses our attention on Jesus, the bread from heaven. He has joined His followers for a dinner hosted by Simon the leper. The location is Bethany, located just east of Jerusalem, the same town where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. In the middle of the meal, an unidentified woman walks into the room, opens a flask containing expensive and aromatic oil, and begins to anoint the head of Jesus. While similar to the story recorded by John, this appears to be a different scene altogether. John’s story takes place six days before Passover and the woman involved is Mary, the sister of Lazarus.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. – John 12:1-3 ESV

We are looking at two different anointings, one that took place on Saturday, at the beginning of the week, and the other on Wednesday. And because both Matthew and Mark leave the second woman unnamed, it is unlikely that it is Mary. In this case, an unidentified woman makes her way into the room and anoints the head of Jesus with a costly and highly aromatic oil. As soon as she broke the flask, the scent of the oil must have permeated the room, attracting the attention of all the guests, including the disciples of Jesus. And they immediately expressed their disapproval.

“Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” – Mark 14:4-5 ESV

Without realizing it, these men had responded after the manner of the Pharisees. In doing so, they exposed their own obsession with earthly rather than spiritual things. Appalled by what they believed to be a wanton display of wastefulness, they rebuked the woman. They were incapable of seeing the rich symbolism behind her actions. But Jesus reprimanded them, saying, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6 ESV).

Just a few days earlier, when Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them dry with her own hair, Judas had expressed a similar disdain for her excessive waste of resources. But Jesus had told him, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 ESV).

In both cases, these women were anointing the one who was about to offer His life as a sacrificial offering for the sins of mankind. While they were unaware of the import of their own actions, both Mary and the unidentified woman were preparing the body of Jesus for burial. And Jesus makes this quite clear.

“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” – Mark 14:8 ESV

The religious leaders were obsessed with putting Jesus to death. The disciples were preoccupied with temporal concerns. But this unnamed woman was focused on the Savior. Her love for Him was displayed by her willingness to make a tremendous sacrifice on His behalf. He meant far more to her than money or possessions did. And Jesus tried to help His disciples understand the vital lesson behind her actions.

“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” – Mark 14:7 ESV

Time was running out. In just a matter of days, they would witness the crucifixion and death of their friend and Master. And not a single one of them had done anything to show their gratitude or appreciation for all that He had done for them over the last three-and-a-half years. They were hours away from eating their final Passover meal with Jesus. And at that event, He will take on the role of a slave and wash their feet. The Savior will sacrifice His glory for their good. He will humble Himself so that they might be made clean. The Son of God will offer His life as a ransom for many.

The Pharisees plotted His death. This woman anointed His head.  The disciples questioned her actions. But in the midst of it all, Jesus remained committed to His calling and fully prepared to fulfill His Father’s will.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson