In traveling through the seven days that comprise a week, Wednesday represents the apex. Also referred to as “hump day,” the connotation is that the uphill climb toward week’s end is about to encounter its highest point and once reached, it’s all downhill from there. I would suggest this is also true of the Wednesday in the last week of Jesus.
For as many years as God numbers for me, I will think of an unnamed woman on this specific calendar day. I will think of her because I believe the story of this woman stands at the very crest of Jesus’ final week, and provides the proper propulsion towards the intensity and power of His final days. The setting is a meal at the house of Simon the leper. The scene fits, doesn’t it? Are you at all surprised that Jesus would be enjoying a meal at the house of a former leper? Yeah, me either.
Jesus is reclining at the table with the other guests and, contrary to custom, a woman (who would normally only approach the table to serve the men who were eating) approaches Him. She carries with her “a beautiful alabaster jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard.” (Mark 14:3 NLT) It is suggested that perfume of such quality and quantity would be the equivalent of a year’s salary and would likely have been a treasured family heirloom or inheritance. I think it’s fair to say that this would have been a prized possession and would have amounted to most, if not all, of what she had of value in this world. The last sentence of Mark 14:3 describes what happens next …
She broke open the jar and poured the perfume over his head.
She broke open the jar. She . broke . open . the . jar. No, that’s not a mistaken duplication of text or an example of intensely poor grammar, it’s repetition for the sake of great emphasis. See, I believe there deep significance in this very intentional act. This woman did not simply uncap the bottle and measure her pour. She broke the bottle, making an irreversible commitment that its entire contents would be spent in the anointing of Jesus. A whole (and opaque) vessel would allow for restraint and the possibility to keep a measure for herself. It could give the appearance of pouring it all out, yet still allowing for some to be hidden and saved. A broken vessel is an exposed vessel; there is no hiding inside a broken vessel. A broken vessel is a submitted vessel; one that can no longer be used for its prior purpose, but rather given up fully to the purpose it was broken for. These are the gifts of the unnamed woman … not only of her perfume, but also of herself.
Immediately upon seeing this act, those who were in attendance began to criticize her harshly. What in the world was she doing?! Did she not know how valuable the perfume was? How much money could have been gained from its sale? How much could have been gifted to the poor?! It is important to understand that alms for the poor were a very integral part of the Passover celebration. Much like our modern celebration of Christmas, it was customary to be very generous to the poor during Passover. So in their own reasoning, the guests saw horrible injustice and waste in what they had judged to be a hasty and frivolous act … in their own reasoning, that is.
As quickly as they began, Jesus jumped to the woman’s defense. “Leave her alone … she has done a beautiful thing to me.” (Mark 14:6 ESV) In His divine, kingdom vision He saw the moving of her spirit to anoint Him for burial; a broken and complete sacrifice to honor Him and prepare His body for what was to come. It was not customary for a criminal’s body to be anointed for burial. Knowing this would be the world’s judgment and His Son’s fate, God authored this beautiful and purposed act. Jesus chastises the guests with the truth that they will always have the poor among them to offer their help to, but they will only have Him for a very short time. And lest this be interpreted as a selfish statement, Jesus is quoting the Old Testament text of Deuteronomy 15:11 where God says, “There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.” (NLT)
I see a stark contrast in this story of a sacred interruption in an otherwise ordinary dinner; namely, that which exists between kingdom purposes and those of the natural world. In their focus on perfume, money, and tradition, the guests missed the kingdom act of anointing. They were focused on the denarius (money). Jesus and this woman have his Father’s kingdom on their hearts and in their sights.
I think it’s also right to draw attention to Jesus’ answer to the teacher of the law the day before (Tuesday) when he questioned, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28 NLT) In breaking the bottle and giving it up to its final and divine purpose of anointing, the woman loved the Lord her God with everything she had. Jesus’ words, “She has done what she could” (Mark 14:8a NLT), are the same language He also used the day before in describing the widow’s offering. In response to what she did, Jesus promised that, “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:9 ESV)
What is your’s and my beautiful alabaster jar? What is our essence of nard, our counter-cultural act? Our challenge is to live as the woman acted … that completely broken, that fully poured out, and that unnamed. All for the purpose of the kingdom, and loving the Lord our God with all that we have in this world.