July 12, 2013
At Bethany, a woman came to Jesus with a gift unique in its thoughtfulness, costly in its bestowal, timely in its provision, challenging in its impact, and lasting in its memory. In this message, Alistair Begg introduces us to this woman, who understood that following Jesus was about complete abandonment and that giving up her future was a small price to pay to worship her Savior. When the grace of God takes hold of a life, extravagant worship is the normal response to what Christ has done.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Mark chapter 14. And we finish with a lady—and what a lady!
“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.’
“Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.”
Father, we pray that as we turn to the Bible now, that the Spirit of God will be our teacher; that you will help us to speak, to hear, to understand, to believe, to obey, in order that we might be conformed to the image of your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Well, we’re going to look finally at this encounter between Jesus and this particular lady. The form of our study will just track along three statements that are there in the text as you saw them. The first phrase, in verse 3: “A woman came.” We will consider her action. And then the second phrase, in verse 5: “They scolded her.” We will then consider the reaction of some. And then the final phrase, in verse 8: “She has done what she could.” We will see the lady devoted, we will see the lady scolded, and then we will see the lady commended. Okay?
So first of all, then, “A woman came.” That’s how it’s introduced: “While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper”—he was there having a meal—“a woman came.”
Now, if your Bible is open there, you will notice that chapter 13 is essentially the Olivet Discourse. It’s a tough chapter to expound. I’ve tried it. I think I’d like another go at it—and I think my congregation are hoping that I have another go at it, see if I can get it right. But it’s quite interesting that that particular discourse in chapter 13 is framed on either side by the introduction of two women.
At the end of chapter 12, you remember the widow’s offering that Jesus has observed and to which he has drawn his disciple’s attention. So, in verse 43, he says to them, “Truly, [truly,] I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.” And, of course, this was a quite staggering idea. How in the world could it be accurate to say that a woman had put in more than all of the others when it was patently obvious that she had put in so very little? She had put in it the tiniest amount imaginable, yet Jesus says it was more. Why? Because he was measuring by sacrifice, not by amount. He was measuring by proportion. Because two cents out of two cents is a factor of one, and one thousand out of ten thousand is a factor of a tenth. So this lady had actually done something quite dramatic.
And Jesus’ disciples were very slow to grasp the values of the kingdom. And you will notice, actually, that—if your Bible is open—that it goes from Jesus pointing to this lady and saying, “Let me show you what it really means to be committed to the kingdom and to be involved in sacrifice,” and it says, “And as [they] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said …, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’” He said, “Were you listening to me, or what?” But it’s just like this at the Sunday morning service, isn’t it? The pastor preaches his heart out, and somebody comes out and says, “You want to go to Denny’s, or shall we go to such-and-such?” “Well, did you hear what the man said?” “Yeah, but we’re finished with what the man said. Yes, it was something about a lady. She put in her money, but…” We’d rather talk about the architecture than face the challenge of Jesus’ words. We’d rather talk about just about anything other than face the challenge that Jesus brings.
And so, here we are on the far side of it. And the very next thing we’re introduced to is another lady engaged in sacrifice. And Mark tells us in a fairly straightforward way what she’s done: “A woman came with an alabaster flask.” Now, this won’t mean very much to us unless we do a little bit of study, which you can do on your own. It would be… You know, when you listen to somebody preach after a period of time, you know what they know, and you know what they don’t know. So I never use illustrations from science, ’cause I haven’t a clue about it. My congregation understands that. And it would be just silly for me to try and impress you with my knowledge of Himalayan plant life, wouldn’t it?—the nature of pure nard and where this was found and how it was discovered and what it meant and how significant it really was and so on. People take ages and ages and ages, using up about the first twenty minutes of their sermon on stuff that is absolutely extraneous. This is a note to all aspiring pastors. All that you need to know when you’re teaching this is that it was very expensive. That’s the point. That’s the point. The other stuff is not irrelevant, but you don’t want to waste your time on it, because you want to make sure the people you’re teaching get the point.
She brought an alabaster jar. The alabaster itself, the container, would have been expensive, and the content of it was obviously very, very costly. In other words, it wasn’t the kind of thing that a lady would have in her purse. It’s not the kind of thing that she would have picked up in Nordstrom on her way out for an evening with some friends. No, it was the cost of the material that brought about the extreme response of disapproval on the part of some. Perhaps a year’s wages would have been involved in the purchase. And I don’t know how many men have for their anniversary taken an entire year’s salary and bought their wife perfume that cost an entire year’s salary. If you have, I’d like to see you afterwards, and just… We have doctors here as well. We can take your temperature and various other things and see what’s going on.
Well, the material packed a punch. It had enough to fill the house with fragrance. But you see, the monetary value of it was probably the smallest part of the cost. Because this kind of alabaster flask would have been in a home, could have been in a home even for a generation or two, kept in the home, usually in a special place in the home, for one of two reasons: either to be used as a dowry on the occasion of marriage or to be used to anoint the individual’s body in preparation for their burial.
Now, when you put it in those terms and you say, “Here comes a lady, and she carries with her that which would have been for her an expression of promise and of extravagance in marriage, or she brings with her that which would be used for her in the prospect of her death,” then what do we discover? Well, we discover that Mark is describing a lady who is essentially pouring away her future—pouring away her future on the head of Jesus Christ. She’s saying, “Whatever hopes, dreams, plans, ambitions, convictions I had, I am bringing them here, and at the risk of being disregarded, being disapproved, of not being socially acceptable, I am going to pour this out on the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And she chooses not to pour out a little—just squeeze the top off, squeeze a wee bit out—but rather, she chooses instead to break the flask; a gesture, if you like, of complete abandonment. Because after the flask was broken, it had served its purpose. It wasn’t going to be used for anything again. No, the brokenness is actually significant. And even if the brokenness of the flask could be regarded as an impulsive gesture in the heat of the moment, the fact that she brought it indicates that it was a premeditated act, that she had already determined that this was something that she was going to do. She may have actually expressed it in a way that even took her by surprise, but nevertheless, somewhere in the privacy of her own home, in the hidden place of her own heart and of her own mind, she had decided, “This is what I’m going to do.” And so she did. And the impact was felt by all.
She “poured it over his head.” Now, again, in our twenty-first century context, this doesn’t necessarily appeal to us, does it? We have to contextualize it in some way. If someone came to your house and started pouring stuff, you would have reason to be concerned. It’d usually be a bucket of cold water, in any case. It wouldn’t be something like this. But in the context of the day, it’s perfectly clear.
And the Bible has a lot to say about oil and the pouring out of oil. I actually wonder, when this event took place, if Jesus did not sit there as the lady acted in this way; I wonder, did they say, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies, you anoint my head with oil, my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” Because remember the way in which the passage opens: the chief priest and the scribes are looking for a way to kill him. The way the passage closes: Judas Iscariot immediately goes out and asks how much cash he can get for himself by betraying his master. And here, in the context of the darkness on either side, is the radiant light of this self-forgetfulness on the part of an unnamed woman. It’s a wonderful picture! Jesus knew his Bible. And therefore, he would have received this ministry in light of what he knew.
Well, we can leave her action in the awareness of the fact that it was unique in its thoughtfulness, it was generous in its bestowal, and it was, as we will see, timely in its provision. Unique in its thoughtfulness, generous in its bestowal, and timely in its provision. (That, incidentally, is another sermon there for somebody who wants to use it.)
First of all, then, a woman came. Secondly, they scolded her. Verse 4: they scolded her. “There were some who said to themselves indignantly…”
Now, John actually tells us in his rendition of this that it was Judas Iscariot who led the charge in this respect, that he was the one who mouthed the response. But in much the same way as Peter’s denial, where Peter is the one who makes the denial but we’re also told that all of the disciples said the same thing as Peter… And so, when you take John and you apply it in relationship to Mark, you realize that although Judas may have been the mouthpiece, he clearly wasn’t alone, and the sort of overwhelming reaction of those who were the avowed, devoted followers of Jesus was not to actually bow down, humbled by what had taken place, but was actually to scold the woman for what she had done. So Mark tells us that they grumbled and they growled at the woman. The word in Greek, actually, is closer to snorting. They snorted at her as an expression of anger and displeasure. She has in an instant become the object of angry glances. She has in an instant found herself on the receiving end of the whispers of shocked disapproval. Why is this?
Well, they regarded her action as extravagant. As extravagant. They regarded it as wasteful. They regarded it as a misuse of resources. “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” And then, of course, they try and take the high ground: “For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii”—that’s a tremendous amount of money—“and given to the poor.” Oh well, how are we going to respond to that? That’s a tough one, isn’t it, soon as we play that card? But no, their express concern for the poor is a thin disguise for their cold hearts and for their tight fists. This is an attempt on their part to justify their indignation.
You see, the disciples make it clear again and again, again, all the way along that they fail to understand to values of the kingdom of God. They don’t understand the values of the kingdom of God. That’s why Jesus has said to them in the Upper Room Discourse, “It is important for you that I go away. I know you don’t like the idea of me going away, but it is very important that I go away, because when I go away, I will send to you, the Father will send to you another Counselor and Comforter, and he will bring you into an understanding of all the things that I have told you—things that, frankly, you haven’t got.” It’s a remarkable thing, isn’t it, how ineffective Jesus is as a teacher for so long with the people who are with him every single day? At the end of the course, they all deserted him, and they fled. They weren’t all there standing, saying, “Hey, it’s Good Friday. This is fantastic! It’s going to be Easter Sunday!” No, they were all gone. Why? Because they didn’t get it. And so, a lady comes along here and exposes them for what they are, and they realize once again: it’s not clear to them. In fact, they were probably jealous of the fact that the lady had acted in this way.
J. C. Ryle, the bishop of Liverpool of an earlier era, he says,
The spirit of these narrow-minded fault-finders is unhappily only too common. Their followers and successors are to be found in every part of Christ’s visible church. There is never wanting a generation of people who decry what they call “extremes” in religion, and are incessantly recommending what they term “moderation” in the service of Christ. If a man devotes his time, money, and affections to the pursuit of worldly things, they do not blame him. If he gives himself up to the service of money, pleasure, or politics, they find no fault. But if the same man devotes himself, and all that he has, to Christ, they can scarcely find words to express their sense of his folly. “He is beside himself” [they say]. “He is out of his mind.” “He is [an enthusiast].” “He is [a fanatic].”
Now, think about that in our day. Philanthropy is the big deal, whether it’s Buffett or whether it is Gates or all those who are gonna take a line from them. Everyone says, “Whoa! Let’s fall down before the philanthropists!” So whether it is the philanthropy of Buffett or the ecology of Al Gore, the contemporary gods before whom we now bow down, you can go down that road any day you want. And make sure that the building that you build with all your money is green. That way you’ll get a double whammy. But if you let it be known that you are prepared to sacrifice your life, your future, your career in the cause of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, the people will say to you, “You’ve gotta be absolutely nuts! What are you talking about?” That was Ryle. And here we are. We haven’t moved on very far.
No, you see, the broken flask here and the fragrant scent testified against their calculated pragmatism. If this lady had shown up at the house and called a little meeting in the anteroom—said, “Now, I know a number of you are here with Jesus, and I was looking forward to coming to Jesus. I thought we would just go in here, and I’d let you know what I’m planning to do tonight.” If she had done that, we would have no record of her extravagant devotion, because they would have talked her out of it: “You don’t have to do that. That’s rather extreme, isn’t it? I mean, surely you’ve got other kind of massage oil or perfume or something else. That would be good enough for Jesus. I mean, he doesn’t really want the whole kit and caboodle. I mean, you don’t have to sacrifice your marriage or your burial on the strength of it.” And that’s the way it would have gone. And she would have said, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent. Not at this juncture.” No!
No, you see, this lady was scolded on account of the fact that her gratitude to Jesus caused her to give up her treasured possession. Her gratitude to Jesus caused her to give up her treasured possession. You see, Judas thought that following Jesus was about what he was gonna get. So he went out and said to them, “What will you give me?” She understood that following Jesus was about what she was able to give.
That’s why, you see, missionary biographies have always had the impact that they’ve had. Sadly, many of them have fallen into the catalog lists of out-of-print tales of another era. And, you know, one of the things that might be done is the unearthing of many of these old stories and good books so that the hearers of the past might become contemporary for a new generation—so that, for example, C. T. Studd, who gave up a fortune that was his by inheritance and went off to Africa with the story of the good news… His father had been converted as a result of the visit of Moody and Sankey. His father was phenomenally wealthy, and Studd went to Cambridge. He played cricket for England. It was far better than The Great Gatsby. That’s where he lived. That was his whole experience. And he actually turned his back on all of that in order to go to Africa.
But he gave away his fortune and kept some back for his wife. His wife found out about it. She was really angry, because he had given her a little poem she was supposed to say in the morning with her devotions. She was supposed to say,
Dear Lord Jesus,
You are to me
Dearer than Charlie
Ever could be!
He wanted her to understand that so that when he died, she would know that her best friend was Jesus. And she said, “Why’d you keep all that money back for me?” He said, “Well, I wanted you to be okay.” She said, “Do you think that Jesus can only look after you, and he can’t look after me? Give my part away as well.” And so they gave it to General Booth of the Salvation Army. Now, what was the kingdom logic? Here it goes. This is C. T. Studd: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice that I could ever make for him could ever be too great.” That’s the logic of the kingdom. We gotta work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.
Well, let’s just go to our final point. The response of people was to scold her. Verse 8, Jesus says, “She has done what she could.” It’s a wonderful phrase, isn’t it? Jesus says, “Why don’t you just leave her alone? Why are you troubling her? She’s done a beautiful thing. You will always have the poor with you.”
What is Jesus doing here? Well, he’s just making it clear what the Law had taught. And the Law had taught that there will never cease to be poor in the land. The Law had made provision for the poor in the land. And so, for example, you have that in the story of Ruth, don’t you? Where Naomi allows Ruth to go out and to gather up on the fringes of the field—as it turns out, in the field of Boaz, in that fantastic story. What is happening there? That is due to the provision of the Law. The Law said that the owner of the land was not to go to the entire perimeter of the land when he harvested his crop but was to leave borders in the perimeter so that poor people could by their endeavors become the beneficiaries of their largess.
Jesus is actually quoting the Law in response here. When he says, “The poor you will always have,” he’s not in any sense disregarding the poor. What he’s pointing out is that the poor represent an ongoing opportunity and an ongoing obligation. “But what happens here in relationship to me,” he says, “is a one-time opportunity. Because you will not always have me.” You go down to verse 41 or so in the passage, verse 42: “‘Rise, let us be going; my betrayer is at hand.’ … And they all left him and fled.” “You’re not always going to have me. So why are you scolding her? She’s done something really beautiful.” The word in Greek is kalos. There are two words in Greek, largely, for “good.” One is agathos, which means “intrinsically good.” And kalos means, if you like, “beautifully good.” That’s the word he uses. “What she’s done is generous, it’s self-forgetful, it’s wonderful. And she’s done what she could. She has anointed my body.” They must have said to themselves, “Dear, oh dear, how can we miss everything in this?
“She has done what she could; she[’s] anointed my body beforehand for burial.” And that’s the real significance. It is a significance that is directly related to his death. If you think about this, the law demanded no Jew would have been buried without the preparatory rites of anointing. Jesus was going to be captured in the garden, taken away, beaten, crucified. In the providence of God, here, in an unusual place, in the house of Simon the leper, the anointing and preparation for his burial takes place.
Now, the commentators all say, almost without exception, that she was doing what she was doing, but she didn’t really know what she was doing, and Jesus explains the real significance of what she was doing. And that may well be right. And that may well be right. But it also may well be right that she did know what she was doing. Call it female intuition. Call it whatever you want to call it: that this lady saw what others missed; that this lady, who proceeded to the house on this particular evening, did so in the awareness of the unfolding drama of redemption. Because think about it: How do you explain the one thief on the other side of him saying, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and the other one still cussing him out? What happened there? Who opened the eyes of the one? So who would open the eyes of a lady to proceed in the darkness of the night to shine the light of her self-sacrificial love?
“Verily, verily, I say to you, this poor widow has now done something that will serve as a perpetual memorial of the true response to the one who became poor in order that we might become rich.” “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world”— even in Speculator, New York—“what she has done will be told in memory of her.” The self-contained, sensible, scolding onlookers fade into obscurity, while the rash extravagance of this humble woman is known wherever the gospel is proclaimed. Long after human eloquence and human brilliance are forgotten, when the deeds and titles of emperors and kings and presidents are completely buried, this beautiful, significant, and timely act will be remembered, because the pathway to lasting honor is to honor Christ. The pathway to lasting honor is to honor Christ. She gave him all she had.
“A woman came”—devoted, unique in its thoughtfulness, costly in its bestowal, timely in its provision, challenging in its impact, lasting in its memory. “And they scolded her.” And Jesus said, “She has done what she could.” At the end of the day, it’s not what you say about yourself that matters. It’s not even what others say about you that matters. At the end of the day, it’s only what God says about you that matters. So then, may he say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Father, into your care and custody we commend ourselves, thanking you for the opportunity of the time we’ve spent together, asking you to bless the ministry of your Word. We recognize that you’ve “exalted above all things your name and your word,” and that your name is higher than any other, and that one day at your name every knee will bow. So we pray that you will turn our hearts in the direction of your Word, that you will bring our lives into alignment with its truth, and that you will preserve and keep us in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake.
Help us, Lord, to be an encouragement to one another, whether we’re present or absent from one another, so that as we reflect upon this place and bring it before you in prayer, we might pray that throughout the balance of the summer and all that yet is about to happen, that it will continue to build upon all that we have enjoyed, exceed it greatly; the preaching will be widely blessed; and that many, many lives will be touched and changed for your kingdom.
May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace, today and until the day when Jesus comes or takes us to himself, and then forevermore. Amen.
 Psalm 23:5–6 (paraphrased).
 See John 12:4.
 John 14:25–26 (paraphrased).
 J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: St. Mark (New York, 1858), 298–99.
 Norman Grubb, C. T. Studd: Athlete and Pioneer (1933; repr., Harrisburg, PA: Evangelical Press, 1943), 91. Paraphrased.
 Grubb, 145. Paraphrased.
 See Philippians 2:12.
 See Ruth 2:2.
 See Leviticus 19:9; 23:22.
 Mark 14:42, 50 (ESV).
 See Luke 23:39–43.
 Matthew 25:21, 23 (ESV).
 Psalm 138:2 (ESV).
 See Philippians 2:9–10.
 See Psalm 23:3.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.