(Matthew 6:1-6; Mark 14:1-9)
If you get ashes in your eyes, you can’t see clearly. Our inborn sinfulness is like ashes to our spiritual vision. We look at what is good and distort its purpose, or we look upon what is beautiful and misjudge its value.
Jesus says in our reading from Matthew, “When you give to the needy” (6:2), so He assumes that Christians will do this, and since He would never want us to do something bad, then giving to the needy must be a good thing to do. Jesus also says in the Passion Reading, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want” (Mark 14:7). But sinners misjudge the purpose of such good deeds.
Jesus criticized the hypocrites “in the synagogues and in the streets” for conspicuously giving to the needy in order to “be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Likewise, they prayed long-winded prayers and made a show of fasting in order to “be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5, 16). In being praised and seen by others, they received the rewards they were seeking: to be held in high esteem by other people. This is an entirely self-serving and godless approach to good works, because it pays no thought to our Father in heaven.
On the other hand, those who come to the Father through faith in His Son view good works as opportunities to serve the neighbor and please God (2 Corinthians 5:9). In fact, they aren’t even seeking a reward. Jesus never says that rewards are why Christians do what they do. He promises that the Father will reward the almsgiving, prayer, and fasting of His children, but reward is not their motivation.
But our old Adam misjudges this point. Sin’s deep delusion is that good works must be done in order to be rewarded with eternal life. That is the worst misjudgment we can make. This Ash Wednesday evening, God’s Word, along with the liturgy and hymns, makes painfully clear our utter wretchedness and desperate need for the forgiveness of our sins. What we need most isn’t to give to the needy or do any other good work. We need the Lamb of God to take away our sins. And Mark takes us to Him in our Passion Reading when he begins, “Now the Passover … [was] only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him” (Mark 14:1).
The Passover and Passion were just a couple of days away. Jesus knew this and had repeatedly told His disciples that His death was drawing near. But unlike Jesus, the guests at Simon’s dinner party didn’t have their mind on the cross when an uninvited woman barged in, broke open a jar of perfume, and dumped it on Jesus’ head. I think artwork, Passion plays, and popular imagination tend to depict the woman’s act as serene and ceremonious, but the text suggests a suddenness and clumsiness to what she did. Alabaster flasks weren’t cheap and could be reused, but she smashes it open and renders it useless for the future. And I don’t picture her slowly and gently pouring it on Jesus’ head but drenching Him, leaving Him blinking to squeeze out the drops falling into His eyes.
Then there’s the value of the ointment. If it really could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, that would be roughly a year’s wages for a day laborer. At the modest wage of $12.50 an hour that you can get at most fast-food restaurants, three hundred days’ wages convert to $30,000. Before the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples estimated that two hundred denarii worth of bread would fill the crowd’s bellies (Mark 6:37). Just imagine how many people you could feed with three hundred denarii! That’s what the guests at Simon’s dinner were saying among themselves, outraged at the woman’s wastefulness, indignant that so many would go hungry because of her impulsiveness. “What’s wrong with you, woman? Are you out of your mind? You should have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!” But they had misjudging eyes.
Jesus, however, always sees clearly. He comes to the woman’s defense and tells her critics to back off. Jesus recognizes her clumsy, unceremonious, impulsive action as a beautiful work, as preparation for the most beautiful, noble, good deed in human history: His suffering, death, and burial.
It is good to give to the needy, to do good to the poor. But when the incarnate Son of God is sitting at your dinner table preparing to suffer and die for the sin of the world in a couple of days and then be hastily entombed without proper anointing at His burial, then three hundred denarii worth of ointment is no waste but is rightly devoted to His service. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). What the dinner guests could not see was the sheer uniqueness, the tremendous weight, of the moment they were witnessing. For God’s Anointed One – that’s what Christ and Messiah mean – was soon to give His body and shed His blood, to give His life as a ransom for the masses, to be the once-for-all Passover Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. This moment was not business as usual, even in moral terms. I’m sure that God the Father generously found other ways to bring the alms necessary to feed the poor of Bethany and Jerusalem on that day, even as He was about to pour out the priceless blood of His beloved Son as a saving, healing ointment for sinners. And the Son of God went to the cross willingly, to offer His life for yours and the lives of all sinners.
What an aroma that perfume must have made in the house! Like the way a dozen Easter lilies in a small room permeates the air with the smell of resurrection. In just a few days, Jesus would be hanging on a cross. As the sweat and blood poured down Jesus’ face, could He still smell the perfume that had prepared Him for burial? It would have been fitting, for, as Paul writes, “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). The smell of Christ’s holy person and atoning work turned away the wrath of God against sinners once and for all.
And, in Baptism, you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and anointed with the Holy Spirit to sanctify you and make you pleasing to the Father. The beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness has become yours, so that you need no longer fear eternal damnation in hell. The power of sin, death, and Satan has been shattered like that broken alabaster flask, and you have been liberated from the realm of darkness to live forever in the Kingdom of Life, and for the rest of your earthly lives to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s what the unnamed woman was doing, and her motivation has to have been faith in Jesus and love for Him, since Jesus solemnly states, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). She was an integral part of the Gospel story being fulfilled, and the Gospel is always about forgiveness of sins being received by faith.
There was another time Jesus was anointed by a woman, earlier in His ministry, at the house of a Pharisee named Simon – interestingly, the same name as the leper hosting the meal in this evening’s reading (Luke 7:36–50). Luke reports that that woman was known around town as a sinner, and she anointed and wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. Jesus concludes the story by saying that her loving action toward Him was evidence that she had been forgiven much, for the one who has been forgiven much, loves much. Surely this was also the case for the unnamed woman in our Passion Reading. And now, wherever the Gospel of forgiveness of sins is proclaimed in all the world, this woman will be remembered for her faith in Jesus, her love for Him, and her preparation for His death and burial.
Why doesn’t Mark give us this woman’s name? Because at that moment, she was not the point – Jesus and His saving work were. Her anonymity also teaches us about how to approach good works. “She has done what she could,” Jesus says. That is, she simply lived out her vocation, and on that day, she was called to do the beautiful work of anointing Jesus beforehand for His burial. She did not do it to be praised or seen by others, nor was she seeking a reward, but she had eyes only for Jesus. And now, even though as a sinner she was not worthy of anything from the Father, she has gone on to receive her eternal reward, all for the sake of the Jesus whom she anointed.
You also are called to do what you can in your various vocations, in whatever situation the Lord puts you each day. You are set free from the enslaving misjudgment that you should do good works either to be praised by men or to be justified by God. In Christ, you receive temporal and eternal rewards that you could never earn; they come by grace alone. That takes all the pressure off and places you under His easy yoke and light burden. So, on this Ash Wednesday, and every day, repent and believe the Gospel. And then rejoice that you have been judged forgiven and righteous in the eyes of the One who judges justly! Amen.