In the car the children are restless. After just ten minutes they ask, ‘Are we nearly there?’ ‘No, not yet’. Half-way on the journey they ask again, ‘Are we nearly there?’ ‘No, not yet’. And a mile from our destination, ‘Are we nearly there?’ ‘No not yet, but nearly’. Isn’t that just like the gospel narrative? At long last, after the three year journey the final drama is about to begin. The cross is no longer a prophetic word, a shadow falling across the pages of scripture, but a soon-to-be terrible reality.
Today is Palm Sunday and next Sunday is Easter Day. And during Holy Week we follow the events in Jerusalem. From Jesus’ entry into the city riding on a donkey to his exit from the city carrying a cross-beam. And between these six days we learn how Jesus carried the daily cross of opposition and trials, and then experiencing the hell of crucifixion, and suffering, and death and dying. The pain and the sorrow of the cross came before the triumph and the glory of the resurrection. During that final week in the earthly life of Jesus the drama was unfolded, and various encounters took place that are recorded for our consideration. The words on the page challenge us and confront us. They move us to consider afresh the person of the Lord Jesus Christ and of our response to him. In this drama we are observers and participants, audience and players. Never detached, always involved. Never just on the edge looking on.
But before we look at Matthew 26 I must point out a few unresolved issues. All four gospels record an anointing by a woman. Matthew followed Mark by placing the incident in the home of Simon the Leper; while Luke placed it in the home of Simon the Pharisee; and John in the home of Lazarus. In Luke, a notorious woman of the street anointed Jesus’ feet and in John, a domesticated woman of the home, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ head. So there may be one or two or more anointings by different women, certainly once over his feet and once over his head. But these are the intriguing but unresolved matters that engage the writers of gospel commentaries.
1 ‘A beautiful thing’ (v.10)
Throughout his ministry Jesus had defied the expected conventions of the day. He was the friend of the poor, of sinners, of outcasts, of those on the edge of society, of those who were despised and rejected by the religious leaders and also of women. The non PC prayer of the day was unambiguous. The orthodox male prayed: ‘Thank God that you made me neither a Gentile or a woman’. Jesus overturned such prejudice. Instead we read here of a ‘Princess Diana’ moment. Remember the time when she visited a hospital ward and held the hand of a man who had AIDS? Here Jesus went to the house of a leper (cured because people were invited into his house) and among the guests was a woman (was she invited or was she a gatecrasher?). A woman of the street (if we follow Luke’s account) or the respectable sister of Lazarus (if we follow John). But whatever the precise details we have a mixed group of people - Jesus, a woman and a cured leper. There were also the twelve disciples and no-doubt some of the professional fault-finders of the day.
With them we see and hear what is happening. We hear their ‘tut-tuts’ of disapproval. We see their cold, hard, disapproving eyes. We can only guess at their unspoken thoughts, their inner indignation. But dare we admit that we too share those feelings and those thoughts?
Jewish women liked perfume and this woman was no different. Like them she wore a cord round her neck on which there was a small phial of perfume. And out of her love for Jesus she broke the neck of the container and poured the contents over Jesus’ head. The perfume was spikenard – an expensive Indian perfume. It was worth a lot. John tells us that it was worth a year’s wages (12:5), and to feed the 5,000 (he said) it would have cost eight month’s wages (6:7). So here we have a valuable commodity that could have been used to feed the poor. But was it being wasted or was it an unambiguous love-offering? One commentator says this. ‘Love never calculates; love never thinks how little it can decently give; love’s one desire is to give to the uttermost limits’ (W. Barclay). The love of the woman for Jesus. The costly self-giving love of Jesus expressed on the cross for you and for me. We often sing of the wonder of God’s love for us – we say that we love Jesus, but how do we show it? How it evident in our lives? How do we express it?
Some of those present were not backward in coming forward. The disciples expressed their disapproval. John tells us that Judas was particularly indignant (12:4-6). Not just concerned over wasting the perfume that could have been sold to feed the poor, but being their dishonest treasurer one who could have helped himself to the profits. The gimlet eyes of the critics were upon Jesus, and he in turn looked at them. He knew their hearts. He knew their thoughts. He knew of their half-hearted profession of faith. And what does Jesus say? ‘Don’t get worked up about this woman. She has done a beautiful thing.’ Beautifully moving. Beautifully expressing her love and devotion. No one else bothered. No one else cared. No one but this woman.
No one else had anointed him. And did you notice what Jesus said? She has prepared me for burial (v.12). Normally a body was anointed after death and before burial, and in any case crucified criminals were not anointed. Think back for a moment to the Christmas narrative. Remember the gifts given to the child and his parents. One of the gifts presented by the men from the east was myrrh – symbolic of joy and festivity, symbolic of death and burial. The gift and the anointing were unspoken Messianic moments. Pointers to the cross and to the burial. Soon Mary’s heart would be pierced with a sword (Lk 2:35). One of Holman Hunt’s famous religious pictures is of the boy Jesus in the carpenter’s workshop. In his hands are two pieces of wood that cast the shadow of a cross on the wall. Unspoken pointers to his death. A sign of what was to happen to him.
The name of the woman is unknown but 2,000 years later her story is still being told. Yes, there were key players in the drama – Peter, James and John and ... Judas ... but here is an unnamed, unknown woman, a follower of our Lord who demonstrated her love for her Lord. She spoke no words – her action was sufficient. Sometimes I think that we are far too anxious to speak, to give out testimony at the drop of a hat, to cajole and almost to bully people into the kingdom. But here no words are spoken. Love is more eloquent than mere words. Love and devotion expressed her faith and commitment, her trust and her obedience. What a beautiful thing she did!
And in this Holy Week what beautiful thing could you do to express your faith and your devotion to Christ? What simple act of love or service to someone who needs to know the love, and the touch of Christ? Are you willing to go that extra mile? Are you prepared to wash the feet of a stranger? Are you prepared for quiet humble service rather than speech-making?
We may not know a leper or a prostitute, but how much are you and I prepared to engage with the lowest of the low, the despised and the rejected, the inadequate and the unwashed? It’s easy for us to speak to someone from a similar social background or education. But what about the bag-lady, the asylum seeker, the vagrant and the scrounger? Those who are on the edge of society? How will we begin to connect with the West End of Newcastle unless high on the agenda is genuine love and practical service? Love is more eloquent than mere words.
When we lived in a vicarage tramps and vagrants used to come to the door and we gave them a cup of tea and a sandwich. Most of them were liars. A few were probably genuine. But after they had gone I often reflected that there but for the grace of God go I. And if God has done so much for us, and been so generous to us, how can we refuse to show our love and devotion in ways that speak louder than words? Words cost little: love demands all.
2 A terrible thing (vv.1-5, 14-16)
Jesus sets the scene for us. ‘After two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified’ (v.2). Already in his ministry Jesus had spoken of his trial, death, burial and resurrection. Already the words of OT prophecy had been fulfilled in terms of his coming, and now they were being fulfilled in terms of his death and resurrection.
Jesus referred to himself as the ‘Son of Man’, that enigmatic, mysterious way of speaking about himself. He who was the Son of Man, was also the Anointed One (the Messiah) who soon as the crucified one would bear on the cross the guilt and the sin and the shame of the world – and that includes you and me. He died for you. He died for me. He took our place.
While the ministry of Jesus might have been welcomed by the majority of those living in Galilee (in the north); now in Judea (in the south) the minority were certainly against him. The religious parties of the day – whether they were Pharisees or Sadducees or Essenes had different expectations. They had an alternative programme, a system of belief and behaviour that was at variance with this kingdom-proclaiming Galilean. They looked instead for a deliverer, one who would free them from Roman rule. Thirty years later the Jewish uprising brought to an end their identity as a nation when Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70.
‘After two days the Passover is coming’. For 1,500 years the Passover was a visual reminder of the promised freedom from Egyptian slavery and now the single sacrifice of Jesus would bring freedom from sin and death. For the Jews the Passover meal looked back to Egypt; for us Holy Communion points us back to Calvary and forward to Jesus’ return.
Religious people and official religion have always found it difficult to cope with Jesus. He is a constant irritant to them. He makes them uneasy. He is an intrusion. He challenges and confronts their pride and self-centredness. And yet - he warms cold hearts and melts stubborn wills. He shows to us the meaning of costly, self-giving love and in his blood a sufficient covering for sin.
Isaac Watts put it like this:
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts 1674-1748
The Passover was a busy time in Jerusalem. The city was crowded with sheep and people. There were thousands of pilgrims and a quarter of a million sheep to be slaughtered. The Jews were a volatile people. The Romans feared civil unrest. The religious authorities wanted Jesus out of the way: but they had to be careful. If his very presence might disturb the peace – then his arrest would create a riot. The Romans imposed law and order upon subject peoples by brutal force and if things got out of control (their control) then they lost face.
And not only did the religious leaders of the day oppose Jesus, but also alongside them was Judas. But what do you make of him? One of the twelve, called and chosen, sent out to preach kingdom values. But if he was a Zealot (as some think) he had another agenda to overthrow the Romans by force and to restore to his nation the dignity it had lost. And alongside of this he fell in love with money and stole from the common purse. For him money was more attractive than love. So Judas went to the religious authorities and offered to betray Jesus to them. Again money was involved. He had already objected to the loss of income by the waste of the perfume, and now he was prepared to be paid to deliver Jesus over to the religious authorities. And the price? Thirty pieces of silver. Not much at the time. It was the price of a slave. For just thirty pieces of silver he betrayed the Son of Man and looked for an opportunity to betray him to the religious authorities. But what was going through his mind? He may well have been bitterly disappointed and disillusioned. He so much wanted a political deliverer who rode on a horse and brandished a sword not a preacher of peace and love and forgiveness riding on a donkey.
And alongside the human betrayer, we read that ‘Satan entered into Judas’ (Lk 22:3) and we learn too that the divine will was being worked out. As Peter put it in his first sermon: ‘This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men’ (Acts 2:23). So here we have the combination of the human betrayer, the Satanic presence and the divine will all being instrumental in bringing about the death of Jesus.
I wonder, what the price is for us to deny our Lord? Whether that is at work or at home or among our friends? Especially when we are away from the church bubble, dressed in our Sunday best, safe and cosseted among our Christian friends? But on Monday, when we are in a minority of one, what then? How then do we express our love and care and compassion?
Is religion more important to you than Jesus? To live as a Christian believer in a pagan society is hard. To live as a follower of Jesus isn’t easy, but to follow the crowd, to compromise and deny him is much easier. They way of the cross is hard, and to carry the cross daily is demanding. But for us discipleship includes carrying a cross. It cannot be evaded. Is religion more important to you than Jesus?
Tonight, the title of the sermon has been ‘Jesus is loved and hated’ by a woman who did a beautiful thing and a man who did a terrible thing. But what about you? What is your response to Christ going to be during this Holy Week? How is your love going to be expressed and tested?