PART OF THE STORY

“Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her”.

Mk 14:9 NIV

She did something beautiful for Jesus. Then Jesus said something beautiful for her, recognizing the significance of her action. Her deed would not just finish there in Bethany. There was a big story to tell to all the world, the story of Christ’s life, his teachings, actions, life, death and resurrection. It was the story of the greatest life ever lived and the mightiest miracle God ever enacted. But it was not exclusively about Jesus. It included them, the disciples, the human companions and learners. They were God’s people and Jesus, wherever he goes, always has a group of people. They are part of the story for they are inseparably linked to him. So are all the others Jesus touched – the lepers, Jairus’ daughter, the woman who touched him in the crowd, blind Barti- maeus, the man called “Legion”, and the woman whose precious gift was a gesture of unparalleled love and devotion. Wherever Jesus was preached there were the human accomplices of the gospel, and those yet to become part of the story – Paul, Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Augustine, the Philippian jailer and countless thousands whose love for Jesus has shone the light of the gospel in a dark and evil world. All are part of the gospel.

And today those who teach children the stories of Jesus, those who take the story to foreign lands, those who get martyred by enemies of the faith, those who go into prisons to bring the concern and love of God, and all who talk to friends about Jesus – all of them are part of the greatest story ever told. Are you?

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, show me the part I can play in the great gospel story.

SYMBOLISM

“She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial”.

Mk 14:8 NIV

Every Sunday in most churches a symbolic act takes place. And it happens even in those churches that don’t go in for much symbolism. It is when the collection plate is taken round and people place their offerings in it. It is then taken to the front and, usually, the minister or preacher leading the service offers a prayer of dedication and places the plate on the altar, table or whatever. It goes right back to Genesis chapter 4, verses 3 and 4 where the sons of Adam and Eve, called Cain and Abel each brought offerings from the fruit of their farming and gave them to God. That offering symbolises love for God, gratitude for all his blessings, and an acknowledgement that the worshippers belong to God.

Religion is full of symbolism. Some of it is very elaborate, some is very simple. And the death of an animal in the ancient systems of sacrifice was very symbolic. The worshipper brought the animal and gave it to God in penitence for his sins, in acknowledgement that he sought renewal of fellowship with God, and that he was thereby “paying the price” for his sins, mistakes and forgetfulness of God. Jesus knew he was going to die. The opposition was mounting, the Passover was all about the sacrifices the people would pay. And he was “the lamb of God”. “It was the custom in the East, first to bathe, then to anoint the bodies of the dead. After that the flask in which the perfume had been brought was broken and placed in the tomb” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, p342). Jesus saw the woman’s action as symbolically preparing him for his burial.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to appreciate the symbolism in my faith.

A BEAUTIFUL THING

“’Leave her alone’, said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me’”.

Mk 14:6 NIV

Some years ago, a man by the name of Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a book entitled “Something Beautiful for God”. It was the story of the life and work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and her selfless caring amongst the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. He said, “For me, Mother Teresa of Calcutta embodies Christian love in action”.

“Jesus said that it was a beautiful thing that the woman had done. In Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos which describes a thing which is morally good. And there is kalos which describes a thing that is not only good but lovely, or beautiful. A thing might be agathos, and yet be hard, stern, aus- tere, unattractive. But a thing which is kalos is winsome, lovely and beautiful with a certain bloom of charm upon it. Struthers of Greenock used to say that it would do the church more good than anything else if Christians would sometimes ‘do a bonnie thing’. That is exactly what kalos means, and that is exactly what this woman did. Love does not only do good things. Love does beautiful things” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, p342).

It is all too easy, and common, for the church to become strict, stern and censorious. Some people accuse it of being a killjoy institution pronouncing this enjoyable pastime and that relatively harmless exercise, as “sinful”. So many Christians lose sight of things that are beautiful as well as good. But the whole of Mother Teresa’s life and ministry among the slums of Calcutta and elsewhere were one great deed of beauty for God.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let me be awake to where I can do beautiful things for you.

JUST WHO ARE YOU FOR?

“They rebuked her harshly”.

Mk 14:5 NIV

The woman who spent a small fortune on buying an expensive perfume with which to anoint Jesus set off a curious debate. Should she have done it? Was she trying to ingratiate herself with Jesus? Did she have no concern for the poor? Wasn’t she stupid wasting all this money to do a completely unnecessary exercise? Or were those who complained just jealous that she had wormed her way into Jesus’ good books? Clearly these people were very confused. She had done a good deed which had cost her dearly at a time (of the Passover) when thousands of people were gathering and there was excitement and tension everywhere. But it was unusual, unprecedented, distinctive and almost sensational. And they waded in.

What she did harmed nobody. It was merely an act of kindness and love that went much further than any comparable deed. It just focussed attention on Jesus. Most probably those who complained were amongst the enemies of Jesus. But what she did was not contrary to the Jewish law. So why did they “rebuke her harshly?” Probably one element in their protest was the embarrassment they felt that their own generosity had been made to look feeble by comparison. Excessive generosity often causes a stir. It can look like a “publicity stunt” selfishly contrived to draw attention to the big-heartedness of the donor.

The quibbling poses a challenge to Christian disciples. It asks us to what length we are prepared to go in our love for Jesus. It also challenges us about what we are doing practically to help the poor – not just those in our town or city, but on a global basis in terms of trade and economics.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make more people aware of the needs of the poor.

CONCERN FOR THE POOR

“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor’”.

Mk 14:4, 5 NIV

We know now that “God is on the side of the poor”. With instant communication possible on a global scale, television reporters show us daily scenes of poor people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And the pathetic efforts of migrants to clamber aboard boats in North Africa that are bound for Europe brings home the desperate plight of millions of the worlds poor. The one ray of hope is that in some places the number of poor people is slowly declining.

Whether the people complaining about the woman’s extravagance were really concerned for the poor or not may be questioned. We have to remember that Jesus was not running a social welfare agency. He was bringing God to people and people to God. At the same time he was opening people’s eyes to the values of the Kingdom of God which included concern for the poor. But the woman’s action was pointing to the imminent death of Jesus as well as being an incredible instance of love and devotion. Jesus was saying, “There is a legitimate place for love, sheer, outgoing, self-forgetting love”. Such actions of love can help people. They can inspire those receiving love to become loving themselves. They can evoke gratitude that can grow into all kinds of dedication, service and kindness. Love can change people. It can make them feel unworthy and move them to love other people. It can make people grow spiritually and bring them to maturity. It can draw them to God.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, give me a concern for the modern poor.

THE PRODIGALITY OF LOVE

“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume?’”

Mk 14:4 NIV

It is sometimes said, “Love has reasons reason knows not of”. That of course usually refers to romantic love. But it is true of any kind of love. Parents understand what it means – they often do irrational things for their children.

The father of the prodigal son, who might have felt that the son had “skinned” him, didn’t hold it against the boy. He has been referred to as “The Waiting Father” who looked out for the boy and saw him “whilst he was yet a great way off”. Then he threw a party to celebrate the boy’s return. That was overflowing love, joy and happiness. If the son was prodigal in his waste of the father’s resources the father expressed the prodigality and irrationality of a father’s love. And we understand that to be a picture of God’s love.

Not all saw the woman’s action as an example of great, unthinking and unstinting love. Instead of celebrating her sacrificial love they complained about the waste. She had not only done something out of love. She had “gone the extra mile” – or was it the extra two, three or four miles? Loving, as God wants us to love, is more than just doing an odd kindness here and there. It is going on and on and on loving.

So much of the gospel story is about God loving us so much that he gave his only son. But where people love, and love massively and continuously, there the gospel becomes love passed on. Down the centuries people have loved because they know that God first loved them. Love, prodigiously, continuously and sacrificially.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, help me to love with your self-sacrificial love.

ALL OR NOTHING

“She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head”.

Mk 14:3 NIV

In understanding the incident where the unknown woman poured the nard on the head of Jesus, we need to bear in mind how peo- ple “sat” at table. They didn’t. Not in Palestine. They reclined on low couches resting on the left elbow and used the right hand to take their food. So a person coming up to Jesus reclining in this way would stand well above him. Usually a host poured a few drops of perfume on a guest. This woman broke the jar and poured it all on Jesus .

“There was a custom in the East that if a glass was used by a distinguished guest or stranger, after he had used it, it was broken so that it would never again be touched by the hand of any lesser person. Maybe there was something of that in the woman’s mind. But there was something that was not in her mind, but which we see now. Jesus saw it.

It was the custom in the East, first to bathe, then to anoint the bodies of the dead. After the body had been anointed, the flask in which the perfume had been contained was broken and the fragments were laid with the dead body in the tomb. Although she did not mean it so, that was the very thing that that woman was doing” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, p342).

So she gave this expensive gift in its entirety to Jesus. She did not hold back in any respect. With her it was all or nothing. Jesus, when he calls us to follow him, calls for our all. Do not hold back or be half-hearted for Jesus.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, I give you my all, my life, my love, everything.

GOING FLAT OUT

“A woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard”.

Mk 14:3 NIV

Alabaster is a kind of soft stone, almost transparent, that is found in Egypt. It is often used to make ornaments and ornamental containers.

Nard, the perfume the woman brought, “was a very precious ointment made from a rare plant that came from far-off India” (W. Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. P341). It was not just expensive. Mark says it was “very expensive”.

There are perfumes and perfumes. Some are cheap but smell pleasant when first applied. But cheap perfumes usually lose their fragrance within a few minutes of being applied. Expensive perfumes only require a few drops to stimulate the sense of smell and usually last for hours. The smell of some lasts beyond the day of application.

This woman wasn’t going for the cheap sort that delude you into thinking they are something. She wanted the best. And the alabaster jar wasn’t the cheapest either.

Depending on our financial state, we often have to make choices when we are making or giving presents. And sometimes, the regard in which we hold the receiver will influence the price we are prepared to pay. When we know the recipient is a discerning person, a person with a high regard for his or her own personal appearance and taste in anything, we will be inclined to go a bit further when we “splash out”.

The expense to which the woman went indicates that she had a high regard for Jesus. She also had a deep love and wanted to show this by the length to which she was prepared to go in buying this perfume.

When you are giving to Jesus or doing something for him, go “flat out”.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, let me not hold back in expressing my love to you.

A MATTER OF EXPENSE

“A woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard”.

Mk 14:3 NIV

We can’t live without money. It is as essential as air, food and water. We need it for everything – food, clothing, shelter, transport, taxes and entertainment. And we often make an assessment of other people based on what we perceive is the amount of money they have. We tend to admire those who have plenty. And we wonder why those who haven’t got plenty, haven’t. Then when we find somebody who is obviously poor but who does something very generous, we acknowledge that there is something very beautiful there. We may even say, “She struggles, but she has a heart of gold”. That description changes everything. It is probably one of the most prized characteristics with which anyone can be credited.

Money can make ogres or angels out of us. It can wrap its tentacles around our hearts and make us selfish, miserly, and greedy. It can make us deeply unhappy if we let it. Some people allow money to become their god. They think about little else. Then some waste what they get. A famous footballer in England who was known to be very highly paid was asked after his retirement what he had done with all the money he had made. He said, “Well. I spent it on cars, and booze and birds (girl-friends). And the rest I suppose I just wasted”.

But some regard it as a gift, an opportunity, a way to do good to others. When we have a heart of love, we can perform wonders, miracles even, because then the price of anything becomes a secondary consideration.

What does money mean to you?

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, make me the master of my money.

A WOMAN CAME

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume”.

Mk 14:3 NIV

Mark, the writer of the gospel which bears his name, does not tell us what her name was. She was just a woman. Mark’s gospel is based on Peter’s memoirs. Although Mark’s gospel gives us many eye-witness accounts with fascinating details, he doesn’t do so here. Possibly Jesus and his disciples were strangers here and Peter just didn’t know the name of the woman. So she remains just an unknown woman.

Women play an interesting part in the gospel story. Mary has the best part of a chapter in Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus dedicated to her (Luke 1:26-56). It was a woman who edged up to Jesus through the crowd and touched the hem of his garment – a touch which changed her life (Mk 5:25-34). A Syrophoenician woman pestered Jesus until he healed her daughter (Mk 7:24-30). It was a poor woman at the Temple whom Jesus saw casting her mites into the treasury. She gave Jesus some valuable lessons in giving (Mk 12: 41-44). At the crucifixion Mark records the names of some women who were standing by, watching. Then he says, “Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there” (Mk 15:40-41). Some were there watching when Jesus was buried. And they were the first there when he rose again (Mk 16:1, 2).

It was men who took the gospel to the far corners of the earth. It may well be, though, that the women of the gospel story supplied details and recollections which helped the gospel writers to compile the incidents which are the core of the gospel message.

PRAYER THOUGHT

Lord, thank you for the women who supported Jesus.