April 6th, 2014

There is not in the Gospels a more stark contrast of characters than Judas and Mary.

Matthew 26:1-16

April 6, 2014

The Plot

Two weeks ago in our study of Matthew’s Gospel, we left Jesus on the temple mount on Tuesday of what we call Holy Week.  It was Passover week for Jesus and Jerusalem.  The first century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that a first century Roman governor once asked the high priests to count how many lambs were sacrificed in the temple at Passover.  The count was 256,500.  Josephus says it was unlawful for someone to eat Passover alone; there had to be a minimum of ten participants at the meal.  Josephus calculates there were 2,750,000 people in Jerusalem for Passover.[1]

Even if this was an exaggeration or miscalculation, undoubtedly hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims and their families swelled the population of the city and crowded the 35-acre stone platform Herod had built for the second temple.  On Tuesday of that week, Jesus avoided the traps set for him by legal experts and religious debaters, only further charming the crowd the religious leaders tried to force him to alienate and divide.  Then in private Jesus answered his disciples’ questions about the end of the age with the fifth of five extended teachings Matthew records.

As chapter 26 opens, Jesus has finished this final discourse (verse 1), but remains in the private company of his closest followers.  He reminds them it is Passover week (2), and repeats what he has told them many times: he is to be crucified.[2]  A dark storm cloud hangs over their small band.  Everyone is wondering how he will react.  Peter is mentally making plans to prevent Jesus’ death.  Judas is mulling over plans of his own.

Meanwhile, Matthew tells us that the religious leaders are meeting informally to plot Jesus’ arrest and death (3-4).  Matthew identifies the high priest by name.  We know that Caiaphas served in this position from AD 18-36, longer than any other high priest of his era.  Because stability in this position required appointment and approval by Rome, we infer that Caiaphas was politically savvy. He knew that the Romans valued peace and order above all, and that if he and the religious leaders were to retain any measure of autonomy and power, he would need to be sure there was no public arrest in the way Jesus was handled.  Given Jesus’ celebrity status from Sunday’s ticker-palms parade on Sunday and his clever responses to the religious leaders on Tuesday, this was going to be tricky.  They would need to do their work on the sly.  Further, it would be better if they waited until after the Passover crowd went home (5).

The plot quickens, however, in verses 14-16.  For the moment, I’m going to pass over verses 6-13 because the story picks up in verse 14.  If Matthew had not inserted the story of the woman anointing Jesus, we would never have missed it.

Who knows how Caiaphas’ plan might have unfolded had it not been for what seemed to him a stroke of pure luck?  One of Jesus’ own inner circle of Twelve comes looking for the chief priests.  He offers to hand Jesus over out of the public eye.  “What are you willing to give me?” he asks.  They pay him thirty pieces of silver.  It’s no small sum, about a half-year’s wage for a common laborer, but it was the price the law set to compensate if your bull gored another man’s slave (Exodus 21:32).  To Judas, Jesus was worth as much as a disabled slave.  Judas waits for his opportunity (16).

Now let’s look at that story Matthew inserts into the middle of the narrative. Into the high drama of a plot to kill Jesus by the most powerful men in the religious hierarchy, we have a sweet but seemingly inconsequential tale of a woman who interrupts a dinner party by pouring perfume on Jesus.

The other Gospel writers tell this story or a similar one differently, but for the moment, let’s stick to what Matthew says.  He tells us a little about the setting.  Jesus and his disciples are eating a meal at the home of a man Matthew calls Simon the Leper (6).  He had likely been healed of leprosy (maybe one of the many Jesus himself had healed), but the nickname is hard to shake. Simon lives in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem as the crow flies.   But you have to go down into the Kidron Valley, then up over the Mount of Olives, then back down the other side to get to Bethany.

So there’s this dinner party, and Matthew says “a woman” shows up (7).  He does not tell us her name.  For Matthew, the emphasis is not on who she is but what she does.  She brings with her a precious personal treasure, perhaps even a family heirloom.  Matthew calls is “an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume.”  Alabaster is a mineral, usually white, that can be carved with a knife.  It was easy for ancient people to engrave or shape alabaster.  The woman’s alabaster jar was filled with “very expensive perfume.”  Imagine if you owned a bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild wine, considered one of the best vintages of the 20th century.  A large bottle once sold for over $300,000.  What would cost you to open that bottle?

We learn in verse 12 that the perfume in this woman’s bottle was the type that was used for burial (12).  In other words, don’t think of dabbing a little of this perfume on your neck to go out on the town.  The jar would have been sealed in such a way that the only way to extract its contents would be to break it and use it all at once.  This fragrance was powerful enough to mask the smell of a decaying human corpse.  You wouldn’t use it on just anyone, however.  Only once every generation or two would there would be a death of greater consequence than any other, and out of the depth of your grief and a passion for the one who died, you would retrieve this jar and pour it over someone as you laid them in the tomb.

So now you understand why there is indignation when the woman cracks her alabaster jar and pours its contents on Jesus’ head as he is eating dinner.  The disciples consider this a “waste.”  No one would have objected if Jesus had already died.  If she didn’t want to save such a treasure for someone’s burial, she could have sold it and donated the money for the cause.  Imagine how much good the money would do for one of Jesus’ own passionate priorities – caring for the poor.  Jesus himself had just taught his disciples in the previous chapter that the best way to look after him is to clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the homeless (25:35-37).  This is an act of insanity, not devotion.  You can imagine how the woman feels when she has taken her most precious possession and extravagantly given it to Jesus, but receives not approval but scorn in the faces and murmurings of those around her.

This isn’t the first time Jesus responded to what someone else thought or muttered under his breath.  “Aware” of (literally “knowing”) what they are saying (10), Jesus defends the woman.   and chides the disciples for “bothering” her (10).  The word means to “trouble.”  Why are you causing her fatigue, wearying her with your criticism?

What she has done, Jesus says, is “beautiful.”  It’s the simple word “good” – noble, honorable.  He goes on to say, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (11).  Don’t for a minute think Jesus is undervaluing ministry to the poor.  What he’s saying is that we have a constant opportunity and obligation to the poor.  But she has seized a unique moment, a one-of-a-kind opportunity to honor Jesus.  In other words, most of the time, caring for the poor is exactly what you should prioritize with your money.

More specifically, Jesus says, she is preparing my body for burial (12), so this is an appropriate use of her perfume.  That statement must have shocked them.  Jesus prophesies that what this woman did would always be part of the Gospel story (13).

Here we are, still talking about her two thousand years later.  And still talking about Judas as well.  There is not in the Gospels a more stark contrast between two characters side by side than there is between Judas and this woman.  That is Matthew’s point: compare the villainous man and the unforgettable woman.

The Villainous Man

We loathe Judas but the story needs him.  We question how responsible he is for his actions.  Sometimes we even debate whether history has been too unkind to him.

He’s called Judas Iscariot, but no one knows exactly why.  The best explanations for “Iscariot” are “liar” and “dagger bearer.”  If it means “liar,” it is just another way of making sure we hiss every time we hear his name.  If it means “dagger bearer,” we should probably assume that along the way he at least thought he had kindred spirits among the disciples: Simon the Zealot, James and John the sons of thunder, and Peter, who brought a sword to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Some of Jesus’ disciples were ready to participate impulsively in anything from martyrdom to terrorism to help the cause of the one they had followed and embraced.

John’s Gospel tells the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with a couple of different twists.  John says it was Judas who objected to the lavish display of love.  Then John adds a commentary: “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”  For John, Judas’ betrayal is still personal decades later.

Permit me for a moment to be a little kinder.  Judas was confused, desperate, and disillusioned.  He went from the passionate, active rage of conspiracy to the depth of suicidal depression.  His was a tortured soul, twisted by the devil himself.

People often ask what motivated Judas to do what he did?  Was it greed?  That would fit John’s description of him as a thief.  Was it power?  Hate?  Hope? Despair?  Faith?  (One of the theories of Judas that is attractive to me is that he really believed Jesus was the Messiah and wanted to force his hand.)  Probably all of that was tangled inside Judas’ mind and heart, and even he couldn’t unravel it.

On Maundy Thursday, the choir will sing a song written by Peter Corneliussen called “Judas.”  Peter’s “Judas” sings,

I was looking for a warrior. A mighty king to lead the way.

My sword was ready for agitation; the smell of sweat, the sight of blood.

I believed he was the Savior; Who with His sword would lead the way;

The true Messiah that we have longed for to set this Roman yoke ablaze.

Now I know that He’s misguided; one more prophet led astray.

I must find a way to stop Him now, or it will be too late.


We will never know for sure, I suppose.   I don’t know that we’ll ever resolve an ongoing debate about whether Judas was really responsible for his actions if what he did served God’s overall plan.  What I think Matthew wants us to see and feel is that Judas is a villain like no other.  Having heard all of Jesus’ teachings and having witnessed he did, Judas betrayed the Son of God into the hands of those who crucified him.

The Unforgettable Woman

Let’s turn now to the woman, because John tells us something else that, to me anyway, adds significantly to the story.  John tells us who this woman was.  She was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.  John never mentions Simon the Leper, and if you only had John’s gospel you might think this dinner happened at the home of Mary and Martha – also in Bethany.  John doesn’t say that – only that Martha was helping to serve at the dinner, and Lazarus was among the guests.

We have met this Mary at least two other times in the Gospels. The first time we meet Mary is when Jesus stops with the disciples for dinner.  The story is told in Luke 10:38-42, and it’s a familiar story for most of you.

Lazarus the brother doesn’t appear in Luke’s account of the dinner party.  All we know is that when Jesus and the boys showed up for dinner, Martha takes charge of meal preparation.  Mary hangs out with the boys, creeping up close to sit as his feet.  She is captivated by what Jesus is saying, listening intently and absorbing every word.

In the kitchen, Martha is livid.  She complains to Jesus in front of everyone that Mary has abandoned her to do all the work.  In her mind, Jesus is going to say, “Mary, she really does need some help.”  But instead Jesus tells Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things.  Focus instead on the one thing that matters most.”

The second time we meet Mary is when her brother Lazarus dies in John 11.  Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus showed up and raised him from the dead.  Isn’t it interesting that Mary didn’t break her alabaster jar over Lazarus’ body!

Martha again takes the lead.  When Jesus shows up at their home – too late, from the sisters’ point of view – Martha goes out to meet him. Mary stays inside – too grief-stricken to face Jesus. But she’s also more popular than Mary, and she’s the one who’s identified as having friends coming to comfort her (31, 45).  Again, the picture emerges of a fun-loving sister who lives by impulse, has lots of friends, and loves attention.  But she’s also passionate about what matters most to her, and it’s Jesus.

She stays inside with her friends when Jesus shows up, so it’s to Martha that Jesus says those immortal words, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (25).  Jesus asks for Mary, and when she emerges it is her tears which well up in him his own deep emotion, leading to that shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” (35).

This Mary is the unforgettable woman in Matthew 26.  She’s loyal, passionate, lives in the moment.  She’s people-oriented, not task-oriented.  She feels deeply, and cannot ignore her emotions even if someone else’s sense of duty calls. Six days before Jesus’ death, she takes her most prized material possession, and empties that bottle on Jesus.  It’s an impulsive, passionate act of devotion.

Embrace the message

So what do we take home from this contrast of characters?  Judas’ “How much will you pay me?” is side by side with Mary’s “How much can I give you?”  Are there some messages we need to grasp?

First, embrace your inner female.  All over Jesus’ story, there is a clear contrast between the men and the women.  Whether it’s their patriarchal society or our “Wild at Heart” Christian subculture, we too often either devalue or ignore women.  The Gospels, by contrast, demonstrate repeatedly that a group of women who are loyal, intuitive, and committed way outpace the men in their understanding of Jesus.  Mary hears what the others don’t hear.  She sees what they don’t see.  She does what they don’t do.  She believes what they don’t believe – that he will die.

Women get this story of Jesus’ anointing more than men do.  The men – from Judas to Peter – heard Jesus say repeatedly that he was going to die and plotted to change the ending of the story.  Mary listens intently, feels deeply, and believes fully.  If Jesus says he’s going to die, she’s not going to try to “fix this.”

Second, embrace the mystery.  Mary doesn’t anoint Jesus because she understands the whole plan.  I do think she has heard him not only predict his death but his resurrection.  Remember, she is Lazarus’ sister, so she believes he can.  She doesn’t know how all this is going to play out, but she trusts Jesus.

There are certainly parts of Jesus’ story nobody still gets, including this whole question of God’s sovereignty vs. human responsibility.  I do think it’s interesting that we wonder aloud whether Judas and Caiaphas were really responsible for their side of the story, but we don’t ask the same question about Mary.  We are all responsible, but God is fully sovereign.  That’s the mystery.

Third, embrace death.  What Mary did, perhaps because of her experience with Lazarus, was to believe that even though Jesus had to die, it wouldn’t be the end of the story.  There are so many deaths in life that we try to avoid – sometimes literally the death of a loved one or our own death.  But there’s also the death of a friendship, a job, a home, an opportunity, a dream.  Maybe you are dealing now with the possibility – or maybe the reality – of a loss – that makes you wonder how will ever be able to go on.

Mary doesn’t understand why Jesus had to die, but she embraces grief and loss and death as essential to the story because Jesus said it was.  Sometimes in life when the loss we fear the most stares us down, and we finally yield to its reality, we are ready for what God has planned next.

Finally, embrace the cross.  It’s not just any death that Mary embraces.  It is the death of Jesus, the significance of which was still a mystery to her, but not to us.  We know Jesus’ death as the meaning of his life, as the payment for our sins, as the Gospel.

John R. W. Stott says, “There is no greater cleavage between faith and unbelief than in their respective attitudes to the cross.  Where faith sees glory, unbelief sees only disgrace.”[3]

I have been meeting this week with some of the many people who were in the last Pastor’s Class, listening to their stories of grace.  Nick and Lydia Carlino moved here from California.  Nick told me yesterday he had been raised in a Catholic home, and then converted for a while to the Mormon Church.  Later he and Lydia attended a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, where they participated in a small group with the pastor and his wife.

This C&MA pastor once said to him, “You just don’t get Jesus, do you?”  Nick grew up around religion, even religion that talked about Jesus, but not a religion that freed Nick from himself.  It was a religion that kept him working for his salvation, that burdened him with guilt and required him to keep trying harder.

When Nick “got Jesus,” everything changed.  When he embraced the cross that freed him from himself, grace flooded his life and Christ became a relationship, not a ritual and not a religion.  When in the cross we see glory, we get Jesus.  Amen.

[1] William Barclay, Matthew (Vol. 2), 383.

[2] Matthew 16:21; 17:9; 20:17-19 are direct predictions, but see also 16:24ff.; 20:22; 21:38-39.

[3] The Cross of Christ, 40.

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