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In the village of Bethany, two days before the Passover, there is a man named Judas, part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples. There is also a woman, who is not valued as highly in that culture simply because she is not a man like Judas. She isn’t an insider like Judas is. Mark doesn’t even tell us her name.
The man, Judas, is a clever, calculating, ambitious individual who is looking for a way to earn money. He’s an entrepreneur, of sorts. The woman is impulsive, irrational, and wasteful. She’s about to lose a lot of money and look like an idiot in the process.
Judas is about to make a lot of people very happy; he’s going to win the approval of a lot of prestigious men in high society. The woman is found in the house of a former leper, where she’s going to make a lot of people furious at her.
And while the woman anoints Jesus for burial, Judas digs his own grave. Judas’ actions will lead to eternal shame and his premature end, while the woman’s actions will lead to an eternal legacy. Why? Because Judas hates Jesus and is looking for a way to betray him, but the woman loves Jesus and remains fiercely loyal to him.
This is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” As the author of this account of Jesus’ life, Mark will often begin by telling Story A, then interrupt it with Story B, then return to finish Story A. He does this because without Story B, you won’t understand the meaning of Story A the way that Mark wants you to understand it.
Story A is a story of conspiracy and betrayal. The “chief priests and scribes”—the political, social, and religious leaders of the Jews—want to arrest and kill Jesus. The problem is that Jesus is wildly popular, especially among his Galilean countrymen who have arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. These leaders don’t want to incite the crowds into a riot, because they’re afraid of how the occupying Roman government will respond.
They catch their break when one of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples approaches them. Judas Iscariot, on his own initiative, offers to turn Jesus over to them. He knows where Jesus will be when the crowds aren’t around. The Jewish leaders are thrilled and promise to pay Judas for betraying his rabbi to them.
Interrupting this sinister turn of events is a beautiful story of devotion. Jesus is staying at the home of a former leper named Simon. Simon lives in a small village outside of Jerusalem named Bethany. As Jesus and his disciples are eating dinner, a woman enters the room—a major faux pas according to local custom! She hurries over to Jesus, carrying an expensive alabaster flask. She shatters the flask and pours its entire contents on Jesus’ head. The whole room is filled with the smell of nard, an insanely expensive perfume from India.
I’m sure that this would rank among the top five awkward moments in Jesus’ ministry. The dinner guests are in shock. As they realize what this woman has done, they begin to grow angry. “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” they begin to ask themselves. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor!” A denarius was about how much money a Jewish laborer would have earned in for a day’s work. In other words, this jar of perfume was worth a year’s salary for the average Jewish man! It was probably a family heirloom—how else could this woman possess an object of such value?
And what a waste! Think of all the good things that could have been done with that money! It could have fed a colony of homeless and starving people. And yet this woman simply dumps it all out and even breaks the jar! What a foolish, impulsive thing to do!
They dinner guests lash out at the woman. They let her know what a stupid and wasteful thing she has done. And apparently the poor woman is reduced to tears, because Jesus jumps to her defense: “Leave her alone! Why do you trouble her?”
Here’s where the values of God’s kingdom and the values of the world are clashing with one another. “She has done a beautiful thing,” Jesus tells his disciples. “She has done what she could.” It is a good thing to be generous to the poor, but it is a better thing to lavish honour upon Jesus, because he won’t be with them for long. In fact, he tells them, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” He is going to be killed as a criminal, and she is sparing him the shame of being buried as a criminal, in an unceremonial manner. And Jesus stuns his disciples by telling them, “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.”
This little speech was the final straw as far as Judas was concerned. That very night, he promises to betray Jesus to his enemies.
As evil as Judas’ behavior is, and as wonderful as the woman’s actions are, the story isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus. If Jesus is simply another man, a great teacher or a prophet, then the woman’s actions are stupid and wasteful, and he is a narcissist for praising her. That’s the way Judas sees it, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is God’s anointed King. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is worthy of the highest honour.
Make no mistake, Jesus deserves much more than an alabaster flask filled with perfume. He deserves our entire affection and allegiance. This woman gave it to him, and he praised her for it. In turn, he gave his whole life for her and for all who believe in him as Savior and Lord. He came not to receive honour but to be betrayed. That is why he is worthy of the highest honour we can give him.
Part 2 of Your Work Is Valuable in God’s Eyes is coming later today. Until then, take a look at Justin’s Concise Biblical Theology of Work as well as a few resources which will help you learn more!
Sometimes people refer to God in a flippant way. He’s “the man upstairs.” Or (worst-case scenario) “Jesus is my homeboy.” Nearly everyone who is deeply religious bristles at such casual treatment of the one “who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).
Unfortunately, it’s also possible to devote yourself to a small, handcrafted god who is not the God you think you’re worshiping. You may be taking the one true God too lightly.
Jesus has drawn the attention of the religious leaders in Jerusalem, the Sanhedrin. His teaching is a threat to their political power structure. So they’ve sent delegations to him to trap him in his words. Every time they do this, Jesus evades the trap and demonstrates that he is superior to his opponents.
This particular delegation from the Sanhedrin is composed of the priestly, upper-class Sadducees. They are a group that is skeptical of most of the Old Testament; they only accept the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as scripture. As a result, they deny many doctrines which the Pharisees, most Jews, and Jesus himself affirm. One in particular is the resurrection from the dead. There isn’t much Old Testament teaching on this subject (though see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:12), and there seems to be none whatsoever in the Torah. So the Sadducees believe that once you die, that’s it. If there’s any afterlife at all, it’s found in the gloomy confines of Sheol, the underworld.
The Sadducees deny the resurrection for another reason as well. They’re convinced that it’s logically incoherent. To prove their point, they present Jesus with a hypothetical situation. What if a woman marries a man who dies? According to the Jewish custom of Levirate marriage, the man’s brother is required to marry her and raise up an heir for him. The Sadducees take this to the point of absurdity—suppose seven such brothers died!—but it would only require one death for the woman to have married two husbands in this life. So “in the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be?” they ask.
Note that, once again, we have Jesus’ enemies asking a question when they’re not genuinely interested in learning from him. They just want to humiliate him. They’ve already decided they’re not going to believe.
Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush here. “Is this not the reason you are led astray, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?” he tells them. Now, this is a slap in the face! The Sadducees were fanatic students of the scriptures, and they stood in positions of great political and religious power. Yet Jesus is saying to their faces that they are wayward and ignorant.
Jesus explains what he means. The Sadducees clearly don’t know the power of God because they have made wrong assumptions about the resurrection. They’ve assumed that the next life will be an extension of this one; people will get married and raise families and go on living like they do now. Jesus is telling them that God will reorder everything; those who are resurrected will no longer marry. In fact, marriage will no longer exist; it’s a temporary institution that will pass away. God is powerful enough to recreate the world in a way that exceeds the wildest dreams of man.
Jesus continues to pile it on. He quotes Exodus 3:6, in which God told Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”—his ancestors. The eternal, self-existent I AM had chosen to identify himself with these patriarchs, to bind himself to them with an eternal covenant, to make promises to them which had not yet been fulfilled. None of this makes sense if they have simply ceased to exist. Would God really identify himself with something that no longer exists? Would his promises to Moses be reliable if he had no intention of fulfilling his promises to the (living) patriarchs? No! “He is not God of the dead, but of the living,” Jesus says. Then he adds, “You are led greatly astray.” And he’ll drive his point home in the final chapter of Mark, when he himself rises from the dead.
The Sadducees are a monument built for us, a warning that it’s possible to be a devout person, to be a student of the Bible, to be in a position of power in the church, and yet to be ignorant and easily deceived. Jesus insists that all of his followers contemplate and adhere to the words of scripture—all the words, not just those which we want to believe! Jesus wants you and me to expand our understanding of who God is. When you try to grasp who God is, do not be quick to draw conclusions about what he can’t or shouldn’t do. He is powerful, and you are in no position to question him. Instead, align your thinking with his written Word, lest you stray from the path and into deadly error.