The anointing of Jesus in Matthew 26

In Matthew 26, a woman anoints Jesus with very expensive perfume. The disciples are outraged... what a waste! This could have been sold, and the money given to the poor. On the face of it, they have a point.

The discourse immediately prior to the anointing scene concludes with separation of the “sheep and the goats” based upon their response those in need. The disciples’ suggestion that a valuable possession should have been sold and the money given to the poor is consistent with Jesus teaching to sell possessions to lay up treasure in heaven. In this sense, the disciples are “right”.

However, the apparently noble “ideal” of care for the poor is voiced in a way that is utterly graceless toward a woman who has acted with profound generosity. They have no qualms about embarrassing the woman, for they ask (rather than think) “Why this waste?”

Ideology is always a dangerous beast. Ideology over-values “the noble Cause” and depersonalises actual humans.

Imperfect human beings are capable of turning moral ideals into legalisms. Human beings are capable of becoming self-righteous, condescending and judgmental. Commitment to an ideology can destroy respect, friendship, communion and community. In the diabolical marriage of ideology and power, ideology can drive war, terrorism, oppression and genocide; convincing many that the end justifies the means.

Jesus’ correction to his disciples reminds us that we do not follow a cause, but a Person. The woman has honoured a person, the unique Son of God, and her action is a “beautiful thing”. The gospel is always personal. We are invited to a life of love, not a life of legalism.

Jesus notes that the woman’s deed which “will be told in memory of her... wherever this gospel in preached throughout the world”. Interestingly however, her name is not revealed. It is possible to be miffed on behalf of womankind that the name of this wonderful woman of faith has been lost to the Christian community. However, a feminist who wails at the omission of the woman’s name and bemoans the patriarchal author’s minimization of her leadership has failed to grasp a key theme of the gospel. We are all called to die to ourselves; to die to the desire for recognition; to die to the way of power; and to live in humble service for Christ. The frustrated desire for recognition can lead to bitterness in the soul. No such hunger for recognition was present in the woman who anointed Jesus.

The anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume was an utterly selfless, sacrificial act of love. The focus of the woman was not upon her own deed of goodness, but upon Jesus himself. In this sense, her anonymity is entirely appropriate. The focus of the gospel is the one whose body was broken and blood was shed “for many for the forgiveness of sins”. (26:28) Jesus is central to the Christian faith. Matthew’s account of the anointing keeps him emphatically in that place.

This account remains relevant for Christian women today. The feminist movement legitimately seeks to right historical wrongs against women. However, ideologically driven impulses contain inherent dangers. Countering the ungodly desire for power, prestige and recognition by some men by stirring up an ungodly desire for power, prestige and recognition in women is a spiritual dead-end. This is analogous to the “Christian freedom fighter” who takes up weapons for a “Christian” cause. However, the “Christian” begins to look indistinguishable from the oppressor, and can become as much an agent of terror as their enemy. Like the pigs in “Animal Farm”, it is possible to transform into the very image of the enemy. We tend to become like the very thing that captures the focus of our heart, for good or for ill.

When we focus upon the Cause, we elevate ideology above humanity. When we focus upon the Enemy, we can become like them. When we focus upon the Person of Christ, we are transformed into his wonderful likeness.

We need to balance this call to humility with the awareness that there is a time and a place for godly confrontation of injustice. Jesus did not shirk from speaking the truth bluntly when the situation called for it. We too need to hold in tension the call to die to self, with the ability to recognise the prophetic moment when love must be tougher than steel. This tension is dangerous ground. When an awareness of injustice intersects with ego, pride, anger, bitterness and poor self-awareness, confrontation can produce more harm than good. I have heard of incidents where alleged chauvinist behaviour has provoked a hostile, unchrist-like and alienating verbal assault by a woman, when a gentle conversation may have changed an attitude, engendered respect and won a heart.

Christians throughout the ages who hear this story retold “wherever this gospel is preached” can be challenged by the extraordinary generosity, sacrifice, love, service and humility of the unnamed woman. Her focus is not on herself, but on Jesus. This is how it should be for all who follow the One who “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:28)


Crazy Seraph said…
"When we focus upon the Cause, we elevate ideology above humanity. When we focus upon the Enemy, we can become like them. When we focus upon the Person of Christ, we are transformed into his wonderful likeness." Awesome, Janet. May I quote this?
Janet Woodlock said…
I'd be honored, thank you.

I had to write an exegetical essay recently on this passage... being a lazy blogger, I thought I'd write down an excerpt from the essay instead of writing something new.

This certainly is an issue I'm conscious of when I'm wearing my "women's ministry" hat... there's a place for "consciousness raising" that helps unblock women to become all God wants them to be. But "chip on the shoulder, all men are bastards, every speck of sexism you see needs a good dose of self-righteous whipping" is a possible outcome of such awareness-raising. However, we are called to forgiveness, love and grace first... and prophetic ministry second.

It's possible to correct others with kindness, and appropriate to let many things through to the Keeper, so to speak. (Good parents do this all the time... especially when parenting teenagers... and toddlers!) Pick your battles well... use positive reinforcement whenever possible... this works in both parenting and life!

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