Whether we know it or not, each of us has our own “personal operating system.” We all have a specific way of taking in information, sifting through it, drawing conclusions based on that information, and letting those conclusions drive the actions we take.
In story after story, the Gospels show us different people’s operating systems when it came to Jesus. They saw him perform the same miracles; they heard him deliver the same messages. But some concluded that he was the Messiah and followed him, others concluded he was an ordinary man and ignored him, and still others saw him as a threat and hated and rejected him. Different operating systems produced different results!
Think about the story of Jesus healing a man who was born blind (John 9:1-41). Many who saw this healing were amazed, but some of the religious leaders called it a charade. Again, when Jesus fed five thousand people and called himself the bread of life, many walked away, but Peter and the other apostles stayed with him (John 6:1-68). They were convinced that he had the “words of eternal life,” no matter how mysterious or confusing these words seemed (6:60-68). Clearly, Jesus challenged everyone’s operating systems—and he wants to challenge ours as well. He wants to affect the way we think and act. He wants us to take on his own values and attitudes so that we can become more like him.
This month, we want to let another story challenge us: the story of the woman who anointed Jesus with a jar of perfume (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8). We want to look at how something that appears to be “good thinking” may not always be the best answer. Sometimes, Jesus wants to take us beyond what we think is good and open our eyes to an even deeper good. So let’s look at this story to see what it was that moved Jesus so much—and to see how the woman’s actions can confront our own personal operating systems.
She Worshipped Jesus. John identified this woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, but Mathew and Mark leave her nameless. So we are left a bit puzzled as to who she really was. But there is no puzzle about what the woman did: she anointed Jesus with costly perfume. Take a moment to picture the scene. Imagine her on her knees, her eyes totally focused on Jesus with a look of humility and devotion.
This woman knew how valuable the perfume was. She knew that she could have kept it for herself or sold it for a good amount of money. But she didn’t care. In her mind, the cost of the perfume was nothing compared to Jesus. It was a sacrifice she wanted to make. Instead of worrying about the valuable perfume she was squandering, she probably wondered what else she could do for him!
Did this woman have cares and responsibilities? Most likely. Did she have financial obligations? Perhaps. But none of that mattered at the moment. As far as she was concerned, nothing was too good for Jesus. This was her chance to show him how much she loved him.
So what does this story tell us? That Jesus is worthy of our honor and our praise. This woman didn’t come interceding for a sick friend. She didn’t come seeking a healing for a family member or for herself. She didn’t come asking for a special place in heaven. She came only to pay homage to Jesus.
Indignant Waste? Or a Good Thing? When the woman poured her perfume on Jesus, everyone, including the apostles, became indignant. They all thought that she was being wasteful and irresponsible. “Why this waste?” they asked (Matthew 26:8). Surely the disciples were sincere in their belief. They thought that this perfume could have been put to better use—or at least that this woman could have chosen a less extravagant way to honor Jesus.
But Jesus saw what she did in a much different light. He saw something beautiful that touched him and moved him deeply—precisely because of its extravagance. He saw the woman’s love and devotion. He even said that she did “a good thing” (Matthew 26:10). Then he went on to say that her story would be told “wherever this gospel is proclaimed” (26:13; cf. Mark 14:9).
A Teaching Moment. Jesus loved his disciples, and he knew that they loved him. But he wanted them to have more than just friendly feelings toward him. He wanted them to be formed into servants of his kingdom—just as he does us. For that to happen, he knew that their operating systems would have to be confronted and adjusted from time to time. So not only were this woman’s actions a “good thing” as far as Jesus was concerned, but they also provided a powerful teaching moment for the disciples.
Jesus knew that in the midst of all their loyalty to him, there were flaws in the disciples’ thinking, and these flaws needed to be addressed. These were the same people who wanted to send away a hungry crowd rather than take care of them themselves (Matthew 14:15). They were the same ones who argued over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of God (Luke 22:24). They were the same ones who thought God should destroy people who didn’t welcome Jesus (Luke 9:54). They were the same ones who “became indignant” when two of them started jockeying for seats of honor—above the rest of them (Matthew 20:24).
So how did Jesus use this situation with the woman’s anointing to help the disciples adjust their operating systems? By defending the woman. He made it clear that she wasn’t concerned for herself or what she might get out of this act. She was concerned only with giving Jesus a gift, a token of her love for him. This, he explained, is what would make people “great” in the kingdom of God (Matthew 20:26). It’s what will make us great in God’s eyes as well.
Then he went on to explain, “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me” (Mark 14:7). They had plenty of opportunities to care for the needy, and plenty more lay ahead of them. But this was a sacred moment. It was the calm before the storm of Jesus’ passion, and this woman did something great simply by ministering to him.
A Prophetic Anointing. Jesus went on to tell the disciples that by anointing him, the woman was preparing him “for burial” (Matthew 26:12). Most theologians doubt that the woman had any notion that Jesus was about to be arrested and crucified. But Jesus could read into her kind gesture and see it as an act of love that was meant to comfort him and give him strength for the trial ahead.
The woman’s act also resembled the way a king or priest would be consecrated to God by an anointing with sacred oil. Now, Jesus didn’t need to be consecrated. He had already been set apart by God. He already was the king of creation, and he already knew that he had a special mission from his Father. Still, this woman’s actions delighted him. They encouraged and comforted him, even as they reinforced the word that Jesus had given his disciples just days earlier—that the “Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (Matthew 26:2).
This prophetic anointing was one of the rare times in Scripture when Jesus was on the receiving end of a gift rather than the giving end. Throughout his years of public ministry, he had poured himself out for countless people. Now, at the end of it all, just as he was about to pour himself out completely on the cross, came this woman pouring herself out on him, ministering to him in a tender and intimate way.
The good news is that we can minister to Jesus just as she did. Not necessarily by pouring out perfume, but by surrendering our lives to him in worship and obedience. It can be hard to imagine, but every time you say no to temptation, every time you sacrifice even the smallest amount of time for prayer, every time you help someone in need, you are ministering to Jesus. You are bringing him comfort and refreshment, for he sees one more bit of proof that his cross was not in vain.
Something Great for Jesus. This is not a story about perfume or money. It’s about our ability to bring joy to Jesus. It’s about allowing our operating systems to be confronted by the thought that we can do something great for Jesus.
So spend some time this month praying about this story. Don’t just picture the scene; place yourself in it. Imagine that you are anointing the Lord. What is Jesus saying to you? Let this act of extravagant love well up in your heart and move you to give yourself to Jesus more deeply.