************ Sermon on Matthew 26:12 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on February 21, 1999
Topic: Cross of ChristWe have here a picture, a parable, of the cross. Our heavenly Father saved lives – yours and mine and all who believe – at the cost of His beloved Son's life.
Title: A Parable of the Cross
A true story: A man had the duty to raise a drawbridge to allow boats to pass on the river below and to lower it again for trains to cross over on land. One day, this man's son came along to watch his father at work. Quite curious, as most boys are, he peeked into a trap-door that was always left open so his father could keep an eye on the great machinery that raised and lowered the bridge. While the bridge was up the boy leaned too far forward, lost his balance, and tumbled into the mighty gears. As the father reached down to pull him out, he heard the whistle of an approaching train. He knew the train was full of people and that it was impossible to stop the fast-moving locomotive, therefore, the bridge must be lowered.
What a terrible dilemma to be in: if he saved the people, his son would be crushed in the cogs; if he saved his son, hundreds of people would die when the train plowed into the bridge and plunged into the river. Frantically, he tried to reach for his son, but he was too far down. Finally, the father put his hand to the lever that would start the machinery. He paused and then, with tears he pulled it. The giant gears began to work and the bridge clamped down just in time to save the train. The bridge-keeper saved the passengers' lives at the cost of his son's.
As we begin our observance of Lent (boys and girls, did you hear the word I just used), one of the first people we meet on the way to the cross is a woman named Mary.
I The Cross and the Grave Prefigured
A One day Jesus was in Bethany at the home of a man known as Simon the Leper. Mary was there as was her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus. As for Simon, he was either the father of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus or he was Martha's husband. Jesus was probably there because the family wanted to thank Him for curing Simon's leprosy and raising Lazarus from the dead.
Jesus was reclining at the table, enjoying the food and company of His friends, when His friend Mary couldn't restrain herself any more. She had to express her love and devotion to Jesus. She took a flask of imported perfume from India. The perfume was precious and costly: in his Gospel, Mark tells us it represented more than a year's wages (Mk 14:5). She broke the neck of the expensive marble jar and poured the perfume on Jesus.
Were the disciples right in what they said about this: did Mary waste the perfume?, did she pour away thousands of dollars that could have been better spent on the poor?
Jesus did not condemn Mary's actions; rather, He praised her for what she did. He said,
(Mt 26:10,13) "She has done a beautiful thing to me ... (13) I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Why did Jesus praise Mary's actions? What was the significance of what she did? What does it mean to perfume Jesus' body?
B Mary's anointing of Jesus takes place within the context of Jesus' coming suffering and death. In verse 2 Jesus says to the disciples,
(Mt 26:2) "As you know, the Passover is two days away--and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified."And, in verses 3 & 4 we can read of the plot of the chief priests and scribes:
(Mt 26:3-4) Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, (4) and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.
Furthermore, the very next episode we find in Matthew's Gospel is Judas' agreement with the chief priests to betray Jesus.
It is obvious, isn't it, that the Spirit of the Lord wants us to see the anointing of Jesus in the light of His coming betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion?!
C Jesus also see the anointing within this context: "When she poured this perfume on my body," He said, "she did it to prepare me for burial" (Mt 26:12).
To understand what Jesus means by this we have to know Jewish burial customs. Under Jewish burial customs the body is first washed; then it is anointed with aromatic spices and perfumes. That is why on Easter Sunday the women went to Jesus' tomb with spices and perfumes they had prepared; it was their intention to anoint Jesus' body and give it a fitting and proper burial (cf Lk 23:56; 24:1).
According to Jesus, Mary was preparing Him for burial. The strong fragrance of the perfume spoke to Jesus not of wasteful extravagance, but of the preparation of His body for burial. The anointing spoke, then, of Jesus' coming death and burial.
D When you think about it, isn't Mary's actions here a little strange? After all, a body is prepared for burial after and not before death.
Imagine that you are in bed and suddenly two ambulance attendants come into your room with a stretcher. "What are you doing here?" you ask. "We have come to take you to the morgue," they say.Mary is doing something like this to Jesus. So we need to ask why. Why is Jesus' body being prepared for burial before He has died? Jesus is hinting here that it is not possible to get His body properly prepared for burial after He has died.
Again, we need to have an understanding of Jewish burial practices. Among the Jews the only time a body is not prepared for burial is when it belongs to a criminal executed for his or her crimes. In such cases, part of the punishment includes a less than honorable burial. Mary's anointing of Jesus' body before He died is, then, a proclamation of the kind of death Jesus would suffer: namely, the death of a criminal. In the words of Isaiah 53, "He was assigned a grave with the wicked" (Is 53:9).
"When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial," says Jesus in our text. This is an acknowledgment by Jesus that He anticipates suffering a criminal's death. This is an acknowledgment by Jesus that He anticipates being crucified. Jesus sees in the broken alabaster vase of expensive perfume a picture of His own body soon to be broken upon the cross.
But that's not all. In the light of Easter Sunday we know another reason why Jesus' body cannot be properly prepared for burial. We know that the washing and anointing of Jesus' body couldn't be done because He arose from the grave before the women got to the tomb on the day after the Sabbath. So Mary's actions, in the mind of Jesus at least, speaks not only of His criminal death but gives also a hint of His glorious resurrection.
II An Act of Love and Devotion
A The disciples do not understand the significance of Mary's actions. When they see what Mary does, they are indignant and even angry. "Why this waste?" they ask. "This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor" (Mt 26:8,9).
Don't forget the timing of our episode. The anointing takes place two days before the Passover Feast (cf vs 2). It was customary for Passover pilgrims to remember the poor with gifts. All good Jews were expected to give a tenth of all they had to the Lord. However, pilgrims attending the Passover Feast were expected to give a second tithe to the Lord. It was the practice that part of this second tithe be given as charity. For this, and other reasons, there were many poor in and near Jerusalem hoping to collect on the generosity of the pilgrims.
It is against this background that the disciples are indignant and ask, "Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor" (Mt 26:8-9). In fact, as the perfume was worth more than a year's wages, its selling price would have provided for the needs of many of the city's poor.
B The disciples do not express their indignation openly. Rather, they whisper it back and forth. Jesus, however, knows what they are thinking and saying about Mary's action. So He asks,
(Mt 26:10-11) "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. (11) The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me."Jesus, in the flesh, is leaving soon and will no longer be with them. In a few short days He will be crucified, dead, and buried; He will arise from the grave; and He will then ascend into heaven. The poor can always be helped, but the time is running out for Jesus' physical presence with them.
C Why does Mary act as she does? As Mary gazed across the supper table into the eyes of Jesus, she saw the shadow of the cross lying heavily upon Him. She understands the meaning of Jesus' earlier words about His upcoming crucifixion (cf Mt 17:12,22; 20:18,28; 26:2) in a way that none of the disciples do. She knows that He is willing to die for the sins of the world. She knows that for her sins too He would die. So, in an act of love and adoration, she pours the fragrant perfume, her most costly possession, over His head. She knows her sacrifice is small, even nothing, compared to His great sacrifice. She knows that no gift is too great in response to such a love as His – a love which gives everything.
Jesus sees and knows and understands what Mary is doing. That's why He says, "She had a done a beautiful thing to me ..."
D What about you, congregation? How do you respond to Him Who died for you a criminal's death on the cross? Like Mary, you are to give Jesus your best. You are to realize that no gift is too great a response to such a love as His – a love which led Him to a criminal's death upon the cross.
Jesus praised Mary for her beautiful act of love and devotion. Does He have reason to praise you too? What beautiful thing have you done to the Lord? Nothing, absolutely nothing, is more beautiful than giving the Lord your whole life, your heart, your love. The Lord loves our gifts and sacrifices; but, He cannot and will not accept them unless we first give Him an obedient, a thankful, a loving heart.
Mary. She stands out among all those who are part of the story of Lent. Think of the priests and the elders of the people: they plot how to kill Jesus. Think too of the disciples: the treasurer betrays Him for 30 pieces of silver, the chief spokesman denies knowing Him, and the other ten desert Him. But Mary, in an act of love and devotion, in an act penetrating the meaning of the cross, anoints Him Who is her Lord and Savior.
Mary did a beautiful thing to the Lord.
What about you?
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