Mark 14:1-11. Preparation for burial.

It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, whereverthe gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.

 

Mark has spent a chapter telling us about Jesus’ instructions to his disciples about the near, and more distant, future. It has been the longest section of direct teaching in the Gospel. Mark now brings us back to the events of the last week of Jesus’ life- the events immediately leading up to the cross.

Jesus’ death has a crucial place in Mark’s narrative. It is the climax of the book- just as it was the climax of Jesus’ life. Mark has been working up to it, recording how Jesus looked ahead to it. There are the three occasions where Jesus plainly tells the disciples that he is going to die; once in each of chapters 8, 9, and 10, all at about verse 30 of their respective chapters. But also, when Jesus told the parable of the evil tenants, he knew that the chief priests, scribes, and elders, were plotting his death (12:7). And when he spoke to his disciples in the last chapter, he spoke of a time when others would come claiming to be the Christ- a time when Jesus himself would no longer be with the disciples in the flesh.

Apart from Jesus’ own words, Mark has alerted us to the fact that various groups have been plotting to kill Jesus, some of them for a long time (3:6, 14:1). Blasphemy- the charge under which the Sanhedrin will finally condemn Jesus- was made as an accusation right at the beginning (2:7). And when Judas Iscariot was first introduced, he was identified then as the one who was going to betray Jesus (3:19). Mark knew then where he was heading, just as Jesus deliberately set himself towards Jerusalem and the final conflict with the enemies of God.

So it is that in this account, Jesus can look ahead to his burial as a fixed fact, a thing certain to take place in short order.

 

  1. Why do we need to know that it was “now two days before the Passover”? What point has Mark been making from the timing of the events at the end of his Gospel within the Jewish festival year?
  2. The chief priests and scribes are now actively plotting Jesus’ death. But they are wary of making their move during the Passover feast. Why?
  3. Mark introduces the plotters in v1-2, then moves to the account of the woman and the perfume, and then takes us back to the plotters in v11. Why does Mark structure the passage in this way?
  4. One denarius was reckoned to be the standard wage for a labourer for a day. The unnamed woman blows about a year’s wages on one act. Why such extravagance?
  5. Jesus justifies the woman’s actions not by reference to her devotion, but by reference to his own coming death. Does this affect how we understand her actions? Which passages in the Old Testament are at the forefront of Jesus’ mind here?
  6. This event seems to precipitate Judas into betraying Jesus to the chief priests. Why should this tip him over the edge?

 

1. Why do we need to know that it was “now two days before the Passover”? What point has Mark been making from the timing of the events at the end of his Gospel within the Jewish festival year?

 Moving backwards out of the speech of chapter 13 and into the narrative of chapters 11 and 12, we know that Jesus has been staying near Jerusalem for a week or so now. He and the twelve were lodging in Bethany, some two miles outside the city walls. They came to Jerusalem with a huge fanfare- Jesus rode a donkey like a king, and there was a big public welcome. Crowds lined the streets and spread their cloaks on the ground for Jesus. They cut branches from trees and chanted parts of Psalm 118- a kingly victory psalm- as Jesus rode past.

From the actions of the crowd, and from the psalm they choose to sing, one might be forgiven for thinking that this was the time of year for the Feast of Tabernacles. Psalm 118 was very much a Tabernacles psalm. At the Feast of Tabernacles, people would flock to Jerusalem and live in temporary structures- the “tabernacles” of the feast’s title. They would cut branches from the trees to construct their shelters on their friends’ rooftops and in the streets. The feast was held at a time of year just after the harvest had been gathered in. It was a time for Israel to rest from their labours, to give thanks for the harvest God had given them, and to remind themselves that God had given them the very land which produced the harvest. They lived in shelters to conjure up cultural memories of the time they spent wandering in the wilderness (see Leviticus 23), and they would give thanks for God’s deliverance of his people into the land of milk and honey. The Feast of Tabernacles was a time to be thankful, to rest, and to look forward to future blessings.

This feast then was naturally the time of year most linked to hopes for the new age. Psalm 118 is a victory song, to be sung by a triumphant king and his triumphant people, looking forward to peace and plenty. The crowds thought that the end of history had arrived. They saw Jesus as the conquering king, come to sweep away the old order. They thought that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem to be crowned and to reign forever. They thought the harvest had come and the work was all but done. With a king like Jesus, able to command the wind and waves, able to feed thousands with a few loaves, surely a victory celebration wouldn’t go amiss. Even if the end hadn’t quite yet come, Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as king was at least the beginning of the end. And we’ve seen that the disciples thought the same thing. Jesus has just spent a chapter trying to puncture their triumphalism and set them straight.

Mark, however, is well aware that Jesus’ work is far from over. In reality, it is not time for Tabernacles, but time for Passover. Passover is a very different sort of festival. At Passover time, the people would slaughter a lamb, and smear its blood on the doorposts of their houses. They would remember the time when the blood of the lamb protected each household from the angel of death, while the firstborn sons of the Egyptians died. Passover marks the start of deliverance from Egypt, not the end. It marks the start of the long hard slog through the wilderness, not the enjoyment of the harvest.

Mark makes a point of telling us the date, because the events that are about to happen are intimately connected with the Jewish festival year. It is appropriate that Jesus should die at Passover time. The lamb was slain as a sacrifice for sinners, and so will Jesus be slain. The lamb was slain to protect Israel from the angel of death, for their deliverance out of Egypt, and so will Jesus will die to deliver his people from slavery and death. Jesus knows that his hardest work is only just beginning.

  

2. The chief priests and scribes are now actively plotting Jesus’ death. But they are wary of making their move during the Passover feast. Why?

 Jesus has been walking into Jerusalem every day with his disciples and walking back to Bethany in the evening. He has taught in the temple courts every day, and has not made himself popular with the chief priests. If you remember as far back as chapters 11 and 12, Jesus has overturned the tables of the money lenders, and has made fools out of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to make a fool out of him. He has been very disruptive as far as they are concerned. Jesus is, in fact, the Lord of the temple, and can do whatever seems good to him. It is he who has the right to say what does and does not go on in his Father’s house, not the chief priests. But the chief priests don’t see it that way. They see Jesus as a dangerous man, one who undermines their authority with the people, and who is likely to bring the Romans down on the city by sparking a popular uprising. And they don’t question their idea that they are the rightful leaders of God’s people and the guardians of God’s honour. They have debated among themselves how best to deal with Jesus. They have failed in their attempts to humiliate him before the people, ending up humiliated themselves.

So the issue now with the chief priests is no longer whether or not to kill Jesus, but how and when. The statement of their hostile intent is similar to that of the Pharisees (3:6), but this is now the chief priests and their gang. They are much more dangerous, much more skilled in the arts of managing the crowds and bringing political leverage to bear. Although the Pharisees have been opposing Jesus, and plotting against him, they are not linked directly with his death- the chief priests are the more dangerous enemies.

The chief priests are wary of making their move during the feast because they fear a public disturbance. Jesus is a popular teacher- the crowds like to hear him, and if they go taking him off to be killed, the crowds might kick up a fuss. The festival season is relevant to this concern in a strictly practical sense. The population of Jerusalem would balloon during the feasts for all Israel. People would come in from all over the country, and the city would be heaving with bodies. Normally, about 50,000 people lived in Jerusalem. During the feasts, this went up around five-fold, to 250,000. The general populace were more excitable and a riot would be much easier to start and much harder to control. On top of that, the incomers would not be people who saw the chief priests a lot. People who lived in Jerusalem would be at the Temple every day, where the priests worked. But during the feasts, Jerusalem was full of outsiders. Many among the influx may know Jesus better than they know the priests. Jesus has just spent 3 years touring the country, especially Galilee. Some of the pilgrims would be from Galilee, and lots of them might be natural Jesus supporters rather than Chief Priest supporters. You see it with football teams. Which team do you support? Usually one based where you live, or where your family came from. You see it in the kings of Israel. David was accepted as king in his home tribe of Judah long before the ten Northern tribes would submit to him. The chief priests are canny, and they are wary of trying any dirty tricks with such a large and excitable crowd around, when they can’t trust the crowd to be loyal to them. They know they won’t have too long to wait before the crowds go home.

The two feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread were closely linked, Passover lasting a day, and then the feast of Unleavened Bread for a further week. Passover was celebrated on the 14th of Nisan, with a ritual meal at the start of the day. Bear in mind that when we say “the start of the day”, we don’t mean breakfast. The Jews got their definition of a day from Genesis. The very first days, the creation days, started with evening “and there was evening and morning, the first day”. For the Jews, the day began at sunset, and sunrise happened halfway through. Preparations for the Passover, including the slaughter of the lamb to be eaten, took place on the afternoon of the 13th. The solemn meal was then eaten on the evening of the 14th, which would be followed by the morning of the 14th. The feast of Unleavened Bread then ran for a week, from the 15th to the 21st, with both of those end days reckoned as special Sabbaths. So this is on the 12th of Nisan, two days before the Passover, in the evening. The chief priests have only to wait 10 days, and then it will all be over and they can get at Jesus.

It is striking that, although the chief priests are aware of the festival season, they seem totally blind to the theological implications. Their concerns are strictly pragmatic. But in the end, it is the theological concerns which drive the timing. In God’s plan, it is important that the Messiah should die at this time- at Passover- because it fits with the meaning of the festival. When Judas offers to give the plotters their chance on a plate, to betray Jesus to them, to tell them where and when they could get Jesus with nobody watching, they jump at it. But by telling us that the plotters had already said “not during the feast”, Mark underlines God’s sovereignty over the whole thing. The plans of the priests are thrown out the window. In God’s purposes, Jesus would be slaughtered at Passover. And God can work things so as to change the desires of men.

 

3. Mark introduces the plotters in v1-2, then moves to the account of the woman and the perfume, and then takes us back to the plotters in v11. Why does Mark structure the passage in this way?

 Mark is using his sandwich structure again, as with the fig tree, and with John the Baptist’s death, and with the groups of people in Ch.3. Sandwiched between the two halves of the tale of betrayal (v1-2 and v10-11), is the account of the woman who anoints Jesus with perfume. Mark presents the two accounts as interwoven because he wants us to see how they relate to one another. The two stories are connected inasmuchas it seems to be the events in Simon’s house which spark off Judas’ betrayal. But more than that, Mark is comparing and contrasting the woman with Judas and the priests. All of them are making preparation for Jesus’ death. She, whether she understands what she is doing or not, anoints Jesus for burial. They plot to kill him. But she does what she does out of love, where they have only hatred for the saviour.

 

4. One denarius was reckoned to be the standard wage for a labourer for a day. The unnamed woman blows about a year’s wages on one act. Why such extravagance?

 One evening in Bethany, Jesus was at the house of Simon, a leper, for a meal. Simon is probably a healed leper, perhaps even healed by Jesus (leprous lepers would not be hosting dinner parties, and we never read of Jesus turning away anybody who wanted healing). As Jesus and the other guests were reclining at the table, a woman came into the room. For a dinner party, the guests would lie on couches at an angle to the table, heads towards the food and feet out. This woman came up to Jesus, between the couches, and anointed his head with a large quantity of expensive perfume. It was not unheard-of for honoured guests at banquets to be anointed with oil, probably perfumed oil (Psalms 23:5; 141:5, see also Luke 7:46). This, however, goes way, way beyond custom. It is an act of extraordinary personal devotion. The woman’s perfume is probably a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation. It is likely the single most precious possession she has. She wouldn’t have had a pension scheme, she’d have had savings. Her family would have bought valuable things which could be sold off in time of need, and this probably represents a sizeable chunk of her wealth. But she wants to give it to Jesus. So she takes it from its place in her home, carries it over to Simon’s house where she knows Jesus is eating, goes up to Jesus, breaks open the bottle, and pours the perfume out on his head- her future, her security, poured out in gratitude. The perfume is worth about a year’s wages, as people there remark.

What the woman does, although in a private house, is a fairly public act. She has walked up to the table, where everybody else is lying down, and has poured out a whole jar of perfume. It isn’t something that could be done unobtrusively- the scent will fill the room. When I was a schoolboy, I had an elderly (to my young eyes at least- she was probably actually somewhere in her fifties) lady chemistry teacher, who used to wear excessive amounts of perfume. We could tell when she came into the room, even if we had our backs turned. If she came close to you to explain some point one-to-one, the cloud of fragrance hanging around her was eye-wateringly unpleasant. Breaking open a whole jar of pure nard would have a similar effect- nobody could fail to notice what had happened. The reaction among the others in the room to this extravagance was less than warm. Some of the spectators were indignant. “If the perfume had been sold, then there would have been lots of money available, which could be used for all sorts of good things”, they said, “It could have gone to the poor, couldn’t it? But instead, there it is, soaking into the ground! What a waste!”.

There is an implicit lesson to be drawn from comparing the woman and her critics. Whatever her specific reason for doing what she did, it must have been driven by love for the Lord, a belief that he deserved everything she could give him. They rebuked the woman harshly, we are told. And the harshness of their response perhaps reflects the poverty of their own love for Jesus and their understanding of who Jesus is. They don’t see it as being worthwhile to make an expensive act of devotion to Jesus, if it does no good to anyone else. But this woman clearly does see Jesus as important.

Many perhaps can see no more interest in Christ than in what he can do for them, how he can make them happier. They have no deep gratitude because they have no real stake in what Jesus really came to do.

 

5. Jesus justifies the woman’s actions not by reference to her devotion, but by reference to his own coming death. Does this affect how we understand her actions? Which passages in the Old Testament are at the forefront of Jesus’ mind here?

 Luke talks about an anointing of Jesus at a banquet in somebody else’s house, but that is a different event, taking place earlier in Jesus’ ministry and at the house of a Pharisee. There, the ointment isn’t nard, and the objection isn’t, “This is way too expensive”, but “Yuck! A sinner! Can’t Jesus tell?” This anointing in Mark could well be the same event as recorded in John’s Gospel, in which case the woman is Mary, and she is motivated by love for Jesus and by the thought that Jesus won’t ever die. John tells us that Mary was keeping the perfume for Jesus’ burial, but that she had just seen him raise Lazarus from the dead. Her thinking seemed to be, “This man isn’t ever going to need a burial. I can use the oil on him now”.

But Mark doesn’t name the woman, and doesn’t speculate on her motives. He wants us, I think, to concentrate on what Jesus makes of the incident, and thinks it would be a distraction to think about what the woman thought she was doing.

So what did Jesus say about the incident? How did he react? Jesus commended the woman. He responded with joyful appreciation, rebutting her critics and saying that she had done a beautiful thing. And then he made two more points. What are they?

Firstly, the poor will always be there to give money to. Jesus will not always be with his followers. Sure, the money could have gone to the poor, and would doubtless have done good there. But Jesus is more important than anything else. And he would only be with his followers for a while- for another few days.

Jesus’ point is made more startling when you consider his use of the Old Testament. He is quoting Deut. 15:11- “There will always be poor people in the land.” But the conclusion drawn in Deuteronomy is “therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers, and towards the poor and needy in your land.” Jesus takes the first part of the quote, but draws a conclusion almost contradictory to that of the law. He is saying that he takes first place, ahead even of the poor and needy. He made himself poor so that people like this woman might become rich, and so she gave him all that she had, because she loved him.

She put him first, made him the most important thing, gave him the most valuable thing she had. A grudging spirit towards Jesus from a professing believer is worrying. Matthew tells us that these critics are actually the disciples, but it is unclear whether the twelve are in view. In John, Judas objects to the act from Mary. Here in Mark, Jesus is speaking to those to whom he can say, “you will not always have me”, which fits well with the disciples. It is terrible to see men more interested in other things than in their master. In the Christian life, there is no holding back, no begrudging anything. Jesus gives life, in all its fullness, to the dead. How then can those who owe him their lives, not give him their all? She did what she could, said Jesus. Her critics did nothing

In the temple, what was the one thing which Jesus had found good? It was the widow who had put in the two copper coins, all she had. It is not insignificant that once again, in this passage, it is the action of a despised woman, who gives what is valuable to her, which stands in contrast to the religious leaders who hate Jesus, and to others at the meal who criticise, and to all who have no love for him. In a world where many people seem to think that the first of the two great commandments is adequately observed in the keeping of the second, we need this reminder that personal devotion to Jesus himself is of first importance. Loving our neighbour is only part of what it means to love God.

Secondly, and most importantly, Jesus says that this anointing was a preparation for burial. Maybe she didn’t realise the full significance of her act at the time, but Jesus himself didn’t miss it. He knew that he would soon have to die. Perhaps somewhere in his mind was the 23rd psalm, with the picture there of the man under God’s care, who has his head anointed with oil, who sits at a table among his enemies, and who goes confidently into the valley of the shadow of death. More directly though, he sees this as a funeral anointing. Only bodies of criminals were not anointed for burial after death. Jesus was buried in a hurry, and there was no time for those who would have liked to anoint his body to do so. By the time some of his followers tracked the tomb down and came to anoint Jesus’ body, Jesus was gone. So this is the only anointing for burial which Jesus receives. Jesus accepts the anointing as a burial ritual ahead of time.

Jesus says of this woman that wherever the Gospel is preached, what she did will be told in memory of her. This is factually true- places where the gospel is preached sooner or later end up with copies of Mark’s Gospel, and the deed of this woman is read and heard about. By her actions, this woman points us to the gospel- she anticipates the death of Jesus, who came to die that we might live.

 

6. This event seems to precipitate Judas into betraying Jesus to the chief priests. Why should this tip him over the edge?

 This particular event seems to have acted as the catalyst to turn Judas into an active traitor. It was after seeing the actions of this woman, and hearing what Jesus said about the event, that Judas went out to the chief priests with an offer too good for them to refuse.

We know that Judas was a greedy man, and had his hand in the disciples’ kitty, which could have been enlarged by the addition of 300 denarii if the perfume had been sold. But Mark doesn’t suggest the money motive here as a driving factor in Judas’ betrayal, though we know from the other Gospels that it was at least a strong influence. Mark only mentions money for Judas after he has made his decision to betray Jesus- Judas goes to the priests intending to betray Jesus, and once he’s there, they promise him money. The impression is that money wasn’t the key thing.

The other options are the woman’s devotion, and the things Jesus said about burial. Maybe Judas simply couldn’t understand this devotion, and was repulsed by it. Satan does use evidences of grace in some to harden others. But on the other hand, he- along with the other eleven- had given up house and home and family to follow Jesus. Would devotion like this really be such a shock to him?

Perhaps it is more that this incident finally convinces Judas that Jesus is serious about his death and burial. Jesus actions here would otherwise be starkly out of character. A fortune is spent in a few moments, just to make Jesus smell nice. It has no other purpose, nobody except Jesus stands to gain from it. Where else has Jesus accepted lavish gifts in the course of his ministry? In the three years Judas has known him, Jesus has been a model of self-denial. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. Televangelists and pastors drive flashy cars and wear expensive suits, but they are not following the man they claim as their master. Judas holds the purse strings- he knows better than any of the disciples that Jesus doesn’t indulge himself in luxuries. He knows how Jesus and all of them frequently sleep rough and go hungry.

Passover was the time of year to give to the poor. It really would have been appropriate for the woman to sell the ointment and give the money to the poor- if there hadn’t been a compelling reason to anoint Jesus.

Maybe Judas sees Jesus accept the gift uncomplainingly, and it clicks- Jesus really does intend to die. He’d never have allowed this otherwise.

Judas won’t follow a messiah who intends to lay down his life in apparent defeat. But we know that Jesus is worthy of trust and devotion precisely because he laid down his life for those who trust him. He went down to the grave, taking the curse upon his own head, in order to redeem cursed sinners. There is nobody more worthy of love.

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