I’m currently reading a book entitled The Long Gray Line by Rick Atkinson. This book describes the lives of the graduating class of 1966 from West Point. By the time these men graduated from the army’s military academy, the war in Vietnam was raging. The class of 1966 graduated with 579 men. At least 550 of them served in Vietnam. Thirty were killed in action there, and more than 100 others were wounded.
Reading this book, I’m struck by how these young men viewed their lives. They were willing to not only go into combat but to sacrifice their lives for what they believed was a good cause. Thirty of them gave the ultimate sacrifice and many others sacrificed deeply in being wounded or going through the emotional trauma that came from that war.
This book has prompted me to think about sacrifice. Specifically how much have I been willing and am I willing to give up for my Lord, Jesus Christ? As we continue our study of the Gospel of Mark, we see two responses to Jesus. One is betrayal and the other is great sacrifice. But the real point that Mark is emphasizing is how the actions of this woman point to the sacrifice of Jesus as he draws closer to his time of death. Let’s read Mark 14:1-11.
I. Mark first gives an indication of the plot the Jewish leaders are hatching.
The Jewish leaders now make plans to arrest Jesus and have him quietly put to death. This was something that they had intended for a long time. Only Jesus’ popularity and the fear of an uprising had kept them from arresting Jesus before this. The leaders needed to be careful in order to preserve public order in Jerusalem.
During the Passover the city’s population would grow from 50,000 to 250,000 people. Demonstrations and riots could always be expected. The Passover with all of its celebration of the hope of redemption could create a situation which could easily become uncontrollable. If that happened, they knew the Romans would come down hard on them. So the leaders wanted to wait until after the Passover; they had it all planned out.
Their plans bring to mind the way we think we have things all planned out and figured out. I look at all the plans that people in power and government make and I think God must at times laugh at their plans and strategies. Psalm 2 reminds us of the One who is in heaven and controls all things for God laughs and scoffs at the plans of evil people. Our human strategies that we think are so clever are silly in God’s eyes. For God’s plans will always be done regardless of our elaborate planning.
The Jewish leaders had their plan to wait to arrest Jesus until after the Passover. But it was God’s plan that the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world be sacrificed on the Passover; no human planning would change that. Mark here is making it clear that Jesus is about to become the Passover lamb.
II. Mark next relates Jesus being anointed.
In placing this event here, Mark is highlighting something very important. The Chief priests and scribes are plotting along with Judas to kill Jesus. The pure devotion of the woman throws into bold contrast the hostility and treachery of the priests and Judas. At the time men were plotting to kill Jesus, Jesus’ body was being prepared for burial through an act by the woman that expressed tremendous love and faith.
Anointing was a common custom at feasts as we see in Psalm 23:5 where David sits at the table prepared by God and is anointed with oil. But in this context Mary’s action expressed pure devotion to Jesus. In association with the banquet, anointing suggested joy and festivity, but Jesus found his being anointed to be far more significant as we will see shortly.
The disciples present there were indignant at this display of apparent extravagance. It was natural for them to think in terms of provision for the poor. It was customary on Passover evening to remember the poor with gifts. In fact, it was also a common practice to give to the poor one part of the tithe normally given in Jerusalem during the feast. And so they would be thinking of ways to give to the poor at this time. Yet as the hour of trial for Jesus approaches, it is clear that no one fully understands Jesus nor what is about to happen. They are busy seeing things from a very narrow and human perspective.
What the disciples do here prompts me to think about how we take care of the poor. I recently read an article about how Christians typically care for those who are poor. As Christians we want to give money “wisely,” which means we want the person in need to spend it the way we think they should spend it. So we give food instead of money to benevolent community causes because we are concerned that the person might not spend it properly. We don’t want to give money to someone who will use it on things we don’t think they should use it on.
What is interesting is that studies have shown that just giving money to the truly needy ends up being better since they know exactly what their needs are. It may be that a person needs medicine or clothes more than food. But that requires trust and generosity on our part in giving to the poor.
While we need to be wise in giving, what Jesus says here should encourage us to give lavishly and perhaps at times even recklessly as though we are giving to Jesus. Jesus accepted this “wasted” gift when it was given in true devotion to him. We too must give lavishly trusting God will use it to do what is best.
Jesus recognized the generosity of her gift of the anointing as a beautiful expression of love which had a deeper significance than she could have possibly understood. At that specific time, the needs of Jesus take precedence over the obligation to help the poor who will always be with them. Jesus’ use of the word “always” is interesting in light of Deuteronomy 15:11. There will always be opportunities to help the poor for they will always be here. But the expression of love to Jesus was good since Jesus won’t always be with them.
In fact, Jesus declared that the woman’s act was an appropriate and legitimate act which anointed his body for burial. Jesus knew that he would suffer a criminal’s death and criminal bodies aren’t anointed for burial; this was Jesus’ burial anointing. This woman then receives Jesus’ praise and, by solemn vow, Jesus authoritatively states that what Mary has done will always be remembered in the future.
III. Jesus’ betrayal then brings us back to the overarching story.
By introducing Judas at this point, Mark intends to especially highlight the difference between the selfless devotion of Mary and the treachery of Judas. The chief priests and scribes were seeking to arrest Jesus by a strategy and Judas was seeking an opportunity to hand him over. The primary concern of the Jewish leaders was to avoid a riot. The betrayal gave the leaders an opportunity to arrest Jesus without a disturbance for they would now be able to do this without a crowd being around.
We don’t fully understand Judas’ motive in betraying Jesus. Judas seems to have responded to an official notice reported in John 11:57 that circulated in Jerusalem: “Now the chief priests had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” The need to use an inside informer shows how difficult it had become to locate Jesus and to seize him in the period before the Passover. Mark, with great restraint, simply records the bare facts. Judas collaborated with the leaders and then received payment for his services. He then looked for an opportune moment for the arrest to occur. The leaders were delighted that one of Jesus’ own followers would betraying Jesus.
Mark here presents a clear choice in how we can respond to Jesus: betrayal or devotion. Now we would never literally betray Jesus, right? We would never turn Jesus in or anything like that but still some betray Jesus for their own profit or benefit. Think of many church leaders who grow rich telling others that they too will be richly blessed if they only believe that God will bless them, and of course, also give to their ministry. Think of how some people use their status as Christians to profit.
Instead let’s follow the example of Mary who sacrificed all for her Lord without knowing what was going to happen to Jesus and how that would change her life. She simply gave her best to Jesus and was greatly rewarded in ways that she couldn’t have imagined. And so let’s give ourselves to him fully and with the sure knowledge that we will be rewarded as well even if it costs us everything, including our own lives.
Will we give ourselves lavishly to Jesus in this year? How you will spend your money? Are you all in for Jesus? How you are spending your time and using your abilities? Are you all in for Jesus? What is one thing that is either very precious to you or very valuable that you are willing to give up as an expression of love and devotion to Jesus? Are you willing to do that in some way for our Lord?