Royal Waste | Daily Office Devotional 2021/8/25

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Mark 14:1-11

I wonder how I would have reacted if I were one of the disciples witnessing the woman’s action. Perhaps I would not have reprimanded her, but I would have certainly thought of the act as a great waste of money. The disciples seem right: surely, a lot could have been done with three hundred denarii (more than a year’s salary for a labourer!) than to make Jesus smell nice. Perhaps, my baser instincts would have even led me to think, “If only you had given me some of that money! I would have had better use for it than that!” (cf. Judas’ motivations in Jn. 12.6)

Why the woman would anoint Jesus’ head with the ointment of nard is not stated. Certainly, she would not have thought she was anointing Jesus for his burial—that was Jesus’ interpretation of her action after the fact. Some think it might have been to anoint Jesus as the true Messiah (king) of Israel. Perhaps so, although it is unlikely a woman could see herself in a position to do that in those days. It seems more likely she was anointing Jesus for the occasion of the meal at Simon’s house.

While we do not know the woman’s exact reason for choosing to anoint Jesus, we do know her motivation for doing so. Jesus said she “performed a good service for [him]” and she had “done what she could.” Her motivations were pure—she simply did what she thought best expressed her reverence and adoration for Jesus. She did not engage in a cost-benefit analysis or work out the return on investment (ROI) of her action. Her action was simply a spontaneous expression of faith and devotion, and Jesus did not despise the royal waste of money but greatly cherished it. Interestingly, this episode is mentioned by all four evangelists (each in their own unique way), perhaps to honour Jesus’ words: “… wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

I wonder if my devotion to Jesus is constantly choked by the sophistication of the world. For the world, it is quite normal to do only the things that have a good ROI. If we spend time and money on something, then we want to reap concrete benefits. Giving money to the poor produces a concrete benefit. Using it to buy perfume for Jesus does not. In such thinking, one ought never to buy perfume for Jesus because it “does” nothing! Such devotion to Jesus can only be a royal waste!

However, devotion to Jesus is not about doing something that brings about some benefits. It is never a means to an end but is an end in itself (and if there are benefits accrued they are only incidental). It is simply a spontaneous outpouring from a heart that is full of love, adoration, thanksgiving, reverence, etc., for Jesus. If I have to do a cost-benefit analysis before expressing my devotion to Jesus, then maybe I am just not that devoted to him after all? If I have to weigh spending time in church to worship Jesus against spending time at home studying for exams or finishing that assignment, then perhaps I ought examine how much I actually love Jesus. It may sound harsh, but I thank God for this woman of Bethany (Mary?) who in her simple act of devotion earned her place in the annals of salvation history and exposed my deficient love for Jesus under all that pious sophistry.

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