By Howard Gregory
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 26:1-16
1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the courtyard of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4 and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
How this woman enters the stage is a mystery, as she seems not to have been an invited guest at this gathering of men. She asks for no permission but proceeds with intentionality toward Jesus. Clearly, she knows who Jesus is. She is carrying a jar of perfume, no doubt with great care because of the value of its contents. She opens the jar and begins to pour the perfume on the head of Jesus. She does not dab on a gentle splash, but pours out the entire contents of the jar. The fragrance makes it clear to the guests that this is the top-of-the-line fragrance of the day, at a premium price.
Clearly this woman was giving expression to her passion and affection for Jesus, and to his role in the divine providence which she herself may not have fully understood. Somehow her actions indicate a perception of Jesus and his divine role which even those around him did not seem to understand.
Jesus moves to the defense of the woman by underscoring the significance of what she had done as a personal and extravagant expression of love, which transcends even the ongoing obligations of almsgiving.
While this woman was not a poor person, given the nature of the perfume, she represents for us the outpouring of faith and devotion which can come from those not identified with the inner circle. She, in her hidden identity, underscores for us how the devotion of the faithful can find expression in diverse ways and which may not be appreciated by all within the community of faith. Jesus’ assertion that what she has done will be remembered forever is a reminder that our acts of devotion may not be acknowledged in the moment but will be recalled in the eternal realms.
Finally, this incident points to the fact that there exists the temptation to speak in generalities about our “concern for the poor” while failing to see the face of need that is right before us.
The Most Rev. Howard K. Gregory is Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands and Archbishop of the West Indies.
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The Diocese of Maridi – The Province of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan
Christ Episcopal Church, San Antonio, Texas