Mark 14:1-11

Extravagant Devotion

What is the most expensive gift you have ever given? For me – and I bet this is the case for many men – it was a tiny rock attached to a small band – an engagement ring. At the time this ring was the most expensive thing I had ever bought for anyone, or for myself for that matter. And even though I was excited to give this ring to my future wife, I was still a bit nervous when the day arrived.   In the passage today we will meet a woman who gave a tremendously expensive gift to Jesus worth nearly a year’s salary. As Mark recounts the story he sandwiches it between another “gift” story. Only in this second story it’s not Jesus but one of his twelve disciples who receive a gift and one of the most tragic gifts anyone could receive – 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus. We will consider first the woman and then Judas.


#1 The Boldness of the Gift

So Jesus has once again retreated out of Jerusalem into Bethany (v.3) which lies about a mile and a half east on the slope of the Mount of Olives. He is at the home of Simon the leper (v.3) having dinner. This is a curious way to identify Simon. It seems likely that he had been healed of his leprosy and hence would have been present when Jesus was in his home, and yet this ailment had continued to leave its mark on him as he is known as “the leper”. Almost certainly this was not a small dinner party because as we’ve seen throughout the gospel, Jesus’ twelve disciples follow him everywhere. At some point during the meal an unnamed woman appears. She would have been known by those present on this occasion but Mark does not record her name for us. This woman was an outsider. This idea of insiders and outsiders is a familiar theme in Mark’s gospel and we’ve seen that Jesus persistently challenges people’s perception as to who is truly on the outside and who is truly on the inside.

As Jesus and others were enjoying their food, this woman was turning over in her mind what she was about to do. Surely, this was no impulsive act but one that she must have given considerable thought to. Jesus has repeatedly told his disciples that he is about to die. His disciples don’t seem to grasp what Jesus is saying. This woman does. She not only understands that Jesus is about to die, she wants to do something about it. She comes up with the idea of anointing Jesus’ body for his burial. Under normal circumstances this would be very odd because you would normally apply perfume to someone after they died, not before. Perhaps she assumes that if the Roman authorities seize Jesus there will be no opportunity to do this afterwards.

She waits and finds the opportune time while Jesus is reclining at table (v.3). She pulls out an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, breaks it, and pours it over his head (v.3). This was a bold move! Mark stumbles over himself to let us know that this ointment was very costly; by one of the guest’s approximation it was worth three hundred denarii (v.5). A denarius was roughly the amount a laborer would earn for a day’s work. Not only is this a costly gift, she gives it to Jesus in dramatic fashion pouring it on his head.


#2 The Critical Spirit of the Guests

So this unnamed woman has given Jesus what was likely the most expensive gift she had ever given anyone. And of course, this is not just anyone, it is Jesus. And what happens as a result? She is met with disappointing looks and critical words. Rather than affirming her, the dinner guests condemn her and engage in a philosophical debate of theoretical good.   Wouldn’t it have been better for this to have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor (v.5), they ask among themselves.

For these dinner guests nothing was ever quite good enough. They have a critical spirit. These are the “yeah, but” people. Yeah this was good, but it could have been better. Loved the ice cream, but where is the cherry on top? They take a beautiful act of devotion and find something wrong with it. We need to be careful that we do not follow their example. First, of course in not criticizing others but also in not criticizing the Spirit’s work in our own life.


#3 The Praise of Jesus

Jesus does not share in the dinner guests’ assessment of the situation. They scolded the woman, but Jesus praises the woman and scolds them. He says that she has done a beautiful thing (v.6) and that she has done what she could (v.8).   That’s an interesting way to phrase it, isn’t it? She has done what she could. The dinner guests want to imagine all the other good that could have been done with the costly ointment but Jesus praises her for what she has done. She did what she could. Sometimes we become paralyzed analyzing all the ways we can best do something and the result is that oftentimes we do nothing at all. The desire for perfection not only leads to inaction, it can steal our joy as well. Do you find this to be true in your life? Certainly Jesus was aware of all the thing this woman could have done, but in the end he praises her for what she had done.

Concerning the objection that the ointment was wasted on Jesus and should have been given to the poor, Jesus asserts his preeminence over the poor saying you always have the poor with you…but you will not always have me (v.7). This, of course, is an allusion to his coming death, which the disciples over and over again have failed to grasp. Yet this woman not only understands, but acts on that understanding. She prepares his body for burial (v.8). Jesus is so pleased with what she has done he says that whenever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her (v.9). This promise is fulfilled as Mark includes it in his gospel.


#4 The Treachery of Judas

Mark begins chapter 14 by recounting Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and interrupts the account to tell the story of Jesus’ anointing. This common literary feature in Mark’s gospel is known as a chiasm and invites us to draw comparisons between the two stories. The account at the dinner party is about a woman who as an outsider, expresses her devotion to Jesus with an expensive gift. The account of Judas is about an insider who betrays Jesus in exchange for the gift of some money. The one on the inside is the one you expect to be faithful but here it is the outsider who was faithful and the insider who was unfaithful. Mark explicitly tells that Judas is one of the twelve and that he went to the chief priests in order to betray Jesus (v.10). Just as Jesus was earlier pleased with the woman’s act of devotion, so the chief priests were glad (v.11) at Judas’ act of betrayal. The woman made her mind up as to what she would do and found her opportunity at a dinner party, now Judas has made his mind up and all he lacks is an opportunity (v.11) to act on it.


Discussion Questions

  1. What is the most expensive gift you have ever given anyone? Were you excited? Nervous? How did you feel?
  2. How do you think the woman in this story felt as she waited to anoint Jesus?
  3. What do we learn about this woman from the passage?
  4. Why does she anoint Jesus? What is the significance of this anointing?
  5. How do the dinner guests respond? What are some possible heart motives that led them to respond in this way?
  6. What are some practical ways we can avoid having a critical spirit towards others or ourselves?
  7. How does Jesus respond to the situation? What does he mean by “she has done what she could (v.8)”?
  8. How might this passage help someone who is struggling with perfectionism?
  9. What do we learn about Jesus from this passage?
  10. The story of this anointing is placed in the middle of the account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. Why do you think Mark puts these two stories together?
  11. Compare the account of the woman and the account of Judas. How are they similar? How are they different?
  12. What is one thing you will do as a result of studying this passage?