Monday, March 18, 2013

Beautiful Oil; Beautiful Blood: A Meditation on Matthew 26:6-13

Jesus is worthy of our greatest sacrifice. There is no cost of which He is not worthy.

Take Eric Liddell for example. The 1981 Oscar winning movie “Chariots of Fire” tells the story of Scotland’s greatest sprinter and Olympic athlete in the 1920’s. Liddell, the son of Christian missionaries to China, was universally recognized as the leading contender for the gold medal in the 100 yard race (the race) but refused to compete in the 1924 Olympic qualifying heat because it was held on a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. He was mocked both then and now as being “too religious.” The newspapers smeared him as a fool and a traitor. Even the royal family begged him to compete and set aside his views on the Sabbath Day just once. And yet for Liddell, choosing between a simple Sunday morning in church and eternal Olympic glory was no choice at all. 

He is Worthy of Our Greatest Sacrifice! 

In Matthew 26:6-13, we see another person who was accused of wasting an opportunity at the expense of extravagant piety—an unnamed woman who literally pours out her “life savings” on Jesus in one act of devotion. John's gospel tells us this was Mary of Bethany.

Let's briefly look at the costly sacrifice she gave.

Mary brought…an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment (Matt 26:7).  There are several things about this ointment that show us this was no ordinary act—this was a radical act of complete, personal surrender. It was worship in the highest form she could offer!

a. It Was Rare. Mark calls it "nard." (Mark 14:3). Tracing the Greek word down, we can learn that it likely came from the nardostychus jatamansi plant in high mountains of India and Nepal, including the Himalayas! Thus, it was a rare import non-native to Israel. The root of the plant must be crushed to obtain just a few drops. A dangerous journey of thousands of miles must be undertaken just to obtain it.  But Jesus is worth any risk, any cost, even our lives.

b. It Was Pure. Mark's account also tells us it was "pure" (Mark 14:3). It was undiluted, unmixed, highly concentrated. This is always appropriate for acts of worship. The Lord loves things that are pure and despises that which is contaminated (i.e. hearts, hands, prayers, thoughts etc.). Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matthew 5:8).

c. It Was Expensive. John tells us that a liter (Gk: litra) was worth 300 denarii, a year's wage (John 12:5). Because it was unmixed, it could have been diluted to 1/10 or 1/20 or more to create a vast supply of perfume. It is possible that Mary of Bethany was greatly rich and this would have been a small token to her. On the other hand, it is more likely that this was her entire life savings.  In the ancient world there was no bank, no 401K, no stock market in which to invest. This could have been her entire financial savings (her nest-egg) poured out in one act of worship.

d. Irreplaceable. Finally, it was irreplaceable. Mark’s Gospel says “she broke the flask” (Mark 14:3). In those days, some alabaster flasks were made with long thin necks such that it was necessary to break the bottle neck in order to get the contents out. Once it was broken, there was no way to reseal it. It had to be used in one single setting. Thus it seems that she poured out the entire bottle on Jesus, and could not gather it up off the floor even if she wanted to!

If this passage means anything to us it is that Jesus, our Savior and King is worthy of our greatest sacrifice. You cannot pour out something at Jesus feet--time, service, giving, worship, praise, song, mission, chastity, study—that He does not already deserve! Our richest oil, our most expensive nard is not enough to thank Him for what He has done.

But Jesus' Sacrifice Was Greater than Mary's

Yes, Mary's sacrifice was great indeed. It was rare, pure, costly, and irreplaceable.  And yet as great as it was (and as honest as her motives may have been) it was still not enough. 

Even our greatest acts of service and piety need to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus. 

In Christianity, it is not what we give to Jesus that matters; it is what He has given to us. For this reason, Jesus takes this poignant opportunity to again point to the absolute centrality of His own cross. He says,  In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial (Matt 26:12).

On the last week of Jesus’ life, a great, pure, infinitely valuable substance was indeed poured out. This liquid offering was passionately spilled, and ran copiously down Jesus’ head, body, and feet. 

But it wasn’t the oil of the nardostychus jatamansi plant. 

It was His blood. 

It was His own infinitely pure blood that washed away our sins. 

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