NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Although in Mark’s Gospel the Greek says she broke “syntribō” the “alabastron,” meaning a container made of alabaster,1 which some English versions translate as “box,” “vial,” “flask,” “jar,” etc., the Syriac Version says “she opened it.2 The Persian Version adds even more by saying that “she broke open the top.”3 Most likely she broke the sealed thin neck of a jar and then poured the perfume on Jesus’ head while He was eating. From Jewish sayings, we know that pouring oil on the heads of guest seated at a table was an accepted custom for high ranking and special dignitaries.
In the Jewish Talmud, we find this discussion about such anointings: “The dripping of oil on the heads of the scholars. Rabbi Papa said to Abaye: Did the master speak of oil used for cleaning the head? — He said to him: Orphan, did not your mother do the dripping of the oil on the heads of the scholars at the time of the event? As in the case when one of the scholars was occupied with the wedding of his son in the house of Rabbah ben ‘Ulla — and some say, Rabbah ben ‘Ulla was occupied with the wedding of his son in the house of one of the scholars — and he dripped oil on the heads of the scholars at the time of the event.”4
So not only was some of our Lord’s followers upset due to the cost of the perfume but in a sense, they were passively saying that He wasn’t worth such an honor. Then again, with regard to seeing the perfume as being wasted perhaps they were reminded of what one well-known Rabbi did: “On the eve of every Sabbath Rabbi Huna would send a messenger to the market and any vegetables that the market gardeners had left over he bought up and had them thrown into the river. Should he not rather have had these distributed among the poor?”5
Verses 10-13: But Jesus knew what happened. He said, “Why are you harassing this woman? She did a very good thing for me. You will always have the poor with you. But you will not always have me.”
Again, let’s note that Matthew does not say Jesus saw what happened, but that He knew what had just occurred. So after the Master heard them complaining, He countered their indignation by telling them that they were in error to criticize her, because they didn’t understand that what she did was in preparation for what was to come. No matter how Mary looked at it, Jesus saw it from a different perspective. In any case, He wanted to let them know that what she had just done would become a part of the Good News story as it spread all over the world.
But He also reminds them that their good intentions were sorely misplaced. All the money in the world could never wipe out poverty. Even the logic of a court jester would suffice to teach them that if everybody in the world was rich, there would be no one to do the work required to keep them clothed, fed, and transported. Jesus was not putting down the poor, but merely recognizing that it is an accepted and vital part of life here on earth. And to show that they were not discriminated against in the kingdom of heaven, He was set to die to make them heirs and joint heirs with Him.
Was this some new social theory developed by our Lord? Absolutely not! Moses instructed the children of Israel before they entered the Promised Land, “There will always be poor people in the land. That is why I command you to be ready to help your brother or sister. Give to the poor in your land who need help.”6 As part of their verbal tradition, the Jews, refers to the times of the Messiah by saying in the Babylonian Talmud, “…for it is said, For the poor shall never cease out of the land.”7 This was said in the context of what things were then and the way they would be in the time of the Messiah’s eventual arrival. This would suggest that the Jews did not consider that there would ever be a time without poor people.
Thus we can say, Jesus indicates by his rebuke that the real contention of those who opposed the woman’s actions did not suggest it was unworthy of the Messiah, but that the woman’s act made little sense to them since they did not really believe that Jesus was the Promised One. Yet, she quietly performed her magnificent service and then allowed Christ to answer her critics. As a result, her act was assigned to immortality by Jesus’ own words. Our Lord now clarifies what the anointing was all about:
Verses 12-13: “This woman poured perfume on my body. She did this to prepare me for burial after I die. The Good News will be told to people all over the world. And I can assure you that everywhere the Good News is told, the story of what this woman did will also be told, and people will remember her.”
In Jewish tradition, there is a story about Abraham having a conversation with Death, and asking Death to let him have a little reprieve until he could get accustomed to the idea of dying. So just before Death came to take him by the hand to lead his body to the grave, we read: “Michael the archangel came with a multitude of angels and took up his precious soul in his hands in a divinely woven linen cloth, and they tended the body of the just Abraham with divine ointments and perfumes until the third day after his death,8 and buried him in the land of promise, the oak of Mamre, but the angels received his precious soul, and ascended into heaven, singing the hymn of ‘holy, holy, holy’ to the Lord the God of all,9 and they set it there to worship the God and Father.”10
Since there were no plans for Abraham to rise from death in three days, this reflects how one prepares for their stay in the grave. But since Jesus was going to rise in three days, the ointments and perfumes were applied early since the women who came to the tomb to do the same would not find Him there. What a wonderful lesson for us when we may be criticized for being too involved or giving too much time to the work of the Lord. Instead of becoming protective and responding defensively, why not let Christ take up our cause. Who knows, He may bless us in a way that will be remembered after our critics are long gone.
Verses 14-16: Right after this one of the twelve disciples went to talk to the leading priests. This was the follower named Judas Iscariot. He said, “I will hand Jesus over to you. What will you pay me for doing this?” The priests gave him 30 silver coins. After that, Judas waited for the best time to hand Jesus over to them.
After what we’ve seen now in the scheduling and meeting of the Sanhedrin, the visit by Judas Iscariot to the leading priests was more than just a coincidence. Perhaps when he saw how Jesus allowed this woman to pour expensive perfume on His head, and did not find it strange but supported her, this may have been the jab that sent this money-conscious thief over the edge and justified his visit to where this ad hoc Sanhedrin committee was meeting. The amount Judas received may seem trivial to some people today, but there are those in our lifetime who have betrayed Him for a lot less than this.
1 Mark 14:3
2 The Peschito Syriac New Testament Translated J. W. Etheridge, loc. cit.
3 Farsi Bible, loc. cit.
4 Rabbi Johanan ben Beroka: Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim, Masekhet Kethuboth, folio 71b
5 Ibid.,Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Ta’anith, folio 20b
6 Deuteronomy 15:11
7 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbath, folio 63a
8 Waiting for three days before burial was part of the Jewish belief that the soul hung around the body for that period of time before finally leaving, thereby allowing burial.
9 See Isaiah 6:3; cf. Revelation 4:8
10 The Testament of Abraham, Greek Recension A, Ch. 20, Trans. Michael E. Stone, Society of Biblical Literature, 1972, p. 55