For the next two weeks (leading up to Easter) we’re going to be reading through the “Passion Narrative” in Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 26-27). It will be a little different in structure from other series as I want to give the Gospel text more space to speak. Rather than a packaged “devotional reading” it will be more like a running commentary on the story as we go. Why? Firstly, it’s an important story and I don’t want to get in its way too much. And also because there isn’t a lot of direct, “what’s in it for me?” application in each episode. Rather, it’s the story of how Jesus suffered in our place, and then rose again to conquer death. So the big picture won’t need a lot of explanation every day! Use these two weeks to remind yourself again of the central story of our faith, and what it cost God to redeem us.
Matthew’s Gospel tells the story using short, contrasting scenes that are meant to be seen in parallel. In today’s reading there are four; let’s read the first two now.
Matt 26:1-526:1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. 5 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”
Here we have what will become a running theme in this story: Jesus’ death is depicted as being both the plan of God and the result of human conspiracy and betrayal. In the first scene, Jesus predicts his own death; he uses the “Son of Man” phrase to emphasise that it’s part of God’s plan to bring about his kingdom. God’s in control.
The scene then cuts to the high priest’s palace, where they are unwittingly carrying out this plan by plotting to kill him. Two questions are raised:
Why do they want to kill him? The precise reason(s) is the subject of much debate, but it centres on Jesus’ being a threat to the Jewish leaders’ power. He claimed to speak for God. He cleansed the temple as a symbolic statement of God’s coming judgement on them and what they had made the temple. And he threatened to stir up the people to rebel against Rome. Which is what’s behind the second question…
Why don’t they want to do it during the festival? Since Jesus was popular among the people, they didn’t want his death to rally them into a popular uprising. This would be bad for the Jewish leadership. They had a rather cosy deal where they got a fair bit of autonomy, and their power was backed by Rome (and Rome’s governor). In return, they put a lid on any rebellions. If the people got out of hand – and Rome had to send more troops to maintain order – their autonomy and delegated power was under serious threat.
Matt 26:6-1326:6 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. 8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
This is probably the same incident as recorded in Mark 14:3-9 and John 12:1-8. (Luke 7:36-50 has a similar story at the house of a person named “Simon” – but there are enough differences that it’s hard to see it as the same event. Luke calls him “Simon the Pharisee” which is hard to reconcile with “Simon the (ex-)leper” here.)
The enormity of this action is often lost on us, as this is more than just heading down to the perfume counter and buying an expensive bottle. It’s probably a family heirloom kept in order to sell if the family fell on hard times. She has probably given up her family’s entire financial security.
What’s the symbolic significance of this? Kings were anointed with oil on the head, and Bethany is near where Solomon was anointed (Gihon spring, 1 Kings 1:28-53), which may be what the woman had in mind. But perfume was more often associated with romantic or burial purposes. However the woman intended it, Jesus interprets it as being prepared for burial. (We could combine the two significances: Jesus is the king who will die for his people.)
Although the disciples make the rational point that it could have been put to “better” use, Jesus’ response affirms the woman. He cites Deuteronomy, which in context is about being generous to the poor:Deut 15:11 There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
But he suggests that there is something more significant going on. The poor will always be there, and generosity toward them is always the response of God’s people. Yet here is a once-in-history moment, which supersedes even the command to look after the poor: the Son of God is about to die for the sins of the world.
Matt 26:14-1626:14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
The final scene stands in stark contrast with the previous one. The woman puts financial security aside in order to recognise Jesus as the king who will die for his people. Judas seeks financial gain because he’s given up on Jesus.
Why did Judas betray him? Maybe just money, but there is a hint in his name “Iscariot” that he might have been a sikarios (assasin/bandit, connected with the forerunners to the Zealots, who wanted violent resistance to Roman rule). Perhaps, after seeing Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem in peace (on a donkey) and not show any signs of starting a rebellion – perhaps he got disillusioned, and sold Jesus out.
Why thirty pieces of silver? It’s a good amount, but probably not anywhere near the costliness of the perfume, again heightening the contrast. But since Matthew is always alert to Old Testament parallels, it’s probably a reference to that amount Zechariah chapter 11:12, in which the merchants pay off the shepherd of a flock that’s doomed for slaughter. What does that mean? We’ll save that one for next week – when Judas tries to get a refund – as there’s a lot going on in terms of parallels between Zechariah and Jesus. (We’ll see a lot of Zechariah allusions over the coming weeks, so stay alert.)
To think about
Does the story of the woman tell us anything about a purely pragmatic approach to stewardship of resources? Does it have anything to say to the idea that human life/well-being is the greatest good?
Are we ever tempted to be disillusioned with God, for not fixing things the way we want? (We may not be wanting armed rebellion, but what other ways do we want our problems sorted out in human terms?)