Following chapter 13 which is the longest section of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of Mark, we turn now to chapter 14 which is the longest chapter in the gospel of Mark. The rapid pace of movement is back, as we are well aware in the Gospel of Mark. And we turn to a familiar question that has come up time and time again in the Gospel of Mark, “who do you say Jesus is?” The question that Jesus asked Peter in Mark chapter 8, is the question that has come up frequently. Those who want Jesu to be the healer, others believe he is the blasphemer, and others see him as a good teacher, but Peter was the one who first said, Jesus is the promised messiah who was spoken of by the prophets. Today’s passage is no different we see three groups of people; it is not only the answer to that question but how they seek to treat or act towards Jesus. We see the famous ‘Markian sandwich’ to show the contrast and connection between these three groups of people.
I. The Leaders seek to kill Jesus (1-2)
The conflict that has been continuing through the Gospel of Mark, truly began when Jesus began his earthly ministry. He came into the synagogue and began teaching and immediately the crowd started comparing Jesus’ teaching to the Scribe’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching had authority (Mark 1:22). The conflict, which was that of a boiling pot would increase and decrease. Mark had told us from Mark 3:6 that the Pharisees and Herodians were seeking a way to destroy Jesus. This is nothing new, but now Jesus the prophet has come in and spoken as the prophet. He has come into the temple, rebuked them, and spoken the word of judgment upon them. Like the prophets that have gone before them, they will seek to kill Jesus, as they had done from Abel to Zechariah. Jesus had told his disciples three times that the leaders would kill him (Mark 8:31, 9:30-32, 10:32-34). It is days before and they are seeking ways to be able to have him put to death. Their former plans had not worked, as John puts it, his time had not yet come (John 7:30). But the time is quickly approaching. Matthew explains that they have a special meeting to be able to find a way to have Jesus be put to death. We have noted serval times through the study of the perverse thinking of the religious leaders, as they externally seek to be honored and uphold traditions of man, but internally they have meetings to be able to put Jesus to death. They seek to trick him or have people as witnesses just to be able to have him killed. Even their reasoning in Mark chapter 14 is they want to kill him but are concerned about creating a riot amongst the crowd. How perverse is that thinking, they are not concerned about applying the law of God correctly, but we might upset the crowd. They do not think about God’s law or God, but the crowd. That they also seek to arrest him by ‘stealth’ this word is normally translated as ‘deceit.’ Here they are willing to lie to have Jesus arrested and killed.
Now we see that they do not engage with his teaching if it is true or false. They do not seek to understand what scripture teaches (as we saw with the two questions in the temple, about taxes and the resurrection). This is nothing new, and we still see this today. People deny Christianity and call for it to be abolished. They seek to have it ‘modernized’ to fit the cultural terminology or ideology. They do not engage with the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of scripture. But how we also should be careful, the religious leaders are easy to pick on, and we can call anyone a religious leader to end an argument. Name-calling is a childish way to argue, but I think it is a prevalent way that discourse happens today. We all turn into religious leaders when we seek to protect our ways or traditions. The people on the other side are the religious leaders and not us. But I think the danger is always seeing yourself as the good guy because you never ask yourself the hard questions. Many times, I believe, as Christians we have the right answers, but cannot show how we got the right answer. We should be able to explain why we believe what we believe and do so with gentleness and respect.
II. The woman who honors Jesus (3-9)
Jesus explains in verse nine why we have this story in our Bibles, “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). We have this glorious story of a single woman who does this beautiful thing to Jesus. In the middle of the religious leaders seeking to Kill Jesus and the man seeking to betray Jesus is a woman who honors Christ. In a chapter of betrayal, plotting to murder, denial, abandonment, and weakness of the disciples in this short story of this woman who seeks to honor Christ. This story gives us a striking contrast to the harsh, brutal, and deceitful planning of the religious leaders. Before we see what this woman does we see another important aspect that has been highlighted throughout the gospel of Mark. That is that while Jesus is at Bethany, an image of fruitfulness. Jesus is in the house of Simon the leaper. This highlights two themes that have come up previously. First, being in the house has shown this inner circle of Jesus’ followers. Remember Mark 3:31-35, when Jesus’ family is outside the house and Jesus is in the house. He mentions that those who are around him are his brothers and sisters. Secondly, we find out this house belongs to Simon the leaper. Now, we have no explanation of who this man is. Some have suggested his story is well known to the readers, so he needs no introduction. He might be the man who we saw at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:40-45). That he previously had leprosy and had been healed. This would explain why Jesus is in his house. If he had leprosy at the time, Jesus would have been unclean, per Levitical law (Lev 13). Simon was once (and possibly still is) on the outskirts of society, but is closer to Jesus than those who claim to represent God, the religious leaders.
Now each of the four gospels includes this similar story. Luke speaks of Jesus eating at Simon the Pharisee’s house, although this includes a woman and ointment, I believe these are separate occasions. John’s account is very similar, and I tend to believe they speak of the same instance the only difference is when the dates, John explains this event happened six days before the Passover. Now John’s gospel does appear to have a different type of dating method, which I will not go into detail with at this time. I will just say, for us days and hours are certain because we have clocks and the Julian calendar system. We must not assume or expect authors of different eras or times to use our system. Secondly, Mark explains the religious leaders met two days before Passover. However, we should not automatically assume that Mark has placed this story in chronological order, we have commented on this a couple of times, Mark does not always give us a well-ordered account, in a sense of a timeline. Mark has placed this story here to highlight the contrast, so it can be true that the religious leaders met two days before Passover and this event happened six days before Passover. So, I believe this speaks of Mary, which Mark does not include.
Jesus is sitting at the table of Simon the leper and in comes a woman. We are told very simply what she did, she came in with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard. This is a statement that possibly goes over our heads. An alabaster flask speaks of a jar made out of a stone-like marble that was used for longevity and protection. In other words, it was a special jar for holding something special. This was not something you would eat your cereal in. Not only we are told of the jar but also the contents of the jar, ointment of pure nard. Again, this is not something that you find in your local grocery store. This is an oil that comes from Spikenard, a plant in the honeysuckle family, that grows in the southeast of the continent of Asia. So, for our ears, it is a precious imported oil, most likely a form of heirloom. Or as Mark helps us understand, very costly. Later we find out it is 300 denarii, which is about the equivalent of a year’s wages. We need to truly understand this, this is not a plastic container with vegetable oil. But an expensive rare heirloom. To put it in perspective, in the USA the average salary per year is $56,310, in Virginia, it is $65,146. This woman comes in with this heirloom of over $50,000. Again, Mark’s comment cannot be passed over, very costly.
As Jesus sits there, the woman comes in and breaks this flask and pours the oil on Jesus’ head. It would be hard for us even to imagine being in the room at the time. Again this is not some twist cap plastic container but a jar made of stone like marble. The woman would have had to have cracked this jar open. To walk in as the room is silent. To then hear the cracking of this precious jar, and then to have the whole room filled with a rich fragrance of this nard oil. John highlights that the whole house was filled with the smell of perfume. This is an interruption. I am sure many people were shocked at what was happening. And even the disciples we are told asked the question, why was the ointment wasted like that? Previously, the disciples were indignant at James and John for asking Jesus to sit on his right and the left of him. Now, they are indignant at this woman, not for interrupting her but at the cost, they said, Why this waste? We again would have said the same thing. It is not a small amount. A year’s salary. Think of what could have been down with that. They said we could have sold it and given it to the poor. Think of all the beggars that could have helped, Think of the widows and the orphans that they could have supported. Interestingly we find out in the Gospel of John it was Judas who spoke on behalf of the disciples. Their anger grew to the point that they scolded her. They were moved by their emotion. It is a valid point, don’t you think. You can do a lot for the poor with that amount of money. It does seem to be a waste, you cannot scoop it back into the jar, and the jar is shattered. You cannot collect this pure oil back into a container. It has lost its purity.
However, Jesus tells them to leave her alone. He does not call her action wasteful, but beautiful. That in this story, it is the woman who understands the true value of Christ and the greatest goal of the Christian. Now we are told to care for the widow and the orphan. However, this is not the first call of the church. The church is first and foremost about the Glory of God. The worship of God. That can be hard for us to hear. Again, I am not saying we should never care. But the early church had an issue arise about the daily provisions of the widows. The elders explained that they cannot neglect the ministry of Word and prayer to be able to carry this out. They established the diaconate to be able to carry out the call to care for the widows. Worship is essential to the Christian; worship is the one thing that remains forever. You don’t have to be a believer to help the poor, but you must worship to be a Christian. The question is, who do you say that Jesus is? Goes deeper than the answer that you give. It has radical implications for your life. See the religious leaders’ answer was Jesus was a blasphemer, therefore they needed to kill him. This woman answered that Jesus is the promised messiah, therefore she needed to worship him. It cost her this alabaster flask filled with expensive oil. She was criticized by those around her, who were the disciples. Thomas Adams says,
“Oh, for one dram of this reverence! But indeed, it is in vain to bend the knees with unbended souls; it is a poor worship to move our hats, not our hearts. But he does best that expresses before men his zeal by his reverence and commends before God his reverence by his zeal.”
If this lady was seeking to impress those around her, she utterly failed. Yet like the widow with her two copper coins, she gave what she had. One is very little (1/64 of denarii), the other something very costly (300 denarii). Yet both show their reverence towards God. So we must not only answer the question, Who do you say Jesus is? But our answer must impact the way we live, in which we become true worshippers of God. Devoted to Christ. Changed by the Spirit. It is not to say that those who give a lot are saved, but you can see those who are saved give their all.
III. The man who betrays Jesus (10-11)
The last section shows Judas Iscariot. Now just as we have known of the religious leaders’ plan to destroy Jesus (Mark 3:6). We have also known that Judas would be the one who betrays Jesus (Mark 3:19). Now the shocking aspect of this statement is that Judas is one of the twelve. The inside/outside distinction is that those who are close to Jesus are not always true followers of Jesus. John explains that Judas was the main instigator of the question about the money that could have been given to the poor (John 12:4-5). We are told it is not because he was concerned for the poor rather, he wanted to steal the money for himself (John 12:6). Again, the perverseness of his thinking. Externally he speaks of helping the poor but in his heart, he wants to steal. He is driven by greed, and he seeks to have more money for himself. I want you to think about this as we continue through this chapter. That Judas Iscariot was with Jesus for about three years. He would have heard all of Jesus’ teaching and sermons. He would have seen many of the healings Jesus had done. He would have seen Christ’s character of compassion, his prayer life, his devotion to the Bible, and authority over the scribes. However, he is just like the seed thrown among the thorns, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). His heart is entangled by thorns, his heart is unfruitful. There is great danger in the lives of the Pharisees, but they openly reject Jesus and his teaching. Yet there is greater danger in Judas. Externally, he looked like the other disciples. So much so that at the Passover, everyone began asking, “Is it I?” I am sure even Judas asked that question, although knowing in his heart what he had planned to do. There is great danger in answering the question correctly but not having it move you to true worship of Christ. Judas could not get his hands on 300 denarii from the alabaster flask so he would settle for 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus. Here is a great contrast, Judas would complain about wasting oil worth a year’s salary but was willing to have Jesus’ blood poured out for just over a month’s salary. Chapter 14 begins and continues as a great cautionary tale, but this is not a play of actors but those who lived this life. That everyone must answer the question, but you also need to live out your answer.