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THE WOMAN THAT ANOINTED JESUS WITH PRECIOUS OINTMENT.
Verily I say unto you: Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.'-Matt. xxvi. 13.
THIS action of the woman here spoken of, who anointed our Lord with precious ointment, may at first appear a thing of little moment. But since our Lord signified his approbation of it, and declared that it would in future times be celebrated; it is not unlikely that it may afford us some profitable meditations, if we carefully consider it.
For which reason I shall review this history, and then make some remarks upon it: in which I shall endeavour to shew how we may improve it to our benefit.
I. In the first place I shall review and consider this history.
Our blessed Lord was now come up to Jerusalem, to keep the passover, at which he suffered. And, as you well know, he came up at this time several days before the day of the passover. But he took up his lodging at Bethany, a village near Jerusalem. In the morning he went up to Jerusalem, and taught there in the temple. In the evening he returned to Bethany. This was his method, till the night, in which he ate the passover, according to the appointment of the law at Jerusalem.
Says St. Matthew, at ver. 6 and 7 of this chapter: "Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper," that is, who once had the leprosy, but had been cured, and probably by our Lord, "there came unto him a woman, having an alabaster box of very precious, ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat."
In St. Mark xiv. 3. "And being in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman, having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard, very precious, and she brake," or opened, "the box, and poured it on his head."
That is the first part of the history, the action of this woman, or the respect shewn by her to our Lord.
The second part consists of the notice which some took of it, in a way of censure. St. Matthew's gospel, ver. 8, 9, it is thus expressed. "But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, to what purpose is this waste? For it might have been sold for much, and given to the poor."
Or, as in St. Mark, ver. 4, 5. "And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said: Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her." In the computation of the price of the ointment, we must not think of our own, but of the Roman coin, then current in Judea, and other provinces of the Empire. The three hundred pence here mentioned might amount to about ten pounds of our money.
The third part of the history consists of our Lord's vindication of this action.
In St. Matthew, ver. 10-14, it is thus: "When Jesus understood it, he said unto them: Why trouble ye the woman? For she has wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you. But me ye have not always. For in that she has poured this ointment upon my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman has done, be told for a memorial of her."
In St. Mark this concluding part of the history stands in these words, ver. 6—9. “ And Jesus said: Let her alone. Why trouble you her? She has wrought a good work upon me. For
• For the whole of that history, in the several Evangelists, see Matt. xxvi, 6—13. Mark xiv. 3-9. John xi. 2. and xii. 1-8.
ye have the poor with you always: and whensoever ye will, ye may do them good. But me ye have not always. She has done what she could. She is come beforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you: wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she has done, shall be told for a memorial of her.”
The sum and substance of this apology of our Lord is to this purpose.
You always have
among you necessitous objects. And you may relieve them, whenever you please. There will
be frequent opportunities for shewing benevolence to them, if you have ability. I am as a stranger,
⚫ and my stay among you will be short. I have often spoken to I have often spoken to you of my departure. And you
may be assured, the time is now at hand. And opportunities of testifying respect to me, in any such way as this, will soon be over.
You are apt, some of you, to think this expense excessive. But if this ointment were laid out upon a dead body, you would not think it too much. For that is an established custom among you, and you all think it laudable to embalm at a great expense the bodies of persons, who are of eminence and distinction. You may consider this anointing as an embalming of me. And it may so happen, that neither she, nor any others, shall actually have an opportunity to lay out all the rich spices and ointments upon me, when dead, which they may be disposed to make use of.
Upon the whole, the testimony of respect, which this woman has shewn me, has in it nothing blameable: but it is worthy of commendation. And I readily testify my approbation of it. And
I do now declare, that this action of hers will be published all over the world, and make a part ' of the history of things relating to myself, during my abode here among you. And the time is hastening, when some here present will be fully convinced, that this token of respect, now shown me, was not extravagant and undeserved, and will themselves cheerfully spread it abroad ❝ as an action of no small merit, and entitled to applause and commendation.'
There is a relation in St. John, which is very like this, though different in some particulars. Which has occasioned a difficulty, and raised doubts in the minds of attentive and inquisitive readers of the gospels, whether two several actions are spoken of, or one and the same only, with different circumstances.
Says St. John, ch. xii. 1-8. "Then Jesus, six days before the passover, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper, and Martha served. But Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment, of spikenard very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then said one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus: Let her alone. Against my burying has she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you. But me ye have not always."
To me it seems, that this is the same thing, which is related by the two former evangelists. If so, St. John has let us know, who this woman was. She was Mary sister of Lazarus. So he also says expressly at the beginning of the eleventh chapter: "Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus
St. John having before given the history of the resurrection of Lazarus, it was very natural for him, when he came to relate this anointing of our Lord, to say by whom it was done. But the two former evangelists having never mentioned Lazarus, or his sisters, in their gospels, when they came to relate this action, forbear to mention any name, and speak only of a certain woman.
St. Luke, ch. x. 38-42, has an account of our Lord's being entertained at the house of Martha but he says nothing of this anointing. If he had related it, I make no question, that he, like St. John, would have said by whom it was done.
St John indeed speaks of Judas only, who complained of the waste of the ointment, whereas the other evangelists express themselves as if other disciples also had disliked it. But it is well known to be very common with all writers to use the plural number, when one person only is intended. Nor is it impossible, that others might have some uneasiness about it, though they
were far from being so disgusted at it as Judas was. And their concern for the poor was sincere. His was self-interested, and mere pretence.
One thing more should be observed for avoiding mistakes. It ought to be reckoned certain, that Mary, sister of Lazarus, is different from Mary Magdalen; and also from the woman that was a "sinner," of whom St. Luke speaks, ch. vii. 37, 38. She also "anointed our Lord's feet, and wiped them with her hair. But her name is no where mentioned. And it is very observable, that of the woman mentioned by him, St. Luke says, " she stood at the feet of Jesus, behind him, weeping, and did wash his feet with tears." A particular quite omitted both by St. John, and by the two former evangelists, in their several accounts of the person, who anointed Jesus at Bethany a short time before his death.
II. I now proceed, without farther delay, to mention some remarks upon this history, and shew how we may improve it for our benefit.
1. From the words of this text we evidently perceive, that our Lord distinctly foresaw the great progress which the gospel would soon make in the world.
Some inveterate adversaries of the Christian religion, about three hundred years after our Lord's ascension, surprised and grieved at the progress it had made, and desirous, if possible, to retard and suppress it, and again raise up heathenism in its room, had the presumption to say, that the success of our Lord's doctrine had exceeded his own expectation: and that when he preached in Judea, he did not think his name and religion would prevail as they had done; but that is a false insinuation. Our Lord often spoke of the wide extent of his doctrine. Though the Jewish people, many of them, withstood the bright evidence which was set before them of his great character: and it was very likely that they would continue to harden their hearts to a great degree; he knew that would not obstruct his reputation, or his doctrine. And did more than once declare, that " many would come from the east and the west, and sit down with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, whilst the children of the kingdom, [for continued obstinacy and unbelief,] would be shut out."
When some "Greeks, who had come up [to Jerusalem] with those who came thither to worship at the feast of the passover," desired to see him, he "answered, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified," John xii. 20-23. And afterwards at ver. 31, 32. "Now is the judgment of this world. Now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me."
Beside other parables to the like purpose, he said: "The kingdom of heaven is like unto a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown, is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches of it.”
This text is another clear proof of the same thing. And his prediction is delivered with some solemnity. "Verily, I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall this also that this woman has done, be told for a memorial of her.”
The thing however is remarkable and extraordinary: that Jesus should attain to such renown that the doctrine taught by him should be preached every where:: and that a testimony of respect to him should be thought to deserve frequent mention, and to be long spoken of to the honour of the person, that had done it. Princes and conquerors easily transmit with honour their own names, and the names and characters of those who attend upon them, and serve them. But Jesus lived a humble, lowly life in this world, and died, as he now foresaw he should, an ignominious death. And yet he has attained to lasting, and wide extended honour and renown: and it is esteemed by many, or even by all, in many parts of the world, an honour for any to be mentioned with him, and spoken of as having shewn respect to him.
The only reason of all this can be, that he was a prophet mighty in word and deed, that he was a teacher sent from God, that his discourses were wise and reasonable, and his conduct excellent and admirable, and that after his sufferings and death, he was raised to life, and with great power declared to be the Son of God, or the Messiah, as he had said he was.
To this only can be owing the honour to which Jesus has attained: and hereby the aspersions that had been cast on him by enemies, have been wiped off. The judgments passed upon him. by those who evil entreated him, have appeared to be prejudiced, false and malicious. Whatever honour they were possessed of, whatever splendour they lived in, how great soever their influence may have then been; their names are either forgotten, or are loaded with just and perpetual
disgrace. On the other hand, they who believed in him, who received his words, who honoured him in their minds, and shewed him respect in their actions, are spoken of as persons of distinguished wisdom and piety.
2. From this text we learn that reputation for good works is desirable, and valuable.
Otherwise, our Lord had not declared, in opposition to the censure now passed by some upon the action of this woman, that it would be celebrated by others, and that "wheresoever the gospel should be preached in the whole world what she had done, should be told for a memorial of her."
Wise men have always esteemed the good opinion of fellow-creatures a great advantage. Solomon says, "A good name is rather to be chosen than riches, and lovingkindness rather than silver and gold," Prov. xxii. 1. And again: “A good name is better than ointment," Ecc. vii. 1.
But whilst they speak of this good name, as a special advantage, they take care to intimate what things are most excellent and meritorious, that the inconsiderate may not be misled by false appearances: therefore it is said by the same wise man: "Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain. But a woman that feareth the Lord, she shall be praised," Prov. xxxi. 30. Not that the two former are contemptible, but that they are inconsiderable, when compared with religion and virtue, which are much more commendable, and are likely to secure durable love and
It is an affectionate and comprehensive exhortation, with which St. Paul shuts up his epistle to the Philippians. "Finally, brethren," says he, "whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, if there be any praise, think of these things," Philip. iv. 8.
We may, then, quicken ourselves in the pursuit of virtue, and the practice of good works, with the hope of that acceptance and esteem, which are justly due to things right and reasonable in themselves.
It is a thing not undesirable, nor to be despised and slighted, to be praised by those who are in honour, and are justly praised; or to be esteemed by such as are greatly and justly esteemed. At the least, we may set this against the censures of the inconsiderate, the mistaken, and prejudiced: and may reckon the judgment of the knowing and serious to overbalance that of the vain and thoughtless.
To be conversant with wise and eminent men, and to be subservient to their ease, their credit, their influence and usefulness: or to approve and embrace the excellent lessons and maxims which they deliver, and yield to them due honour and respect, is very commendable. This is a part of the virtue of the woman here spoken of: and our Lord declared she should not fail of being honoured for it.
3. Another thing, which we are taught by this text, is, that some seasons and circumstances may justify uncommon expense.
Such expense there was now, and some through prejudice or interest took upon them to blame it. And a specious argument there was against it. But our Lord, who always was impartial (as his worst enemies acknowledged) who was never under the bias of favour or interest, openly vindicates it. Some said, the ointment might have been sold, and the price given to the poor. "But he said, Let her alone: why trouble ye her? The poor ye have with you always; but me ye have not always."
Our Lord, then, without at all detracting from the obligation to relieve the poor and indigent, which he had often inculcated, justifies this uncommon expense. The reason, upon which his determination is founded, teaches, that some extraordinary respect may be fitly shewn to strangers, especially illustrious strangers.
The argument will hold with regard to any other persons of great merit and high station, and all those, to whom we are under great obligations. We may pay them all the respect we are able, with the abundance of good things with which God has blessed us.
And what our Lord delivers here upon this occasion will serve to justify the true interpretation of divers other texts. As Luke xiv. 14, 15. "Then said he to him that bad him, When thou makest a dinner, or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, nor thy rich neighbours But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind; and thou shalt be blessed; for they cannot recompense thee: but thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just." Our Lord is not to be understood to forbid entertaining friends, and
brethren, and rich neighbours; but to teach, that we ought also to take care not to neglect and overlook the poor and necessitous, but to make a kind provision for them, and to shew tenderness to such as are in affliction. For men may live in the splendour of an exalted condition, provided they let the poor and indigent partake of their abundance. As our Lord says upon another occasion: "Give alms of such things as ye possess; and behold, all things are clean unto you," Luke xi. 41.
We may reasonably take it for granted, that the woman, who now indulged herself in a costly profusion upon Jesus, was also ready to other good works, and often bountiful to the poor.
Upon the whole, the Christian doctrine does not require a mean and sordid spirit: but enlargeth the mind, and teacheth that discreet moderation in all things, and those tender regards for the poor and indigent, which may leave room for some enlargements upon ourselves and others, on great and extraordinary occasions.*
4. What this woman now did in anointing the body of Jesus was very commendable.
If any should ask, what could there be commendable in such an action, I should answer: I wish myself able to display all its excellencies. Our Lord said, that "wherever the gospel should be preached, this also which she had done, should be told for a memorial of her." Which may satisfy us, that it deserves to be celebrated. Indeed, I think, the virtues, which were then in exercise in her mind, and which formed this action, were more fragrant, than her ointment, though that too was very precious, and "the odour of it filled all the house."
The ointment, made use of by her, was reckoned very valuable by those who were present, and the expense extraordinary. I suppose it was so, and far exceeding what she usually expended on herself, or friends, at other times. But then the greater respect does she appear to have had for Jesus. If the woman spoken of by the first two evangelists, be the same with her, of whom St. John writes, (as is very likely) she was Mary sister of Lazarus. And we can form a tolerable notion of the circumstances of his family. He is never called a pharisee, a title seldom given to any but men of substance, and credit in the world. And when he died, and was buried, though extremely dear to his sisters, his funeral was very frugal. When our Lord came to his grave, which "was a cave, and a stone lay upon it, he said: Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him, who was dead, saith unto him: Lord, by this time he stinketh. For he has been dead four days," John xi. 38, 39. His body therefore had not been embalmed, nor laid in sweet spices. There can be no reason to think then that this family were people in opulent circumstances, but rather of a middle rank only, and private condition.
Mary however had a vessel of rich ointment. Whether it was a treasure that had been long in the family, or whether she had procured it lately for this purpose, we need not say, and cannot determine. But being possessed of a box or vase of ointment, of the richest sort, she thought, she could never bestow it upon a more worthy object. Possibly, she was under apprehensions, from what she had heard him say of his departure out of this world, that it was expedient to lay hold of the present opportunity, lest another should not offer for shewing respect to so great a person.
She had a pure, sincere, ardent love and esteem for the Lord Jesus. Her mind was filled with gratitude for benefits conferred by him on herself, or her relations and friends, some temporal, some spiritual, and upon these she set the greatest value. She considered him as the Saviour of the world, and the greatest benefactor to her, and those beloved by her, that ever she had hitherto known, or should know in time to come.
All this will be readily apprehended to be true of so pious a woman as Mary, who by the gracious and wonderful interposition of the Lord Jesus had received her dear brother alive after he had been dead four days.
Her esteem for Jesus was judicious, and determined, well grounded, and unalterable. She was persuaded he was the Christ, the chosen of God. She knew it from the prophets, from his own most excellent words, and from his mighty works. And his conduct had been admirable, lovely and engaging, beyond expression. She believed he had the words of eternal life and she would never cease to esteem him, and trust in him, whatever change there should be in his outward circumstances; or however basely and despitefully some others might think fit to treat him.
• If this sermon be too long to be read at once, here may be a good pause.