While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
Do you have a tendency to act extravagantly?
Yes? You go shopping and end up buying far more than you intended - in fact, far more than you needed. You splash out on an expensive holiday, even perhaps on a car which is really beyond your means, or on a meal out which is more than just a treat.
Probably most of us would have to plead guilty (if that’s the right expression).
All right then - let’s narrow the question down a little... Do you have a tendency to act extravagantly on behalf of other people?
Ah, I suspect that many of us would be forced to admit that the answer is no, not really. Certainly, we give to charities and are happy to help out in cases of serious need. But very likely we still make sure to give well within our means, nowhere near the ouch-point, the point where it hurts - the word extravagant doesn’t really apply.
Let’s narrow the question still further. Have you ever acted extravagantly for the sake of Jesus? Just once, perhaps?
If we find that question a bit painful, well, let’s make it even more painful. (I am, of course, putting these questions to myself as well as to you who are reading this.) Can you think of a single thing you have ever done, extravagant or not, which was done purely out of love for Jesus?
No, neither can I!
If you read the verses at the top you’ll know where I’m heading...
Jesus, along with other guests, is enjoying a social evening with a man called Simon the Leper. While they’re at the meal-table a woman comes in and proceeds to crack open a jar of perfume and tip it over his head. This act of crazy extravagance triggers an outburst of “indignation”. What a waste! Think what good could have been done with the money - a whole year’s wages! - if that perfume had been sold.
And, let’s be honest, it’s hard to argue with that; those people are absolutely right. How many empty stomachs could have been filled!
But Jesus springs fiercely to her defence: “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her?” And then one of his greatest words: “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
An interesting word, that “beautiful”. There is a perfectly good Greek word for “good” (your name is derived from it, incidentally, if you happen to be called Agatha), but it isn’t used here. No, the word here, kalos, does mean good, but then a whole lot more. You could translate it “fine”, “excellent”, “fitting”, “absolutely appropriate”. You could reach for old-fashioned words like “noble” or “winsome”. Even “beautiful” doesn’t quite capture all its possible shades of meaning.
Jesus is suggesting that what that woman did wasn’t just “good”, but truly mind-expanding and life-enhancing. Anyone who saw it without being deeply moved was revealing a tragic inner emptiness.
Beauty. Our world desperately needs it. And in the beginning God gave it plenty. He “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). But we have ruined it through our sin. Yes, of course, much natural beauty does remain, and there is something very wrong with us if we can’t admire a beautiful scene or a new-born baby. But in the realm of human behaviour... oh, how we have ruined it! So much ugliness and nastiness, so much pride, selfishness and greed in the ways we talk and act.
I’m not wanting to suggest that we all go out and do something wildly extravagant. A beautiful thing doesn’t have to be an extravagant thing. What I am suggesting is this: it is in the power of each of us to “do a beautiful thing for (if not directly to) Jesus” simply by aiming every day to reflect his purity and goodness.
To encourage us, let’s notice that, according to Jesus, the woman’s action had a profound significance which, surely, she knew nothing about: “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.”
We later read of other women coming to the tomb of Jesus to anoint his body. That was a beautiful action. But this unknown woman got there first.
In the same way, even that quite small and trivial act you perform today - taking perhaps just a couple of minutes - might be revealed on judgment day as bursting with some wonderful meaning you knew nothing about.
Christian, will you make it your aim today to make this world a more beautiful place?
Father, help me to say, with John the Baptist, that Jesus must increase, I must decrease, and so, in however small a way, to add to the beauty of this spoiled and troubled world. Amen.