PassageAgain, I’m covering a few sections (per the ESV section headings) in one post, but they’re all part of one story, so it makes sense.
The story starts with the religious leaders plotting to kill Jesus, but deciding to do it after the Passover, out of fear that the people will cause an “uproar.” But as they’re having these discussions, Jesus has dinner with someone named Simon the Leper (an unfortunate name!), when a woman comes and pours a jar of costly nard over Jesus’ head. (The ESV Study Bible says that such a jar of nard would probably have cost about 300 days’ wages for a typical worker at the time — costly indeed!) Some of those who are present get indignant at the waste, but Jesus rebukes them:
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (verses 6–9 (ESV))After this Judas goes to see out the religious leaders, and offers to betray Jesus in return for money.
ThoughtsAt first glance, I’m not surprised that the people dining with Jesus would be indignant at the “waste” of nard. After all, 300 days’ worth of wages is a lot of money. But Jesus’ perspective is different: First of all, he recognizes that she is preparing him for burial. His disciples have never quite grasped the fact that Jesus is about to die, but he obviously knows what’s coming. Secondly, his disciples have also not quite grasped the fact that Jesus is God. What Jesus understands, better than anyone, is that it is never a waste to give anything to God. All of the Old Testament rules about sacrifices emphasize this: the best parts of the sacrificed animals are to go to God. In a sense, you can call that a “waste,” since the best parts of the animals are simply being burned up, but when you consider that you’re giving preference to God over yourself, it makes more sense. When we look at it in that light, it makes all the sense in the world to use this amount of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus — to anoint God.
The reason these passages all go together, though, is that it’s not a coincidence that Judas immediately goes to the religious leaders to betray Jesus. He definitely doesn’t get this concept of giving the best to God; he definitely views this as a waste of money. (Other gospels call out that Judas was the disciples’ treasurer, and used to steal money for himself, which is not unrelated.)
A final thought, which isn’t really related to the story, comes from Jesus telling his disciples that they will always have the poor with them. Some people — especially those in North America who call themselves fiscal conservatives — have taken this passage as some kind of excuse to not help the poor. The logic seems to be that we’ll always have the poor with us — Jesus said so! — so it’s useless to try to help them. This is not a viewpoint that one can back up biblically; the Bible is clear, time and time again, that we are to be concerned for the poor, and do what we can to help them. God Himself cares for them, and we are to be like Him in doing likewise. In this passage Jesus is just stating an unfortunate fact: the poor will still be here tomorrow — but I won’t be. Do what you can for me today — even if it’s just enjoying my company, and preparing me for burial — and then help the poor again when I’m gone.