A few weeks ago a friend texted me having just read the story of the woman anointing Jesus at Bethany. My friend was particularly moved by Jesus’s response to those who criticized the woman:
“Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you will 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 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 her.”
My friend’s response to this passage was very simple but showed great tenderness, reverence, and spiritual understanding – she remarked that she wished she could do something beautiful for Jesus.
My own thoughts quickly turned to the other account we have of people preparing Jesus’s body for burial, when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee took Jesus from the cross and laid him to rest. This story is, to me, one of the most beautiful in Scripture. I sat in that story a moment and then replied to my friend:
“The beautiful thing we can do for Jesus now is to care for his body here.”
My friend has since told me that I should write my next blog about this idea, so here I am. I think these thoughts have been given to me at a very relevant time, considering various things to which the church has an opportunity to respond concerning social justice, politics, and the ever-more-apparent truth that the world and life are complicated. Things are not as easy as we would like them to be.
The story of the woman anointing Jesus is recorded nearly verbatim in Matthew 26 and Mark 14. A similar story occurs in Luke 7 and John 12 (and is referenced in John 11), although details are somewhat different. But if we view these narratives as all describing the same event, we can conclude that this woman was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
In Luke 7 we learn that she was known as a sinful woman, but when she heard where Jesus was, she drew near to him and tended to the ministry of his body that his host had neglected. While the host provided a meal for Jesus, his hospitality was for his own promotion, and he did not show Jesus love or reverence. But this woman, overflowing with reverence to the point of impropriety, wept over Jesus and washed his feet and dried them with her hair. She showed no hesitation at how showing Jesus honor would make her appear unclean. Jesus upholds this woman who others would condemn and says:
“Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much.”
Mary loved Jesus. My friend loves Jesus. When our affections for Jesus are stirred, our self-consciousness is expelled by a bold and boundless desire to care for his body.
We see this in the John 19 account of Joseph and Nicodemus as well. Neither man initially looks like he will be a promising disciple. John 3 references Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night to hear his teaching, most likely to avoid being associated with someone his peers viewed as a blasphemous upstart. John 19 tells us that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but only secretly, because he feared the Jews. These are two men who it might be very easy to conclude had weak faith; they refused to acknowledge Jesus publicly. After all, “…whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father.” (Matthew 10:33)
But we should know better than to make judgments about the quality of these men’s faith. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5; for an excellent and quick teaching on Nicodemus, check out Dr. Stan Harstine’s blog here.)
John 7 tells us that Nicodemus began to challenge the Pharisees in their judgments against Jesus. And Luke 23 gives us this description of Joseph:
“He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.”
Reverend John Mark Hart has a really beautiful sermon which talks about the fickle faith of Jesus’s disciples and Jesus’s redeeming work in their lives (you can listen to the sermon, “The Failure of Christ’s Disciples,” here.) In this sermon, Hart talks about how Jesus’s most faithful followers were willing to follow Jesus to death, but only if that death looked how they expected. They were willing to go out in a blaze of glory with Jesus, warring against the injustice in the world, but they couldn’t quietly lay down their lives with Jesus, submitting to shame and defeat.
This only serves to highlight the remarkable transformation in the lives of Joseph and Nicodemus.
These men who were once so fearful of the power of men that they followed Jesus in secret now identified with and cared for Jesus when he was at his weakest and his most-shameful. They went and asked Pilate for Jesus’s body. They bathed him in extravagant amounts of spices and perfumes. They laid him to rest in a rich man’s tomb. Their work to care for him disqualified them from further participating in the Passover rites; they had touched a dead body – they were unclean. The disciples had scattered. The only people who buried Jesus were these two men and a handful of women.
The beautiful person is the one whose love for Jesus relieves them of their need to be approved and frees them to act on his behalf with reverence and boldness. The beautiful person has been transformed by a living faith and says with my friend, “I want to do something beautiful for Jesus.”
So then how do we do beautiful things for Jesus? We hear many answers from the church about this, but I’m going to keep in step with our narratives. I told my friend that the beautiful thing we can do for Jesus now is to care for his body here. My meaning is only thinly veiled – I am referring to the Church.
Even Jesus seems to allude to this idea. He tells his disciples not to fret that Mary’s oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor because they would always have the poor to care for, but they would not always have him. Doesn’t that imply that he intends his disciples to take care of the poor when they do not have him? This sounds a bit like Jesus telling the Pharisees his friends cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them, but they will fast when he has left them (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5).
Even the most basic of ecclesiology will tell you that the Church is the body and bride of Christ. We do not just get to honor Jesus’s body as the God of the universe incarnated in human flesh for our salvation, we get to honor his body as the God of the universe dwelling in his beautiful ones! Our love for Christ is directly displayed by our desire to do beautiful things for those in whom he dwells. How are else are we to serve him?
“If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” (Psalm 50)
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being the Lord of heaven and earth, does not live temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17)
He gives us everything – how could we give anything to him? But like Abraham:
“… Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him[.]” (Genesis 18)
God gives to us in order that we might give to others. He gives to us that we may do beautiful things for his body. Mary had her oil, Joseph his tomb, and Nicodemus his spices. My friend has her fierce loyalty and a strong desire to stick up for those she loves. I have a love of Scripture and a longing for people to be encouraged in their pursuit of Christ. We have the Spirit and his gifts, we have God’s provision, we have the love of Christ. We were given these gifts “for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4) We are, as we have opportunity, to “do good to everyone, and especially those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6) And this not some social justice movement devoid of the gospel – this is part of the gospel! This is why Jesus says, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13) Our doing beautiful things for the body tells the truth about who Jesus is!
So if you are like my friend and have this desire to do something beautiful for Jesus, ask yourself, “What has God given me?” When you find your answer, go and tenderly, reverently, boldly, minister to someone with it. It will be a fragrant offering. (Ephesians 5)
But, of course, these beautiful things will not come without cost, without criticism, without opposition. Loving Jesus, ministering to his body, is messy. Not everyone will see beauty in the same things. There will always be those who, like Jesus’s host at Bethany, will only see the impropriety and not the beauty. Fear not. You are ministering in the order of Christ. There is no shame, no woundedness, no insult that will not be swallowed up by the glory and love we have obtained in Christ.
So I will leave you with one last passage concerning Christ’s body. It’s from Hebrews 13, another favorite of mine:
“For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy places by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge him name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”