Ash Wednesday: “Eyes on Jesus: Misjudging Eyes”
February 26, 2020
Text: Mark 14:1-9: 1It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.”
3And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9And 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.”
The dinner guests are quite right that we should give money and other necessities to the poor. That is not the problem with their criticism of the woman. Jesus assumes in the Holy Gospel read earlier (Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21) that we’ll give to the needy, as well as pray and fast and do other good works. In fact, those are the very disciplines encouraged on Ash Wednesday and in the holy season of Lent. The question is not whether good works are necessary. They are. The question is what they are necessary for. In our reading from Matthew, Jesus criticizes those who do their good works in order to be seen by others, to be admired and honored by men. And He roundly condemns the idea that good works are necessary to gain God’s favor, to merit life and salvation. So good works are necessary, but not to earn anything before God, and though your Father will reward what He sees in secret according to Jesus, we don’t do them for rewards, temporal or eternal. Why do them, then? Because you need them to crucify your sinful nature and exercise your faith in Christ. And because your neighbor needs them. He needs you not to sin against him, to do good for him, to provide his needs, and have mercy upon him. And insofar as you do it to one of the least of these, you do it unto Christ.
But the dinner gusts misjudge what the woman is doing, and their eyes are blind to the significance. They think she is wasting the precious ointment. Now, if it’s true the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii, that would feed a lot of people. A denarius is about a day’s wage for a common laborer. 300 denarii is close to a year’s wages! Think of that! Back when Jesus fed the 5,000, the disciples exclaimed that 200 denarii would be about right to feed the crowd. Here with the ointment, we’re talking a hundred more than that. So this is very precious stuff, this ointment, and the alabaster flask she broke was worth a pretty penny in and of itself.
But it is not a waste. It is a sign. It is a preparation for that which is most important. The death and burial of Jesus for the forgiveness of all our sins. Jesus calls her action “a beautiful thing” in our text (Mark 14:6), literally, a beautiful work. It is beautiful because it proclaims the precious Gospel of the sin-atoning work of Jesus. Remember this when you think we’re spending too much money on Church stuff. If it is stuff that proclaims Christ and His salvation, it is never a waste. That is what is important in this, the proclamation of Christ. That is what we need for salvation. Not our works, but the work of Jesus.
It is preparation for His burial. Remember that there was no time to anoint Jesus properly at His burial. They were in a hurry to get Him in the tomb before the Sabbath. That is why the women were on their way to the tomb Easter morning, to give Him a proper anointing. Here the woman anoints Him before the time. And anointing, that is significant. Prophets, priests, and kings are anointed. The Hebrew word for Messiah, the Greek word for Christ, these mean “Anointed One.” Jesus is the One anointed by God with His Spirit in His Baptism. He is anointed to be our Redeemer from sin, death, and hell. Jesus is the Prophet who preaches the Good News of our salvation. He is our great High Priest who makes the sacrifice of atonement for our sin. He is the King who is risen from the dead, lives, and reigns to all eternity, who frees us from bondage and makes us His own and gives us the Kingdom forever and ever.
All of that is proclaimed by the woman’s beautiful work. And that is why to this day, to this very moment, “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (v. 9).
The dinner guests misjudge the who Jesus is and what He has come to do. They misjudge the actions and motives of the nameless woman and her beautiful work. They misjudge the place of good works in the economy of the Gospel. Jesus sees with clear eyes. The woman’s beautiful work flows from faith in her Lord, her Savior. Feeding the poor is important, but Jesus’ death for the poor and for all is most important. The poor you will always have with you, so feed them your whole life long. God knows they need it, and He feeds them through you. Jesus will soon go to the cross as the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. So above all, put your faith in Him and let your love flow out of that. Do not trust in your works and do not do works to seek a reward from men or from God. Do them because your neighbor is hungry. Do them because he needs your help. And do what you can, wherever you can, to do the beautiful work of pointing your neighbor to the death and burial of Christ, who is risen and lives and loves you and your neighbor.
The woman did “what she could,” says Jesus (v. 8). That is, she had a vocation, a calling for this moment of time, to anoint the Lord in preparation for His burial. You also do what you can, which is to say, look at your place, your station in life. You have been born into a specific time and place, surrounded by specific people. Feed the hungry among them. Give alms, fast, and pray. And anoint Jesus before their eyes, showing them His death and resurrection for them. Spend money on the things that proclaim Jesus. Give an offering for the preaching of the Gospel. Proclaim Him yourself. Speak of Him. Point to Him. That is a beautiful work.
Then simply rejoice. You are a Dinner guest of Jesus. Baptized into Christ, sins forgiven, declared righteous apart from works, in order to do good works which God prepared beforehand that you should walk in them (Eph. 2:10), come to the Table so that Jesus can feed the poor, so that Jesus can feed you. His true body. His true blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He was anointed for this very thing. And because you eat the very body anointed by the woman in her beautiful work so that He is in you with His sin-atoning death and resurrection life, you are strengthened to go give alms and feed the poor.
And, by the way, don’t misjudge the ashes you are about to receive. Don’t do these for a reward, to impress God or show others what a super Christian you are. No… These are the ashes of death. Repent of your sins! Dust you are, and to dust you shall return. But know also these ashes are mixed with oil in the shape of the holy cross. Tonight, you are anointed, quite literally, ash and oil and the holy cross. And that turns your mourning into dancing and fills you, you sack of dust, with the very breath of life, the Spirit. You who are baptized into the death of Christ, are baptized into the resurrection of Christ. You who died with Christ have been raised with Him. And the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon you. So that is how God looks upon you. No misjudging with Him. He looks upon you with the clear eyes of Jesus, crucified for you, risen for you. He judges you righteous, He judges you holy, for Jesus’ sake. And here you are, ashes yes, but forgiven, healed, made whole, alive. By grace. In Christ your Savior. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme and many of the ideas in this sermon are taken from Eyes on Jesus (St. Louis: Concordia, 2019).