When I was growing up, it was very important to my mother to get for me and both of my sisters a hope chest. She went to antique stores, garage sales, and always kept her eye open for wooden chests that were well built and would last a lifetime. I still have mine, sitting at the end of the bed. I learned that the tradition was started generations ago for young girls, that as they grew up and learned their “womanly duties”, they would knit and prepare for themselves things that they would use when they had their own husband, family and house like doilies, blankets, nightgowns and tablecloths. Thus the name “hope chest” – it was looking forward in hope to their own future. My hope chest, strangely enough, is filled up with mementos from the past: old journals, newspapers from important days and memoirs.
In Jesus’ day, people had similar traditions. One such tradition was the purchase of expensive perfumes and oils that a girl could hold onto in preparation for her wedding day. Being of high value, it could be sold to provide for the girl and/or her family if they come upon hard times, but it was a symbol of hope, a token of security and a treasure for a young woman to hold onto. The oils were often kept in costly, beautiful vials, and that only added to the beauty and value of the oil.
Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head as He reclined at the table. But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me. For when she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”
– Matt 26.7-13
In Luke’s Gospel, we learn that she not only poured the perfume on his head, but anointed his feet with it, and washed his feet with her hair and tears. Mark tells us that she broke the vial, using all of the oil and destroying even the beautiful jar in which it came. John informs us that it could have been sold for the equivalent of one year’s wages!
All four of the Gospels tell this story. And Jesus Himself said that this is an integral part of the Gospel message. Why? Well, on the one hand, Mary was unknowingly preforming a sign for the things which were to come: the very same oil is oil that was used in burial preparation. Thus Jesus said “When she poured this perfume on My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial”. Somehow, even though Jesus had spoke very plainly about His impending death, the disciples did not comprehend that Jesus was going to die. And here we see Jesus explain clearly that He was going to die, and Mary had preformed a beautiful, prophetic deed in His honor.
But this is also a remarkable act of faith and surrender. Mary poured out a year’s worth of income on Jesus head and feet and washed his feet with her hair. She poured out her vial of hope and preparation for marriage. She broke her bottle of security if she ever fell upon financial hardship. And she gave it not only freely, but in humble submission.
The scripture teaches us to be good stewards of the gifts and abilities that God has given us. But He also desires that we recognize the fact that everything we have is His, we have nothing that we did not receive, and He wants us to die to ourselves and surrender everything to Him. Thus Jesus says that the poor widow who gave the only two pennies that she had in the offering gave more than any of the rich men, because she gave everything that she had. And that is the faith and love the Jesus honors and desires.
Have you ever been indignant with someone (or the Church) for how they spend their money, gifts or time? Would it be better spent serving the poor? The primary call of Christianity is not to serve the poor, it is to love, serve and honor God. Sometimes serving God is exemplified in serving the poor. But sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is pouring ourselves out completely, giving Him our hope, our security and our future in complete abandon.
What is your hope? What is your security? Would you give it over to Jesus in an act of worship? Would you trust Him to meet your needs and care for you? Or are you like one of the disciples, who follow Jesus but do not treasure Him?