Holy Wednesday is a crucial day in the events of Holy Week. From Palm Sunday through Holy Tuesday, Jesus acted in the public eye, performing significant actions and speaking startling words. These actions and words spiked the ire of Jesus’ enemies, who – according to Mark 14:1 – “were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him.”
But Jesus’ enemies had no way to get at him, protected as he was by the sympathies of the crowds (verse 2). No way, that is, until one of his own resolved to betray him. “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over” (verses 10-11).
Mark does not tell us what prompted Judas to betray Jesus. He mentions that the chief priests promised Judas money, but this was after he approached them, not before. We simply don’t know what prompted Judas to go to the chief priests in the first place – not from Mark, at any rate.
What we do know is that between verses 1-2, which report the chief priests’ intent to murder Jesus, and verses 10-11, which report Judas’s intent to betray him, we find the story of an unnamed women and her broken jar of expensive perfume.
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as 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 (verse 3).
In his laconic telling of this event, Mark fails to answer two key questions: Who was this woman, and why did she do it? What he does report is the grumbling this action provoked from some of Simon’s dinner guests:
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 (verses 4-5).
Because of his pronounced sympathies for the poor, Jesus might have been expected to join the criticism of this lavish waste of money. But – and isn’t amazing how Jesus rarely conforms to our expectations – he didn’t! Instead, he drew attention to himself:
“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. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (verses 6-9).
With these words, Jesus outlines two distinct forms of spirituality. One focuses on helping the poor; the other focuses on loving Jesus.
The spirituality that focuses on helping the poor seems so right. Jesus himself was an advocate for the poor, their friend and provider. Yet, in this instance, Jesus saw that the guests’ focus on the poor detracted from their focus on him. The most important thing is to love Jesus. If you love Jesus, you will help the poor whom Jesus loved. But it is also quite possible that a cause – even a praiseworthy one like helping the poor – can lead you away from loving Jesus.
Perhaps this was the reason for Judas’ betrayal. He loved a cause more than he loved Christ.