Sunday, 26 July 2020

Anointing the Anointed: A Sermon on Matthew 26:1-16

Our church is coming to the end of its journey in Matthew’s Gospel and for today I was asked to select a passage from Matthew 26:1-56 to preach on—yes, a selection from a measly fifty-six verses! I went with the first sixteen verses and paired it with Psalm 2. To be honest, I struggled with this one: not so much with the sermon prep (which I always love), but with the actual writing and trying to work out what I wanted to say and how to say it. In the end, I’m not sure I really say that much; but as I’ve had a couple of positive comments about the sermon, I suppose it can’t have been as meandering or as ineffective as I thought.

Psalm 2; Matthew 26:1-16

Let me tell you something shocking: Matthew’s Gospel is about a man called Jesus. According to Matthew, this man Jesus taught about the kingdom of heaven, spoke out against religious hypocrisy, healed people with diseases, fed the hungry thousands, calmed the storm, and walked on the sea. This man Jesus is an impressive and inspirational figure by any measure.

But Matthew hasn’t written his Gospel just to tell others how impressive and inspirational this man Jesus is. Right from the beginning, Matthew has been telling us that this man Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One chosen to ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1:21). And how will God’s Anointed One save his people from their sins? By dying. And this man Jesus knows this. Jesus knows he is the Christ, the Messiah; but he knows equally that his status as God’s Anointed One grants him no special privileges. He knows that the path his Father in heaven has set him on leads ultimately to his resurrection and salvation for those who are his disciples. But he must die by crucifixion first. This is his mission. This man Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One chosen to save his people.

What does all this mean? What lies behind the idea and practice of ‘anointing’? Basically, anointing means rubbing or pouring oil on something—not engine oil, of course; think olive oil and similar. In the Old Testament, anointing with oil occasionally had very special purposes. Priests and the fixtures and fittings of the tabernacle were anointed to consecrate them: to set them apart as holy for a special role among God’s people. Prophets, too, were anointed for their role in speaking the Lord’s words to people and nations, though perhaps the anointing here is more to do with God’s Spirit than actual oil. And Israel’s kings were also anointed, this time to lead the people as the Lord’s representative. Anointing here is a visual and physical way of setting someone apart to act for and on behalf of the people.

Let me linger a moment or two on the anointing of kings, as this helps us better to understand our Gospel reading—which I will get to in due course! Today’s Old Testament reading, Psalm 2, is what we could call a ‘coronation psalm’; that is, it was quite possibly used when a new king acceded to the throne. Psalm 2 is broken into four sections: verses one to three show the nations in rebellion against the Lord and his anointed one, that is, against the Lord and his king. The next section, verses four to six, tells us that the Lord finds all this rather amusing because there’s nothing anyone can do against the Lord. Verses seven to nine are the third section, and here the king himself speaks: ‘I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father’ (2:7). There is an intimate father–son relationship at the heart of Israel’s monarchy, with the Lord as the father and the king as the Lord’s anointed son. Finally, verses ten to twelve show that the people of Israel and all the nations in the world serve the Lord by respecting the Lord’s son, the king; in turn, the king brings peace to ‘all who take refuge in him’ (2:12). If Psalm 2 really was used in ancient coronations, then we can imagine that an actual anointing, with oil poured on the head, was part of the process of setting apart the new king to rule as the Lord’s representative, the Lord’s son, in the land.

Got this? Good! And now, as promised, let’s look at today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 26. The majority of our reading today tells a story about an unnamed woman anointing Jesus and the disciples’ outrage at such a thing! The passage is actually quite vague, I think, and it raises all sorts of questions: Who was Simon the leper? Who was the woman? Why did she anoint Jesus? Why were the disciples angry? What did Jesus mean when he said ‘you always have the poor with you’? And so on. Some of these questions I’ll leave you to work out for yourself; a single sermon can’t cover everything. And we can fill in some of the details from the parallel passages in Mark and John: in John’s Gospel, for example, the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. And there are traditions where Simon the leper is actually Mary, Martha, and Lazarus’s dad, whom Jesus must have healed from leprosy at some point earlier in his ministry. But why doesn’t Matthew himself include these sorts of details?

What we need to remember is that Matthew, as with the other Gospel writers, wasn’t just making notes about Jesus to write up later. In writing his Gospel, Matthew wants to communicate some very specific things about Jesus to the people he’s writing to. This means he is quite happy to drop some details and include others, so long as the finished story says exactly what he wants it to say. Matthew, it seems, is keen to emphasise that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One—that is, he wants to reinforce the belief that Jesus is God’s Son and King, and so selects his material carefully to do just this. This theme about Jesus is found throughout Matthew’s Gospel, including at its beginning when an angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save his people, and when the wise men came to worship the newborn king of the Jews. And here, towards the end, Matthew is still telling the same story about King Jesus—only now, King Jesus is facing death at the hands of his own people.

Let’s dig deeper. Why did the unnamed woman approach Jesus to anoint him? Matthew doesn’t tell us her motivation. It wasn’t unusual at the time to anoint dinner guests, but Matthew frames the incident as though Jesus alone was targeted. If this unnamed woman is, in fact, Mary the brother of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life, perhaps she anointed Jesus as an extravagant gesture of love and gratitude. Who knows? Whatever the woman’s motivation, Jesus interprets his anointing in the context of his imminent death and burial. It seems the woman had understood and accepted that which the disciples hadn’t grasped at all: that Jesus really was going to die, and in a very short while.
I think that Matthew is hinting at even more, though. In John’s telling of this story, the woman anoints Jesus’s feet; but here, and in Mark, she anoints his head. Is this a contradiction? Not really—the woman could have started at Jesus’s head and worked her way down to his feet, or even vice versa. But in the wider context of the way Matthew has been telling Jesus’s story, I’m inclined to think that what we have here is another reference, a subtle one, to Jesus as God’s Son and King. Israel’s kings were anointed by applying oil to their heads, and so it’s quite possible, I think, to say that when we take all the imagery and symbolism that Matthew has so far used into account, that here Jesus is once more presented as God’s Son and King even as he is prepared in advance for the burial following his inevitable death.

Is this a stretch? You’ll have to decide that for yourself! But if I’m on the right lines here, then we need to consider something else. In the Old Testament, kings were very often anointed by prophets. If the unnamed woman here is really anointing Jesus as Son and King, then she is acting as a prophet. Her actions prophetically confirm that Jesus truly is the King who will save his people from their sins, but through his own death. None of the disciples accept this or even get this.

Jehoiada anoints Joash
The Old Testament also shows that sometimes even the high priest would anoint a new king (2 Kgs 11:12). This means that the unnamed woman is acting here as a priest. This might not seem all that interesting or significant until we remember that Israel’s priesthood was a men-only institution. By portraying the unnamed woman as priest, Matthew shows there is radical equality between men and women when they stand together in relation to Jesus. What we see in today’s Gospel reading is nothing less than the beginning of God’s new creation emerging from the old, of the kingdom of heaven flattening the empires of men, and the age to come undoing the patriarchies of what the apostle Paul calls ‘this present evil age’ (Gal 1:3).

So what can we say? First of all, the woman’s prophetic and priestly actions in today’s passage stand in stark contrast both to the disciples, who failed to appreciate what Jesus had been saying to them, and to the actual priests, who wanted Jesus killed. Through her simple act of anointing, the unnamed woman confirmed that Jesus was God’s Son and king of the Jews; prophesied that Jesus would save his people from their sins through his death; and effectively demonstrated true discipleship and faithfulness to Jesus. If you want a simple take-home message, then here it is: Be like the woman, not like the men!

Second, the message of radical equality between men and women in Jesus Christ is not limited to Matthew’s Gospel. We find it throughout the New Testament—yes, even in Paul’s letters. How so? Doesn’t Paul say women should submit to men, can’t speak in church, and so on? All I will say here is that if the logic of the gospel message doesn’t give us clues on how Paul is actually undermining the social attitudes and conventions of his day, then we are probably more shaped by the world around us than by the good news of Jesus Christ.

And finally, here’s something more positive to end on: Matthew’s Gospel includes all sorts of stories about Jesus’s healings and miracles and teaching, but ultimately he is concerned with the man himself. In Matthew’s eyes, this man Jesus—born of a virgin in Bethlehem, baptised in the Jordan, tempted by the devil in the wilderness, crucified, died, and raised—this man Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, God’s Anointed One, and King for the whole world.


  1. Please find a unique re telling of the Spiritual Gospel of Saint Jesus of Galilee via this reference:

    Section 17 provides a very fiery re-interpretation of Matthew 23. The last section is full of more-than-wonderful Wisdom.

    1. I was more interested by what caught my eye in section 18, to be honest. It says Lazarus died - and yet he is clearly alive when Jesus arrives at the tomb, section 18 doesn't say Jesus raised him from the dead. So I must ask: Had Lazarus truly died? Or did someone else bring him back to life?

  2. Now, Terry, I am quite taken with the idea of the woman in the story fulfilling a priestly role. I'd not thought about that before.

    1. It wasn't a popular idea with everyone in my church, though . . .