Matthew 26:1-16 Unfaithful Leaders, A Faithful Woman and Angry Disciples

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld – Woodcut “Die Bibel in Bildern” 1860

Matthew 26:1-16

Parallel Mark 14:1-11, Luke 22:3-6, 7:36-50

When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”

3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, 4 and they conspired to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

 6 Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? 9 For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good newsis proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Matthew abruptly transitions from parables to narrative by closing with a transitional formula similar to what he used in 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, and 19:1. As mentioned previously, Matthew’s language for these transitions is similar to Deuteronomy’s transitions at the end of Moses’ teaching (see Deuteronomy 31:1, 31:24 and 32:45) and many have attempted to draw a correlation between the five distinct teaching blocks in Matthew and the five books attributed to Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy). Whether Matthew intended this structure of five teachings to point back to the first five books of the bible is an open question, but for Matthew the conclusion of these parables concludes the long blocks of teaching which form the most significant differences between Matthew and Mark, and even though Luke may share many of the teachings with Matthew they are often scattered throughout his gospel. Now the transition returns us to the basic narrative structure that Mark and Matthew share in common as we enter the passion narrative.

The passion narrative begins with a final prediction of the Son of Man’s being handed over[1] and crucified. We have just left a parable where the Son of Man comes in glory, but we quickly are returned to the quickly approaching suffering and death of the Son of Man. Jesus continues to use this title as a self-reference, and as readers we have seen the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders continue to rise and have had multiple predictions of Jesus’ upcoming betrayal, capture, and crucifixion. The gathering of the chief priests and elders in the courtyard[2] of Caiaphas to conspire to arrest Jesus in a cunning[3] way that leads to his death without provoking an uproar from the people sets the stage for the unfolding drama of the next two chapters. From the perspective of Caiaphas and these priests and elders Jesus is a dangerous influence on the people who needs to be eliminated, yet the feast of Passover with its symbolism and with the increased population in Jerusalem makes this a time where the passions of the crowd must be managed if they are to maintain control. There is the danger of an public uprising which could bring about military action by the Romans, but there is also the danger of their own authority being stolen in the midst of an uprising.

The scene quickly shifts from the courtyard of Caiaphas to the house of Simon the Leper at Bethany where Jesus is anointed by an unnamed woman. The title Christ or Messiah means ‘anointed one’ and although the title Son of God and beloved are revealed at the baptism, here in an unexpected person we see Jesus anointed. Anointing is frequently associated with both the priesthood (Exodus 29:7, Leviticus 21:10) and kings (1 Samuel 10:1, 16:13, 24:6; 1 Kings 1:39, 19:16; 2 Kings 9:3,6) and although the anointing ones in the above stories are often prophets of priests, here this unnamed woman completes this anointing of Jesus while he reclines[4] at the table. Peter has confessed that Jesus is the ‘anointed one,’ but he and the rest of the disciples (they are viewed as a group here) respond to this action indignantly.[5] Their objection is that this expensive ointment is now destroyed when it could have been sold to help the poor, and while the ministry to the poor is a significant part of Jesus’ ministry they misunderstand the implications of the woman’s actions. What they view as wasteful or destructive Jesus views as a good work.[6] Jesus also interprets her action of pouring (literally throwing in Greek) the ointment on him in light of his upcoming death and burial. She becomes the first woman to begin preparing Jesus’ body for its upcoming burial, and women will often take the lead in the passion narrative as the male disciples fail in their desire to remain steadfast during this time. The women during the crucifixion and resurrection stay closer to Jesus and become those who are the last faithful witnesses at the cross and the first at the empty tomb. This unnamed woman’s action becomes intimately connected with the proclamation of this gospel, and her action is to be told as an integral part of it. This woman is aware of the time in which she stands, unlike the disciples: she is aware that she stands in the presence of the bridegroom that will soon be taken from them (9:15) Although she remains unnamed her action is told in memory of her and highlight the actions of the many other unnamed and unremembered women who are integral to the continued proclamation of the gospel.

One of the twelve, Judas Iscariot, moves from indignation to action against the anointed one. The woman has spent and extravagant amount on the ointment, but Judas merely asks what they wish to give him to hand Jesus over to them. The price of thirty silver coins, which most likely are thirty shekels-about 120 days wage for a day laborer, is not an extravagant price. As Anna Case-Winters says well:

The woman at Bethany is “a bright foil to the dark plotting of the enemies and Judas.” Her extravagant gift in preparation for Jesus’ burial is in stark contrast to Judas’ greedy grasping after a paltry sum to hand Jesus over to die. (Case-Winters 2015, 293)

These four quick scenes which conclude Jesus’ teaching and prepare the reader for the upcoming betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus move us towards the rapidly approaching event of the Passover and the crucifixion. The chief priests and the scribes at the beginning of the gospel gave both the magi and King Herod the location of Jesus (2:5-6), now they are trying to discern his location for their own purposes. The disciples, even though they have been warned multiple times, seem unable to grasp who Jesus is or the symbolic nature of this work by the unnamed woman, but women will continue to bridge the gap between the struggles of these male disciples around the passion of Jesus and Jesus return to these disciples in Galilee. Yet, the handing over of Jesus comes from one of the twelve, one whose indignation has proven how inexpensive his loyalty to the ‘anointed one’ is.

[1] The Greek paradidomi is used throughout the gospel and particularly in the passion narrative. English translations may render it ‘hand over’ or ‘betray’ (both translations are apparent in this section).

[2] The Greek aule primarily means “courtyard, an enclosed space, open to the sky, near a house or surrounded by buildings” (BAGD, 121) While the household of Caiaphas may have been elaborate, the NRSV’s choice to translate this as palace tends to evoke for most English readers medieval imagery of castles.

[3] The Greek dolos has the darker meanings of treachery and deceit, and while stealth may cover the desire for secrecy it does not carry the negative connotations cunning, treachery or deceit may carry in English.

[4] Dining in Jesus time was done ‘reclining at the table’ with tables lower to the ground, rather than sitting elevated in chairs like most modern people assume.

[5] Aganakteo is traditionally translated indignant. Modern translations have gone to the more general term of anger, but anger is a large emotion covering a lot of more complex feelings.

[6] Greek ergazomai is work. The translation of service probably is due to some translators avoiding the terminology of good works in light of the conflict over this between reformation and Roman Catholic perspectives, but the simplest translation is good work.

2 thoughts on “Matthew 26:1-16 Unfaithful Leaders, A Faithful Woman and Angry Disciples

  1. Pingback: Matthew 27: 57-66 The Guarded Body of Jesus | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew | Sign of the Rose

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