Rev. Katherine Todd
The Lord GOD has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens —
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord GOD has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord GOD helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord GOD who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
In this story today I am struck by the personal and social dynamics at play. Here an unnamed woman comes into the home of Simon the leper to anoint Jesus’ head with costly perfume – that which would be preserved for one’s own death and burial. This costly gift was precious to a family, and here, this woman, pours it all out, on Jesus’ head.
What a profound expression of love, of cherishing, of devotion. What a sacred act of worship! What sacrifice!
This woman has moved from a place of calculation, of measured giving, to a place of pouring herself out – as it were – before Jesus. She takes the leap from rational to unmeasured devotion.
And it brings *a collective gasp* over the dinner party.
None of them had done such! They would have never dared! …and it didn’t make sense, did it?! After all there were a myriad of other ways she could have invested or given her gift – to make and impact or yield a return. What an unnecessary waste! What a frivolous outpouring.
But Jesus’ response is swift – “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me…She has done what she could. She has anointed me beforehand for my burial.”
“She has done what she could.”
This was her greatest gift – broken open for Christ.
First off, I am struck that the guests would presume to tell this woman what to do with her own possession. Perhaps they thought her to be feebly female – her rational mind overrun by emotions, as we are long accustomed to despise. There is certainly not a sense that she can do whatever she wills with her possession; they all have stepped in with disapproval and unsolicited advice. Perhaps they feel it their obligation to wrangle this “free-wheeling” woman who appears to be acting without the authority, consent, or oversight of a man.
…And it is incensing: the audacity, the condescension, with which she is regarded.
And what strikes me, is that in-all-likelihood, these onlookers don’t care about the poor. In all likelihood, reference to the poor is merely a smoke-screen under which to hide their own failure of devotion. For this woman’s action calls them out. It stands juxtaposition these dinner party guests’ measured and calculated affections.
Is it any wonder then, that folks instantly endeavor to belittle her?
Is it not in great effort to excuse themselves…under the guise of being more clever or wise with their resources? …under the guise of truly caring more about others than they do themselves? For many, the poor were merely a prop – to be used to make them feel better about themselves and their wealth – or to be used to garner praise and admiration from their peers when a pittance was offered from their coffers.
But here is this WOMAN – unable to earn money of her own, most likely, unable to make decisions on her own, most likely – giving away what may have been her most valuable possession, a practical possession, as it was her own burial arrangement.
Her act is pure. It is unforeseen. It is uncontrolled. It is beautiful, as Jesus calls it. And this word, “Beautiful” suggests “love lifted up as a fine art.” It is embodied, emboldened, tangible love, of the highest form.
To revere her would require self-reflection of the uncomfortable sort – time spent with a mirror.
To celebrate her would be to empower all sorts of unsustainable, radically emotional and spontaneous gifts.
And here, Jesus, through Mark, lifts this unorthodox, unsanctioned action by an unnamed, uneducated woman up – up for all to see as beautiful and prophetic.
In the Gospel of Mark, it is repeatedly the outsiders who get it. They are the ones whose words and actions proclaim the Kingdom of God.
In her bold anointing of Jesus’ head, this woman is proclaiming the Kingdom of God. She embodies what all the learned men assembled cannot themselves see. And she foreshadows Jesus’ death, while all are eating and drinking and making merry.
“If anyone has ears to hear, let them here!
…and eyes to see, let them see!”
The Interpreter’s Bible Commentary has this to say,
“Again, as we allow this scene to stay before our imagination, it speaks powerfully of the consecration of personality, the unmeasured sharing of the best that we are and have. Personality is a precious perfume. It is always a tragedy to carry it through life in an unbroken jar. Yet many have done exactly that. They have reserved themselves, their affection, their possible outgoing to those in deep need of friendship, comfort, incentive. Such people wait for an audience that seems worthy of their self-giving, or an occasion important enough to call for it. Life slips by and the perfume jar is never broken. Others always measure themselves out with a medicine dropper, frightened lest they spend a drop more than the legalities of the situation demand.”
Christ is among us still.
May we not wait
– until our eyes can no longer see and our ears no longer hear –
to break open
and pour ourselves out,
the best of us,
as a fragrant offering for our God.