One way pastors survive the week after week need to prepare a Sunday sermon is that they gather during the week with other pastors to discuss the scripture for the coming Sunday. They can do that because most mainline denominational pastors follow what is called the lectionary. The lectionary is a listing of scriptures in a three-year cycle. We are currently in year C and the gospel scripture listed for today is Luke 4. Across America there are many sermons being preached on Luke 4. But that isn’t the one we are looking at today.
I don’t follow the lectionary because then I couldn’t do a sermon series on “Is That Really in the Bible?” or “Surprising Saints” like we are going to do for Lent this year. Not using the lectionary means I’m not going to find other pastors to talk with during the week about the upcoming scripture and that is a loss for an out loud processor like me.
But luckily for me, I have a son who loves to read the Bible and discuss it. He often calls me during the week and says, “What are you preaching on? Want to talk about it?” When my children were teenagers I never thought that one of my sons would want to talk to me about the Bible with me and I am so grateful.
This week when we talked I read him the story Tim just read to us of the woman anointing Jesus with the costly ointment. He said, “I hate that scripture.” “Really?” I said. “Yes,” he said emphatically. “Jesus’ disciples question the use of expensive perfume that could have been sold to feed the poor, and rightly so. That is exactly what Jesus taught them. Remember? ‘Sell all you have and give the money to the poor and come and follow me.’ Now when they feed back to him exactly what he taught them Jesus says, “You will always have the poor but you will not always have me.” Matt was on his soapbox now. He said, “I am with the detractors this time, Mom. Jesus and I are on opposite teams on this one.” (For those of you who are worried that I am sharing a conversation with you that Matt would not want shared, set that aside. Matt not only gave me permission, I think he wanted you all to know just how strongly he feels about this scripture.)
I get why he feels that way. Everyone around Jesus felt the same way…well except for the woman, of course. Right before this whole anointing thing happened we learned that the chief priests and scribes were plotting to kill Jesus. They were trying to figure out how to arrest him when he was away from the crowds. Yes, you heard that right. The religious leaders wanted Jesus dead and they had gathered to conspire against him. That is a shocking revelation.
The next scene is Jesus eating dinner in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper. Simon had to be a former leper to be allowed to live in town and invite others over for dinner. It appears that once you have the title leper it just kind of sticks with you for the rest of your life. Of course, Jesus would be found hanging out with the outcasts and former outcasts. So, while they were reclining at the table, a woman….a nameless woman….a woman we know absolutely nothing about…came into the room and broke open an alabaster jar of ointment. The oil inside was extracted from the nard plant that was native to India and it was expensive. Its worth was equivalent to a year’s salary for a rural day-laborer. Nard was used to perfume the head and the hair. We learn that from the love songs in the Song of Solomon. It was also used to anoint the dead for burial. It is an ointment for love and for death. This unnamed woman pours this valuable ointment onto Jesus’ head and hair.
There are so many things in those few sentences to leave this room of men reeling from the experience. First of all, a woman with free access to a dinner attended by men was scandalous in first century Palestine. Secondly, in a limited good society this ointment, worth such a large sum of money, would be understood as social thievery if poured out onto a guest’s head. And third, as my son pointed out, Jesus challenged people to sell their belongings and give the money to the poor. This woman….this unnamed woman…this woman who thought she could just barge into a place she wasn’t welcome….just went against Jesus’ whole message.
Of course, everyone was upset. Who was this woman and what did she think she was doing? They scolded her. They explode in indignation. “Do you know what you have done? That was so wasteful?” They look to Jesus to back them up. “Right, Jesus?” And that is when we meet the Jesus who constantly confounds us. “Back off,” he says. “She has done a good thing. You will always have the poor and you can show kindness to them every day. But I’m a different matter. I’m not going to always be here with you. This woman has anointed my body for burial and from now on wherever the good news is told in this whole world, she will be remembered for this.” What? Who is this Jesus? I was raised a frugal Brethren who was taught to live my life in service to the least of these and I obviously raised a child with the same values. What does Jesus want from us?
The disciples are upset but for Judas this is the absolute last straw. He left Simon’s house and went directly to the chief priests and offered to hand Jesus over to them. They couldn’t believe their good fortune. All their plotting and one of Jesus’ disciples offers him up into their hands. Judas’ indignation leaves him squarely on the side of the detractors…but to the point of no return. This isn’t just a story of a conflict over one nameless woman’s actions. This is story with deadly consequences.
The author of the Gospel of Mark uses the literary device of bracketing to tell this story. The story of the woman anointing Jesus is bracketed by a story of plotting to arrest Jesus and a story of plotting to arrest Jesus. Mark often tells bracketed stories.
In this case the bracket is made up by people who are acting in brutal ways…. people who should know better – the religious leaders of the time and one of Jesus’ followers. In the middle of this bracket is a woman….an unnamed woman….a woman who behaves in a surprising way….a woman who brings beauty into the midst of brutality….a woman who offers love and care bracketed by condemnation and plotting. The author of this gospel is using these brackets to tell us what to look at….look at the act of love and beauty surrounded by brutality and scorn. Even Jesus tells us what to look at in this story. “Look at what she has done. History will be kind to her, unlike all of you around me.”
When Jesus says, “You will always have the poor” he is quoting a proverb. He isn’t saying, “The poor don’t matter.” He is saying, “You are missing the beauty of uncalculated love…unrepeatable extravagance….that has just happened before your very eyes.” Paul will say it differently later: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing.” You can do all the right things for the wrong reasons. You can act with charity but lack the love to make it authentic. John Boyle O’Reilly, an Irish-American poet and activist wrote:
The organized charity, scrimped and iced.
In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ.
What Jesus is telling his outraged disciples is that the world is not ledger. He is saying: “You aren’t going to solve the problem of poverty with one act of charity. You have to treat others with boundless love. You have to love each other extravagantly. You have to pour out that which costs you because you love so profoundly. This woman acted sacrificially and has prepared me for my ultimate act of sacrifice. This is beauty in your midst.”
This is an especially important message in our world today. We are surrounded by acts of brutality. High School students are having a Nazi party. Racially based death threats were made to students at the University of La Verne. Daily we hear new stories of brutality on our news feeds. It is painful to follow the news these days. But in the midst of all of this we have a choice… we have the choice to criticize with righteous indignation or act with extravagant love…to walk away shaking our heads or break open the costly jar of ointment and bathe someone in love.
I know. Indignation is so much easier. It is usually the route we choose. Indignation makes us feel right and superior. Love and beauty leave us open for criticism and condemnation. Love is always the more costly route.
In this story I love that the woman is unknown and nameless. I think it is an invitation to see ourselves in her. To become her. To make the choice to take that expensive jar down off the shelf and make an unrepeatable act of sacrifice for love. Amen.