I bet when they were old women, they wore purple: the woman who anointed Jesus

Mark 14:3-9

We join Jesus in the last days of his life and his ministry
as recorded in the gospel of Mark.
In Mark’s timeline, Jesus has already entered Jerusalem—
already had the so-called triumphal entry.

He was staying in Bethany—
two miles or so east of Jerusalem,
over on the other side of the Mount of Olives.
So Bethany, up the hill, over the hill, down the hill, Mount of Olives,
through the valley, up the hill, Jerusalem.
Maybe there were no rooms at any of the inns in Jerusalem.
Maybe he knew folks in Bethany.
Maybe he was following his own advice to his disciples
to stay with those who would take you in (Mark 6:10-11).
We don’t know; it’s not explicit.

He was staying at the house of Simon the Leper,
and we have no idea what that means.
Was Simon a leper Jesus had cured?
Surely he wasn’t a leper at the time … was he?
though we know there were lepers living east of Jerusalem
(John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrigan, The Gospel of Mark
in Sacrina Pagina [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2002] 386).
Maybe he was even someone who contracted leprosy later?
We don’t know; it’s not explicit.

What it does do—undeniably, emphatically—
this designation of the house as that of Simon the Leper’s—
what it does do is serve to remind us of Jesus’ alternate priorities—
which led him (undeniably—emphatically)
to the company he kept.

Our story is set in the midst of what we think of
as the events of Holy Week—the passion of Jesus.
And in Bethany, in the house of Simon the Leper,
Jesus is reclined at the table—
now that’s just counter to almost all our Holy Week images of Jesus—
most of which are, of course, in Jerusalem—
with Jesus taking some kind of initiative (not reclining)—
entering the city, breaking the bread,
cursing fig trees, overturning tables,
praying, confronting, teaching, telling stories,
and then, of course, on trial, scourged, mocked, crucified.

Here he’s outside the holy city, staying with them, eating with them—
reclined at the table—Jesus just chillin’.
“Pass the water, I need a glass of good wine.”
Y’all ever seen that picture—it’s taken in a wine store
that’s rearranging their inventory.
And on a shelf, under a sign that still says water,
are rows and rows of red wine,
and the caption of the photo is “Jesus was here!”
Isn’t it obvious?

And a woman came with an alabaster jar.
Was she invited? Was she a member of the household?
Was she someone there for the party? Did she come in off the street?
We don’t know; it’s not explicit.
People theorize, but we’re going to stick to the facts—just the facts.
We do know she had that alabaster jar with her—
white, translucent, beautiful.
“Early in the first century Pliny the Elder (Natural History XIII. iii.19)
remarked that ‘the best ointment is preserved in alabaster’”
(William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark
in The New International Commentary on the New Testament
[Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1974] 492).

And she broke it—the neck of that alabaster jar.
She shattered it.
No putting the stopper back in and saving some for another time.
Like the poor widow in the temple (Mark 12:41-44) who gave all she had,
this too, an image of someone and the complete totality of their gift.
She shattered that precious jar.
It’s the same verb Mark uses earlier (Donahue and Harrington, 386)
to describe the chains
of the Gerasene demoniac shattering (Mark 5:4)—
a shattering into freedom—a breaking free.

And the scent filled the room—
overwhelming even all the various scents of the feast
(it was the Yankee candle of that day,
and one of the disciples couldn’t take it and had to leave)—
a very costly ointment of nard, we read—
pure, unadulterated perfume from the roots of a plant that grows
only high in the Himalayas in Nepal, China and India.
And she poured it on his head.
She poured it all on his head.
And it was messy. Dripping down his hair.
She tried to keep it out of his eyes, but it got on his neck.
All over the top of his tunic—down inside it.

Her actions would have resonated
with several different specific expectations of her time.
Guests were sometimes anointed (Psalms 23:5; 141:5; Luke 7:46),
but probably not with nard.
Kings (1 Samuel 10:1; 2 Kings 9:3-6) and high priests
(Exodus 29:4-7; Psalm 133:2) were anointed—
again, not with nard.
The Messiah was to be anointed by the high priest in Jerusalem.
The dead were anointed.
Nard itself is particularly identified with the intimacy of love
in the Song of Solomon (Song of Solomon 4:13-14).
And this is familiar to you, no?: “You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies
you anoint my head with oil” (Psalm 23:5)—
an image of assurance.
And they all fit our story.
Not only was he the guest of Simon,
but also the divine guest visiting us all.
There had already been the triumphal entry as a king
when the people shouted
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (Mark 11:10).
The high priest will accusingly ask him if he’s the Messiah (Mark 14:61).
He will be crucified under a sign
identifying him as King of the Jews (Mark 15:26).
He will be mocked as both Messiah and King (Mark 15:32).
He will be killed and buried.
He redefines intimacy,
and he is in the presence of his enemies
reclining at the table in the house of Simon the Leper
his head dripping in perfume.

So what was she doing?
Which of all these possible interpretations of her actions applies?
We don’t know. it’s not explicit.

We do know there were some there …
who? Well, in Matthew, it’s the disciples (Matthew 26:6-13).
In John, it’s Judas (John 12:1-8).
In Luke, well, Luke’s telling a different story (Luke 7:36-50).
Who were they in our story in Mark?
We don’t know; it’s not explicit.
But there were some there who were angry.
“Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” they snarled.
Literally “why this destruction?”
from a verb meaning perish, destroy utterly
(Donahue and Harrington, 387).
And they note that the perfume could have been sold
and the money given to the poor—
a lot of money (300 denarii—
a full year’s pay for a day laborer).

So was the woman rich?
Or was the ointment an inheritance—
passed down from mother to daughter through generations?
Was it her dowry?
We don’t know; it’s not explicit.

We do know their indignation stands in contrast to her generosity
as they (whoever they were) scolded her.
And I must here confess to some of what I like to call righteous indignation—
when I pull up next to someone driving a car
that represents a healthy percentage of the value of my house—
or a college education—or two.
And it’s a fuzzy line between appreciating a car and getting angry about it.
I can’t tell you what percentage of the value of my house it has to be.
It varies—probably based on how grumpy I am at the time!
And you know what?
I absolutely do not care what they did to earn that car.
How hard they worked—don’t care.
Really don’t care what miniscule percentage of all they have
that’s represented in that car.
It’s a car.
And yes, I’ll think about how many people that car could feed,
but only after being angry at how much of my house it would pay off—
how it would pay off Maryland’s Prepaid College Trust.

Under the auspices of caring for the poor,
they vented their own covetousness.
Never mind that it was customary as part of the Passover pilgrimage—
it was expected of pilgrims, to give alms to the poor.
You ever noticed how willing people are
to use someone else’s money to help the poor!
How liberal people are willing to be with someone else’s money?
It’s disappointing how much better the church is—Christians are—
at being angry at someone else
rather than being exuberant themselves—
at knowing what someone else should do
instead of doing it themselves.

“Leave her be,” says Jesus. It’s a strong admonishment.
And so begins Jesus’ comment on her actions,
and his words “on her prophetic action [are] the longest
and most positive on the words or deeds of any person preserved by Mark”
(Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark
Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002] 157).

She has done good work—a beautiful thing.
And then there’s that troubling-for-some acknowledgement on Jesus’ part,
“The poor you will always have with you.”
But he’s quoting Scripture, part of the Torah—
part of the Torah about giving to the poor and needy.
“Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so,
for on this account the Lord will bless you ….
Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,
I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor
and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

And where were they—Jesus and the others? In Bethany.
And Bethany literally means house of the poor—
house of affliction—house of poverty—various translations
(Donahue and Harrington, 385).

Don’t talk to me begrudgingly about what she should do.
Show me what you’re doing.
I can see what she’s doing.
She’s taken an opportunity to love me.
And the fact that you’re more concerned about her expression of love
than about yours—
the fact that you’re more concerned about how her love is expressed
than that it’s love disturbs me. Leave her be.

She has done what she could, in our translation.
Literally, interestingly, “What she had, she did”
(Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark
in Black’s New Testament Commentaries
[Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991] 3300.
And she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.
Of all the possible meanings of being anointed—
any of which could apply—all of which were valid,
Jesus picks that one.

Guess what he was thinking about.

Her love was strong enough and offered wholly and completely enough—
just the way Jesus offers his love—
her love was strong enough and offered wholly and completely enough
to meet whatever need Jesus had of it.
And he needed it to face his death.

Now did she know that’s what she was doing?
We don’t know; it’s not explicit.
And it doesn’t say Jesus said she knew what she was doing.

She did with what she had.
And it serves to anoint my body beforehand for its burial—
which is interesting since it won’t be anointed afterhand.

You know I’ve been thinking about this anointing this week.
We tend to .. I think … I always have,
picture a quiet, somber anointing—
in keeping with the immense value of the perfume,
and Jesus’ own interpretation of being prepared for his burial
and the abundance of other possible interpretations:
the opportunity to show hospitality to God,
the opportunity to name God king,
to identify Jesus as high priest,
to make him the anointed one which is what Messiah, Christ, means,
to name him beloved.
In keeping with how big all this is—
quiet, somber, serious.
But the shocking extravagance begs exuberance, don’t you think?
I’m thinking pirouettes. Maybe some bouncing.
Much laughter. Unconstrained singing. Giggles. Shrieks.
Lavish, immoderate, liberal love,
that shouldn’t make sense, does—as love—
and is celebrated.
In love, the inappropriately effusive is appropriated.

Jesus is here.
What I have, I do.
How could I not?

Why is she anonymous?
Maybe no one knew her name.
In John’s gospel, she’s named as Mary, sister to Martha and Lazarus,
and the anointing comes out of an acknowledged relationship.
We don’t get that in Mark.
The anointing comes out of anonymity.
The love comes from someone we don’t know to name.
But it’s more than that.
Jesus takes the exclusivity of the intimacy of the Song of Songs,
the love of those whose names are beloved to each other,
and says, such depth of love, I have for you—for everyone.
I want to be your love.
Jesus takes the royalty of kingship and says I want to be your priority.
Jesus takes the function of priesthood and shares it saying you relate to God.
Jesus takes the expectations of Messiah and says think again.
Jesus takes the commitment to the destruction that is death
and the assurance of the destruction of death,
and says do this in remembrance of me.

Amen and I say to you,
wherever the good news is proclaimed—
these words are used together (good news proclaimed)
three times in the gospel of Mark! (Donahue and Harrington, 388):
once at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:14),
once here at the end of Jesus’ ministry,
and once when Jesus described the work of the church (Mark 13:10)—
our work—
wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world,
what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
That’s part of our job—we’re supposed to celebrate this woman.
Not just by talking about her,
but by doing as she did—
offering Jesus the fullness of our love
in such a way as he can interpret and use in the moment
as he needs it.

Jesus was standing by now—
dripping perfume.
Several heads reared back—eyes widening
as the movement of Jesus standing
wafted the perfume through the room anew.
Some got in one of Jesus’ eyes—which teared up and started twitching.

It’s an image I must confess I’ve never had of Holy Week.
At the last supper, in the garden of Gethsemane,
before the chief priests, the scribes and the elders,
before Pilate—
a recurring, if unrecorded, question:
“What’s that smell?”
And Jesus raising his hand,
“Ah, that would be me.”

And amidst the amused laughter of some,
and others who might find such a thought inappropriate or offensive,
I’m reminded that scent is considered the most evocative of the five senses.
So maybe, an image to claim—
of Jesus, throughout the events of Holy Week
even through the trial, mocked, scourged, crucified—
breathing in deep,
to be reminded of extravagant love,
the extravagant love with which he loved—
that engendered that kind of love offered back to him—
breathing in deep to be reminded of unexpected and risky initiative,
reminded of a shattering into freedom,
reminded that there’s possibility within destruction,
and sometimes only in destruction,
that creates faithful meaning beyond itself.
He breathed in deep to be reminded
that even as he was denied and betrayed, mocked and beaten,
even as he faced a most cruel death,
there were those far removed from positions of power—
far removed from what was going on—
those outside this holiest of cities
who loved him with the wholeness of their being.

Out of our love,
what do we offer Jesus through the ongoing reality of Holy Week—
as Jesus continues to confront the world
and be denied and betrayed, mocked and crucified—for loving?
For what you have, you do.
And what you do, we have.
No interpretation.
Just the facts.
So when people assess your time, your money, your passion,
your possessions, your joy, your exuberance,
your singing and dancing and bouncing,
what will they conclude about your priorities?
You don’t get to explain anything—justify anything.
What you had, you did.

And this is our prayer:
when others consider your life and you say
“Jesus was here,”
what we want to hear
is those who have observed your life saying,
“We do know that. It’s been made explicit.
In fact, it reeks to high heaven of Jesus.”
Ah, that would be me—
just like her … that unnamed woman of long ago.
The joy. The commitment.
May it be so.


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