Manassas Church of the Brethren
Mark 14: 3-9
3 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. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,* and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news* is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
Today’s scripture doesn’t make a lot of sense. In the grand scheme of Mark’s gospel, this story is headed in an entirely different direction – a familiar, Easter-oriented direction. We know how this story goes: Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, toward his own trial, crucifixion and death. He’s trying to warn his disciples about what’s coming, trying to prepare himself, trying to – I imagine – gather up the courage to face what’s coming.
Just before this strange scene with the woman anointing Jesus, the disciples are beginning to get worried. Jesus says something that piques their curiosity, something about how the time will come when he’ll leave them. “When will it be?” They ask him, full of anxious energy. “When will we lose you? What will we do? How will it go?” Jesus, in true eccentric fashion, proceeds to tell the disciples all sorts of crazy, scary things: nation will rise against nation. There will be wars and rumors of wars. Brother will rise up against brother, the sun will go dark and heaven and earth will pass away.
Huh. Not so reassuring. Not, I would guess, what the disciples were hoping for.
It’s worth noting that none of those predictions come to pass in Mark’s gospel, or, for that matter, in any of the biblical witness. People have been on the watch for them for these long centuries since Jesus spoke them – assigning his words to particular global conflicts, particular natural disasters, expecting the violent end of time to come any moment. But – save a few regularly scheduled solar eclipses - the sun has not yet turned black. Heaven and earth have not yet passed away. The disciples wanted to know what would happen, and Jesus obliged, offering his predictions of these eventual realities: someday, the earth will pass away. And right now, some crazy stuff is going to happen. It seems like Jesus must be telling his disciples to get ready: this is going to be serious.
And it does get serious. Right AFTER the story about the woman anointing Jesus, the passion narrative that we’re so familiar with really does begin in earnest. The verses just after this story at Bethany have Judas going to the chief priests to betray Jesus, and the entire story of Holy Week – betrayal, trial, conviction and death – is set in motion.
And that’s why this story about Jesus being anointed at Bethany seems so strange. It would make sense to our logical, narrative-oriented selves if Mark went from Jesus’ dire predictions straight into his betrayal. The direction of the story seems to be clearly headed downward, descending straight into danger, trouble, and pain, anticipating that glorious resurrection lift at the end. But that is not the route Mark takes in his storytelling. The gospel is not that simple.
Right in the middle of all this darkness, fear and uncertainty – right there in the middle of the clearly falling action – is this moment of interruption. Jesus has been on the road, traveling and teaching and prophesying to hard times about to hit. He’s been working hard, and when he gets the chance to stop in to visit his old friend Simon, I imagine he takes it gratefully.
Simon lives in Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, which must have been a relief for Jesus – to be away from the city, away from the pressure, the scrutiny, the Pharisees and crowds. Jesus knows this part of the world – his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus live here, too. It is a place of respite, where he is cared for and where he can care for the friends that he loves so much.
And yet, even here, a crowd gathers. The people – neighbors and friends – must have heard that Jesus was with Simon, and they pack the house. Can you see the scene? The afternoon sunlight streaming in the open windows, the people perched on chairs and gathered around doorframes, hoping for just a bit of Jesus’ wisdom? It’s no secret that this guy is causing a bit of a scandal in the city – healing people and raising people from the dead, proclaiming the coming of the Lord and God’s Kingdom. Can you feel the heat of the gathered bodies, see the weariness on Jesus’ face? Do you see Simon there in the corner, his body weak from years of leprosy, glad to see his friend once more? Everybody knows something is about to happen. The weight of what is coming must be almost unbearable. Can you feel it?
And then. Then, this woman walks in the door. Mark doesn’t tell us who she is, but maybe the people there knew her from around town. Maybe they recognize her face. Maybe Jesus does. Even if they know her, what she does next is still confounding. She walks in, carrying a flask made of alabaster – alabaster! How often do you think such fancy things made appearances in the home of a leper? She carries in this delicate jar, so white it’s almost translucent, and then…
And then, she breaks the jar open and, if you hadn’t figured out that it was full of precious oil before, the overpowering fragrance of thick, expensive nard that fills the room leaves you no doubt. This woman has walked into the room with a full jar of some of the most expensive anointing oil to be found. She doesn’t say a word. But she walks up to Jesus, who is sitting at the table, breaks the flask open, and pours this oil on his head. Do you see it, dripping off his forehead and over his eyebrows, flowing down those weary cheeks and onto his shoulders? Do you smell it?
The crowd is flabbergasted. This is not what is supposed to happen! Jesus is the one who’s always teaching about caring for poor people, welcoming orphans, taking in widows. He’s the one who keeps talking about money and how to share it, how to use it wisely, how to stop hoarding it up for ourselves. He must be appalled, they think, at this wastefulness! What short-sightedness! What an incredibly irresponsible thing to do! That oil could have been sold and used to feed orphans for a year! It could have paid the expenses of a dozen widows! If there’s any time to buckle down and get to business, to use our resources wisely and efficiently, they think, SURELY it is NOW, when we’re about to lose our leader! We’ve got to get serious about all this!
And the crowd doesn’t just think all this – they say it out loud…angrily. They scold the woman, chastising her for wasting such precious resources in such an irresponsible way. “Can’t you see how cautious we need to be, now, woman!?” They ask. “Don’t you know how much responsibility we have these days? We NEED that money to take care of business next month! You’re not thinking ahead. You’re not taking this seriously enough.”
But Jesus, his head so recently anointed with this woman’s compassion, shushes them. “Leave her alone! Would you just listen to yourselves? You are so caught up in anxiety and worry about the future that you can’t even recognize a beautiful thing when it happens right in front of your face! You will always have the poor with you, there will always be crises rising up, the earth will always be moving closer to darkness – there is ALWAYS something else you’re going to be responsible for. It’s just how the world works. This crisis is coming, and it is big. I know. But it isn’t the end of everything. It isn’t enough to keep you from recognizing the grace of this given moment. Just hold up a minute, let the world spin madly around you, and be present, right here, right now. Do you see what she has done? She has done something beautiful to me. She saw me, here, and offered all that she had, and it is a beautiful thing. Remember this. Remember her. Fix your focus right here, right now, on me. I am here with you. Don’t worry your lives away and miss it.”
And with that, the scene is over. The moment is gone. The woman is never mentioned again, and we have no idea whether or not the gathered crowd and Jesus’ disciples were able to hear his advice, able to take it. Mark’s narrative moves on – in the very next verse, Judas goes to the chief priests and betrays Jesus, and the darkness of Holy Week descends upon them all.
And yet, we’re left with the memory of this moment filled with grace and instruction. In the grim march toward the cross, the story is interrupted with this brief moment of abundance, compassion, and beauty. And of all the loving acts we’re about to witness – mothers grieving at the foot of Jesus, strangers picking up his cross on the road, rich men giving away their tombs, friends coming with flowers and oils to anoint his dead body – this simple, strange act of attentiveness is the one that Jesus himself calls “beautiful.” It’s the one that Jesus declares worthy to be remembered throughout time, whenever and wherever his story is told.
Why? Why this? Why her?
I think it is because this unnamed woman in Bethany was somehow able to keep her eyes on Jesus. Even in the midst of trial and tribulation, anxiety and uncertainty, she saw her Lord sitting there at Simon’s table and was so filled with love for him that she offered him all that she had in that moment. In all the swirling madness, she saw him, recognized him for what he was, and gave all she had to honor him.
We live in a world filled to the brim with responsibilities and distractions. The crowd at Simon’s house was worried about the impending transition and the piling up needs of the poor. We, too, face impending transition. We also know the needs that pile up before us. The lists of things we find ourselves responsible for can seem unending. Pressure mounts, crises abound, and there is little energy left over – for prayer, for presence, for giving what we have when we have it.
But this is all Jesus asks of us - to be present here, with him. He does not ask us to pile on another responsibility to our to-do lists. He does not ask us for immediate action in the face of yet another crisis. He does not ask us to do more futile planning, flailing about in the face of the unforeseeable. All he asks is that we fix our focus on him. That we open our eyes to his presence, sit down at the table with him, and share out of the already-present abundance of our own lives.
“She has done what she could,” Jesus says of his anointer. She saw Jesus, and blessed him. May we find the patience to look around, and the awareness to open our eyes to Jesus here, in our midst, even now.