Our story from Mark Chapter 14, the anointing of Jesus, seems to represent a beautiful moment of calm in the eye of the storm.
And there was certainly need of calm. A few chapters – and a few days – before, we’ve had the loud excitement of the triumphal entry: the crowds declaring their praise of Jesus, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus enters Jerusalem, and goes straight to the Temple, as any pilgrim come to the city for the festival would have done.
But when he’s looked around, he goes back out of the city.
If you read large chunks Mark’s gospel, quickly, as one might read a book or a magazine, you will be struck by how Mark portrays events as always moving rapidly – its all ‘immediately Jesus did this’ ‘straightaway they went there’. Jesus’ life, in Mark’s telling, is one of action, of dynamism; its the story of man who knows what he is doing and gets on with it. But just a couple of times in the gospel there are moments like this – pauses in the action. These are moments when the whole story – no, the whole world – seems to hold its breath, waiting. And they occur at the key moments of decision in Jesus’ life – at the start of his ministry, at the transfiguration, and here, on the point of entry into Jerusalem. Moments when Jesus has to decide what direction his mission is going to take.
So as Jesus walked, or rode, back to Bethany that night, he surely reflected on what he had seen – on the state of Jerusalem. He had seen the Temple, seen the crowds, seen the soldiers. But he doesn’t stay. Perhaps there was no room for him, once again; the city was crowded, and he had good friends in Bethany, just a couple of miles away.
Perhaps he needed the space to think about what was going to happen next.
And it seems as if Bethany is where he stayed for those fateful few days. The second half of Mark 11, and all of chapters 12 and 13, tell of the conflicts and arguments of the week; the clearing of the Temple, the debates with the scribes, in which he systematically takes apart their petty arguments and condemns their greed and hypocrisy – causing an ever increasing flame of resentment to grow, culminating in the opening words of Chapter 14: “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.’”
Two days before the Passover – Wednesday night. The last night that Jesus would be free. And once again, he is in Bethany, dining with friends. John’s gospel, for his own literary reasons, places this story in the home of Martha and Mary, but the older tradition of Mark identifies – probably more accurately – the house as that of Simon the Leper. But wherever the story takes place, what happens is striking.
A woman comes to him, bringing an incredibly valuable jar of ointment; worth, if the commentary of those present is accurate, the same a year’s wages for a labourer. And she anoints Jesus with it.
Why? Why would she do this? Anointing with rich perfumes really only occurred, within the Jewish tradition, at three times: people were anointed as priests, they were anointed as kings, and they were anointed after their death in preparation for burial.
Who knows which of these the woman believed that she was doing? Was she echoing the words of those who waved palm branches and cried “Hosanna” to the coming King, in her own way identifying Jesus as the King who would save the people – an act of rebellion against the power of Rome?
Or was her action some soft of rebellion against the corruption of the priesthood, of the Sadducees, so deeply compromised in their accommodation of Rome that they no longer stood as priests in the eyes of many? Was she naming Jesus as priest?
Or was she, as Jesus seems to have taken the action, recognising that the path he was on would not lead to glory, but to death, and preparing his body for burial?
My guess, for what it’s worth, is that she didn’t know. That she was inspired into this extravagant act of worship, sensing only that she must do it, that he was worth it and that somehow it mattered, without really knowing why.
But whatever the reason she brought it, Jesus receives her offering: “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”.
It will be told, as it has been told today, in remembrance of her. Even though no-one who heard these words or wrote them down thought it worthwhile to record her name.
What rich irony. Even as they remembered and recorded Jesus’ words, that this act would be retold in remembrance of her, even as they noted the importance Jesus placed on the act of this women, they still didn’t think her name was worthy of record.
And what do we remember, when we retell the story?
We remember not her act, but the argument that followed – “why was this ointment wasted?” one asks “when the money could instead have been given to the poor?” – the classic argument of those who speak out against extravagance in the worship of God. I’m sure that for all the great Cathedrals in Europe, there were those who, as the work went on, asked the same question – “why waste money on this building when people go hungry?”. I’m sure the same was asked as the ground was prepared for this building – “couldn’t the money be better spent?”
And it’s always a fair question to be asked. We may be grateful that previous generations took the decisions they did, to build cathedrals which have rung through the centuries with God’s praises, and where today many will find, in those stones soaked in prayers, a closeness and connection to God that they do not find elsewhere. And we may be grateful, even as we fix a leaking roof, for those who laid the stones that now give us shelter as we worship.
But when we see the extravagance of many in the western Church, ourselves, surely included, and at the same time see our brothers and sisters throughout the world without the money to train teachers or pastors, or to educate – or even feed – their children, doesn’t something in us cry out with those same words? I know I’ve spoken them; I believe they are a good and right question to ask.
And if you read the passage carefully, Jesus’ doesn’t condemn the question; indeed, his words that the poor will always be with you affirm the desire of those who would redirect resources from extravagance to generosity. No, his criticism is directed at their treatment of this anonymous woman. For they did not just make their case: they were angry, and they scolded her for her act. “Leave her alone,” he says, “why do you trouble her?” “You have the poor with you, you can always show kindness to them; but she has done what she could, here, now.”
I don’t know about you, but in those words I hear Jesus saying “You want to help the poor? Great! Do it, with my blessing and more! You’ll never be short of opportunities. It’s the work of a lifetime; not to be solved by a single gesture, however generous – never, truly, to be solved, in fact. The poor will always be with you; for you will go amongst them in service, and they will be drawn to you for your acts of love and for your commitment to justice.”
“But don’t knock her act of love and worship. Sure, it’s a lot of money, but this is just one moment, one place, one person. And she has done what she could do, in service to me.”
I’ve got lots of Facebook friends who are passionate, committed followers of Jesus of all different denominational, political, and theological persuasions. And it’s amazing just how much energy seems to be spent in debate amongst ourselves. Some of the smartest Christians I know seem to spend hours at loggerheads with each other.
Can you imagine just how much more followers of Jesus could do if we heard these words? “Leave her alone, she is doing good service to me. Leave him alone, he is serving me in his way. Stop worrying so much about what others do; the poor will always be with you, and there is plenty of room for all to serve, even if their service doesn’t look like yours.”
Can you imagine it? No, I can’t either. But maybe its something to take up – not for Lent, but for life – a little less time and energy spent worrying about how others are serving God, and a little more spent doing the things God has called me to do.