Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer
Scripture: Mark 14:3-9
Life is really hard as a seminary student. Especially when you have a sermon to prepare, lots of other papers to write, and a 20-year-old daughter who calls you at the most inopportune times and asks you to drive three hours in the car to see her, right away.
A week ago, on Friday—that’s just what happened. Chris had had another bad week at school and needed to talk. Her whole world was crashing down on her and she wanted her mom–she wanted me.
Being the devoted mom and seminary student that I am, yet thinking about all the work I had to do, especially preparing for this sermon; I quickly thought of a practical solution that would kill two birds with one stone. So, I asked Chris if she thought we could talk face to face, over dinner, using Face Time, rather than my driving three hours to Philadelphia that night. To make the deal even sweeter, I offered to buy her dinner. I proposed that I would give her my credit card number, and she could order herself some food and have it delivered to her apartment. Then, when the food arrived, she could call me on Face Time, and we could sit down and chat, while eating, face to face, using Face Time. This was a great practical solution, right?
After all, it was not practical, but rather extravagant, to think that I would drop everything and drive three hours to Philadelphia, just because Chris had a bad day. I didn’t want to set a precedent that communicated that every-time she had a bad day at school or work, I would drop everything and drive three hours, just so that I could be physically and emotionally present to her. To do so would be irresponsible, right? Driving three hours there and three hours back, and buying dinner while there, would also be costly—and not the best use of my resources. These practical matters could all be solved by using Face Time, right?
Can you guess how Chris responded to my practical and responsible, and cheap proposal?
If you guessed, that she wasn’t too happy, you are right.
What would you have done in my shoes? Would you have gone?
What would the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany have done?
In seminary, we are told that we always have to have a back-up plan for how we are going to get our assigned tasks done, because, come Sunday, we still have to preach, no matter what happens. So, my back-up plan was to listen to preaching podcasts, on my iPad, on the text for this sermon, while I drove. At least I could listen for some sermon ideas and get my mind focused on the text, right?
So that’s what I did.
While driving, I listened to six different preachers, preach on our text for today, and a pattern began to develop. Every preacher, despite the text’s focus on the woman’s anointing Jesus, merely mentioned the woman’s act, and then moved on to talking about Judas betraying Jesus. Every one of the preachers skipped over the central act of the whole text.
How could six different preachers skip-over this woman’s act of anointing, when Jesus said,
“wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Let me repeat that.
How could six different preachers skip over this woman’s act of anointing, when Jesus said,
“wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
I had to stop, do a double take, and ask: What did this woman do that was so important, important enough for Jesus to hold up her actions to be remembered, whenever the gospel is preached? And, why did six different preachers mention that same act, only in passing, before rushing on to talk about Judas’s betrayal?
Maybe we missed something. Let’s read the passage again. But this time, I’m going to read the short passages before and after our passage to see if doing so will shed a little light.
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.
Why do you think that preachers skipped over this woman’s story?
- Maybe it’s because bad news and scandals preach better.
- Maybe it’s because the preachers read the woman’s act as a mere show of sentimental love.
- Maybe because it is easy to overlook the loving acts of women who attend the dying because that was common place.
In the first century, it was probably natural for men to overlook or dismiss this woman’s act as merely sentimental, just because she was a woman. Obviously, the people observing the anointing did not overlook or dismiss her. No. They were indignant, and scolded her; they judged her act as wasteful extravagance. But the preachers I listened too are from this century, not the 1st century. So, why would they skip over this woman’s story and lead their congregations to also skip-over the story, against what Jesus foretold?
My hunch is that the preachers that I listened to, skipped over the woman’s story, because they, themselves, did not fully understand what the anointing meant or fully understand its significance. I can make this hunch, because I too, don’t fully understand the anointing’s significance either. And let’s face it, when we don’t understand something, it’s easier, sometimes, to move on, and talk about something we do understand.
Well, I’m not moving on.
To understand this woman’s act of anointing better—we need to understand something about the act of anointing itself.
In the Old Testament, and in the ancient world, anointing people or objects was common-place and could mean many things. Most broadly, if a person was anointed, the anointing would usually indicate a change of identity or status. Aaron, for example, was anointed with oil when Moses consecrated him as head priest, indicating that Aaron’s status had changed. Aaron had been set apart as holy, and his status had changed to that of High Priest.
We commonly read in the Old Testament, about Ancient Prophets who anoint new kings. The prophet and priest, Samuel, anointed Saul as Israel’s first king, for example. He anointed David too. When prophets anointed kings, they signified that the person being anointed had been chosen by God to be King over God’s people.
It might surprise you to know that “regular” people, or people without a title or office, people like you and me, could also anoint people. If a person, without an office or title, anointed a person reputed to be a king, that signified that that person doing the anointing, accepted the person whom they anointed, as their king.
In our story, the author writes that Jesus, interpreted the woman’s anointing of his head, as having “performed a good service for him . . . and as having anointed his body, . . . for its burial. “
In ancient times, people did anoint the dead for burial, but not the living. In Mark 16, Luke 23 and John 19, we see that Jesus’s followers came to his tomb to prepare his body with spices, after sabbath was over, after Jesus died. So, the experience of anointing the dead, and preparing the dead for burial was pretty common in that day, even among Jesus’ followers. SO, why did Jesus think this woman’s anointing was so special?
What is unusual about this woman’s anointing is that she anoints Jesus before he is dead. And, If we think about all the customary reasons for anointing in the first century, I submit to you, that it is possible, that she did a whole heck of a lot more when she anointed him, than what 21st century people realize, especially 21st century people who are unfamiliar with first century practices.
By anointing him, she may be prophetically recognizing Jesus as God’s chosen King (and Messiah), just as Peter had a moment of brilliance and faith and proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah in Matthew 16:13-20.
By anointing him, as a person without a title or position, she may be signifying that she accepts Jesus as her Lord and King.
By anointing him, she may be consecrating Jesus, or setting him part as holy.
By anointing Jesus in front of the others at Simon’s house, she may be acknowledging Jesus as God’s king and as Messiah—before other people. Matthew 10:32 states that Jesus said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”
So, could it be that this woman, who while anointing Christ, before his death, for his burial, may have been proclaiming both her faith in Jesus as her savior, Lord, and King and as the expected Messiah, who has come? Jesus, the promised eternal king of the Davidic Line?
Would this act of anointing, then, be the first public proclamation of the Gospel made by someone other than John the Baptist and Jesus himself?
It’s something to think about.
Another aspect of this woman’s anointing act, speaks of reciprocity in a covenantal relationship.
For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son, that who-so-ever believes in him shall not perish but have ever-lasting life.
There is an element of reciprocity in this gospel proclamation. I’m not saying that we, you and I, as human beings, can do anything to affect our salvation. No, I’m talking about the reciprocity in our relationships with God. The gospel message proclaims salvation for those who believe, but, the gospel message also proclaims a message of reconciliation between two parties; a covenant, where Jesus dies for us so that we can be reconciled to God.
God gives God’s son, because of God’s love.
God gives us eternal life, because of God’s love.
And we, responding to God’s love, give God our trust-through-belief.
And we, responding to God’s love, should respond by giving love back to God. As freely as God gives love to us, we should give love back to God.
Can it be that the woman’s extravagant pouring out of all of her expensive ointment was her response to God’s love, while acknowledging Jesus’ own extravagant gift of his life-giving blood, soon to be poured out as a ransom for us, an event that the woman seems to understand was soon to come?
Jesus stopped the woman’s critics, who scolded her for her extravagance. They uttered a very practical truth, that the value of the ointment might have been put to a more practical use, like providing for the poor.
Jesus did not say that the critics were wrong. No. But, Jesus responded to the woman’s devotion, her show of kindness, her good service, which she provided. Jesus responded to the fact that the woman, “did what she could.”
Jesus, once again shows us, what is the better way.
Jesus, once again shows us, how to think more clearly about what he desires, what God desires.
Jesus poured out his love on the cross for us, which many considered an extravagant waste of life; but for Jesus, his crucifixion was an extravagant demonstration of God’s love for us.
Our response should be to do the same. Just as the woman who extravagantly poured-out her expensive perfume, worth more than a year’s wages. We also, should show love to Jesus, extravagantly.
That day, some who watched, judge the woman’s act as an impractical and extravagant waste.
Jesus judged the act, as being on the same level as the Gospel; in fact, it completed the gospel’s message of reconciliation, and demonstrated the reciprocity in relationship that God wants with all of us. Freely, we have been given love; and freely, we should give love.
Do we worship God and love God in the way that the woman at Bethany did?
Do we show God’s extravagant love in all that we do?
Do we do all that we can, both in worship and in service, not out of obligation or fear, but out of a tender, heartfelt response to God’s extravagant love?
And do we love one another with everything we’ve got, or do we calculate, like I did with my daughter—how many hours it would take to “give love” the way she wanted or needed it?
Do we offer to our loved ones and do we offer to God, the equivalent of a quick fix on Face Time?
When it comes to worshiping God and spending time with God, and our loved ones, the quick fix over Face Time, misses the point.
Will you pray with me?
God, help us to love you extravagantly, to give you our all, to give you what we can—without calculating the cost to us. And help us to love others in the same way. Amen.