As we hear a familiar story, give us fresh ears to hear it anew, and give us inspiration to apply it to our lives.
OLD TESTAMENT LESSON Psalm 23:5, NLT
5 You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
GOSPEL LESSON Mark 14:3-9, GNT
3 Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon, a man who had suffered from a dreaded skin disease. While Jesus was eating, a woman came in with an alabaster jar full of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on Jesus' head. 4 Some of the people there became angry and said to one another, “What was the use of wasting the perfume? 5 It could have been sold for more than three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor!” And they criticized her harshly.
6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone! Why are you bothering her? She has done a fine and beautiful thing for me. 7 You will always have poor people with you, and any time you want to, you can help them. But you will not always have me. 8 She did what she could; she poured perfume on my body to prepare it ahead of time for burial. 9 Now, I assure you that wherever the gospel is preached all over the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
SERMON Jesus Risked Accepting a Precious Gift
It has been Women’s History month, and perhaps you have seen women celebrated through various media. Stories are retold in their memory, that we might honor their contributions and be inspired by them. Sometimes we come across stories and wonder why we haven’t heard them before. That’s how I felt a couple years ago when I saw the movie “Hidden Figures.” Why didn’t we hear during those early years of the NASA space program about the significant contribution these brilliant women made?
Earlier we learned more about a few of the women in Jesus’ ministry, but there are even more women whose stories we barely know, and sometimes we don’t even know their names. Professor Amy-Jill Levine takes a moment in today’s story to mention these women as well. Last week I referred to Anna, the widow at the Temple when Jesus was an infant and we heard about another widow who put her two coins in the Temple treasury. We’ve talked about the Marys and Martha, but there are more women who supported Jesus’ ministry; Joanna and Susanna gave financial support and traveled with Jesus along with Mary Magdalene. There were women touched by Jesus’ healing ministry. We studied the Canaanite women who negotiated for Jesus to heal her daughter. You might know the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter and the woman healed by touching Jesus’ garment on the way. Jesus healed the bent-over woman and raised to life the son of the widow from Nain. There were women present at the crucifixion and women who went to the tomb to complete the anointing for his burial. That last is confusing, because the list of those women varies depending on which gospel you read. The same is true of today’s story.
We’ve already explored some of the parallel stories of a woman at a banquet anointing Jesus with expensive perfume. We’ve noted that none of these stories are about Mary Magdalene; that’s a false assumption that has been around for centuries. We’ve looked at John’s version which identifies Mary of Bethany as the one who anoints Jesus’ feet at a feast where her sister and brother are present. John’s version takes place the night before Palm Sunday, and it is Judas who grumbles about her waste of money that could have been used for the poor. We’ve read Luke’s version of the unnamed sinful woman who approaches Jesus at a dinner party in the home of Simon the Pharisee. She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them and anoints them. In doing this she offers Jesus the hospitality Simon failed to provide. In this case it is Simon who complains that Jesus should recognize what a sinner she is. This story takes place much earlier in Jesus’ ministry.
Today we are looking at yet another version, this time from Mark, and Matthew’s would be similar to it. This version takes place in the home of Simon the leper. It is a reasonable assumption (but still a mere guess) that this Simon may be someone Jesus healed. Levine suggests maybe they were even celebrating after he went to the Temple for the required proof of his healing; that would allow him to be socializing in a way he hadn’t when he still bore the disease. That he lived in Bethany, his name was Simon, and that he had been a leper is all we know about our host.
The timing of this version is significant. Levine calls it the First Dinner of Holy Week. In the chapters before this Jesus is teaching in the Temple and then just outside the Temple in the days following his arrival in Jerusalem on the donkey. Some of the teachings hint at a lack of faithfulness among the religious leaders who did not recognize the one God sent or did not bear the fruit expected of a faithful relationship with God. In the midst of these Temple teachings is the story of the widow who gave to the Temple her two coins in faith-filled surrender of all she had to survive. Levine points out some commonality between that widow and this woman who anoints Jesus. Both are commended by Jesus for their generous gift. The widow gave “her whole life” as the Greek is interpreted. This woman used a jar of nard which would have been a year’s worth of wages, enough to support a family. Each woman is silent. Her actions speak louder than words. Each is quietly giving her best to honor God. Neither woman is named in Mark’s gospel, and yet both of their stories are faithfully recorded for future generations to read and be inspired.
This unnamed woman enters with her jar of pure nard, an expensive perfume as we’ve noted before. Nard I learned this week is from the myrrh family. Myrrh is the expensive oil brought by the wise men when Jesus was born. I have myrrh among my essential oils. It’s the most expensive of the ones I own. If you remember from lessons on the wise men’s gifts, one of the uses of myrrh is for embalming. Even the words for various types of anointing relay this meaning. “Corpses are anointed before they are buried.” (Levine, p. 95) The Greek word myrizo means to put on myrrh and has that connotation of anointing for burial.
In Matthew and Mark’s telling of this story, the woman does not anoint Jesus’ feet but his head. That has another meaning you might not catch unless you think back to Samuel’s stories in the Old Testament. When Samuel anointed first Saul and later David as God’s chosen to be king, Samuel poured a vessel of oil on their head. You may already know that Christ is the Greek and Messiah is the Hebrew for “anointed one.” In the Bible the meaning is God’s Anointed, God’s chosen one, and the act of anointing, as when Samuel anointed either Saul or David, is a commissioning from God for that office. In modern times this is symbolically played out in the coronation ceremonies of the royal family in England as the archbishop anoints and then crowns the monarch.
In Mark’s telling of the woman anointing Jesus there could be a double meaning then. Whether or not she thought of all of this we don’t know. Mark is hinting that as she anointed him with nard it was related to myrrh for burial. But since she poured it over his head it also acknowledged Jesus as King. Indeed, the inscription over his cross would proclaim Jesus as King of the Jews, but Christ is more than that. Christ who was buried, was raised again to life, and from heaven Christ reigns as the King of all Creation!
In every version of this story, someone is complaining. In John it was Judas; in Luke it was the host; in Matthew it’s the disciples; in Mark it’s some of the guests at the table. They don’t think she should have spent her money pouring this perfumed oil on Jesus’ head. If you remember from another sinful woman in Luke, offering oil for the head was an act of hospitality along with washing of feet and greeting with a kiss. But that would have been with something far less expensive than nard.
Doesn’t it seem that some people always need something to complain about? Honestly, sometimes I’m that kind of complainer. I might as well admit it, enough of you have heard me do it on a bad day. I suppose it is human nature to complain. But take it a step further. What business was it of theirs how she chose to spend her money. None! Yet we humans are often guilty of judging someone else’s actions and choices. We do it so easily we don’t even catch it. However, the Bible teaches that when we judge others we will be judged. Judgement is not our prerogative or privilege; that is exclusively God’s business.
Jesus immediately chastises them for judging her. “Leave her alone,” he says. But now we hear why, and we learn how Jesus interpreted her risky gift. He judges her gift to be worthy, “a beautiful thing” she has done for Jesus. He goes on to tell them she has done this for his burial. He’s been telling them that he was going to die; they kept denying it or avoiding it. Perhaps she has understood, and Jesus know that she gets what he going to do for us all. So, in her act of love she has offered the myrizo, the anointing with myrrh, in advance, as she pours the nard over his head.
The complainers think she should have spent the money on the poor instead. Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you.” He refers to Deuteronomy 15:11. Listen to that Old Testament verse in a different translation, “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.” If Jesus is pointing to that verse, he is not suggesting that helping the poor is unimportant. On the contrary, he is reminding them they will always have that opportunity and should continue to be generous in helping others. But on this one occasion, since he will not be with them much longer, in fact only a few days, on this occasion, she has done a beautiful thing, preparing him for that upcoming burial.
This woman risked coming to someone else’s home to offer an extravagant gift to Jesus with no guarantees that she would be welcome by host or guests or Lord. Jesus risked everyone’s disapproval as he accepted her gift. It begs the questions, what are we willing to give, and what are we willing to receive? Sometimes our gifts, our actions, or our words are misunderstood by those around us and possibly even by those whom we are trying to bless. Offering ourselves to another is always a risk. Sometimes accepting a gift is misunderstood by those around us. They question why we interacted with “that” person. Some gifts are misinterpreted as trying influence or bribe us, but that isn’t always true. Gifts shared with a sincere and generous heart should be accepted in the same way.
Listen to the last verse once more. “Now, I assure you that wherever the gospel is preached all over the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (v.9)
Mark made sure we could remember her story. That brings back to mind that March has been Women’s History month. I think of Harriet Tubman or Madame Curie. It brings to mind countless stories women have been bringing to light of harassment or abuse, so that justice might finally come. It brings to mind the stories of women who have inspired us like Mother Teresa or Princess Diana. Other women like Angela Merkel, Theresa May, or Jacinda Ardern, are hard at work in the global political arena, and we don’t know yet how history will tell their stories. But there are other women who influence this world whose stories we are less likely to hear or whose names we won’t remember, and there are women who have influenced us personally. Let us not forget to tell their story and remember their names, so that the positive influence they had on us will be extended to future generations.
Mark and Matthew chose to share this woman’s story of generosity and risk showing her love for Jesus. Whose stories will you choose to remember and share?