I can’t imagine that this [Mark 14:3-9] is what John the Baptist meant when he shouted, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” John knew that the Messiah would come and things would have to change, but here, an unnamed woman reveals by anointing Jesus’ body with costly oil that SHE WAS indeed preparing the way of the Lord.
Hers was the act of a hospice worker. A first century hospice worker who was tenderly assisting the Holy One of God in his passage toward death.
Hers was an act that was costly to her. She had already broken the cultural boundaries of first century Palestine by entering that dinner party at Simon the leper’s home. In standing over Jesus to touch him with the oil was very risky.
It was costly for Jesus as well to receive her gift. In that intimate exchange, it was as if the two of them were the only ones in the room who understood that she was preparing him to die. The shadow of the cross was looming.
We’ve read throughout Mark’s gospel that repeatedly the disciples were slow to understanding what Jesus taught. Three years they journeyed with him and heard his teachings, and still they did not get what was going on right there in their midst in the exchange between the woman and Jesus.
It was always the least expected, the people on the outside of the accepted norm, who understood what Jesus was saying about God’s kingdom. Women got it. Non-religious folks got it. People who were blind got it. The sick got it. The lepers got it. Children got it. Even demons got it!
The ones closest to him did not understand.
So, if you ever feel badly about having your own share of doubt and disbelief, remember that doubt and misunderstanding was pervasive among Jesus’ closest friends. The people he chose to have around him. Frederick Buechner said, “Doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” We have to give credit to the dull headed disciples because bless their hearts they kept on trying.
The disciples scolded the woman for her action, as if she were a child. Remember, they were the ones who shooed the children away from Jesus? Jesus had to correct them then. The disciples tried to keep the blind, lame and sick away from him. He always corrected them for their mistakes.
Poor guys. They weren’t always “spot on” when they were trying to impress the Teacher! (ha)
“You don’t get what she’s doing,” Jesus said. She’s the only one in the room who has really heard what I’ve been saying. She knows that THIS body will be taken, broken and killed. She is preparing this body for what I will endure in the days ahead. Have you no ears to hear, or hearts that understand what I’ve been telling you?
On the contrary, the disciples wanted to show the teacher what they had learned: “We know Lord that you care for the poor, and those who follow you must care for the poor too. We have a commitment to the poor! But look at the woman’s wasteful gift! Don’t you agree – Oh, what we could have done with that much money for those in real need! Waste, waste, waste,” they chided her.
A waste? Yes, the money could have been given to the poor and you should always show kindness to them, Jesus agreed. Yet there are times when waste is beautiful–that’s the word Jesus used (kalos). “She has done a beautiful thing for me.”
The theologian Paul Tillich called the woman’s act a “Holy Waste. Hers was an example of a holy waste growing out of the abundance of the heart…an un-calculated surrender.” The kind of act that is done out of extravagant love and impulsive generosity.
Think about it: God wastes beauty on us every day. God throws around the most beautiful paintings in creation and they seem to get wasted on us. Each day gorgeous sunrises appear and spectacular sunsets recede over the horizon– whether we see them or not.
I remember in New Mexico being struck by the tiniest flowering cacti in the desert. The blooms opened up regardless of having any witnesses. Were they a waste? Clearly not. Clearly God enjoys beauty for beauty’s sake! Can we even fully understand God without understanding this aspect of Holy Wastefulness?
Many of us were raised in sensible families with good, Protestant work ethics. Frugality was valued. Nothing was to be squandered. Tim and I both grew up in homes like that. Our families knew how to stretch a dollar. We had celebrations and parties, but none that would have been described as extravagant.
Tim and I experienced our first lavish party about 20 years ago. We attended a celebration dinner of a friend’s ordination hosted not by her parents who were of a more conservative, sensible ilk,
but hosted by her in-laws– who knew how to throw a party.
The food was gourmet. The wine was delicious. Each time we turned around our glasses were full. Needless to say, Tim and I were out of our comfort zones.
But after we got past our uneasiness and, frankly, our judgmental attitudes over the amount of money spent, we started to relax. We began to enjoy the company, and to laugh, and to receive their generosity as a gift offered on such an occasion….It was a true feast day. A holy waste!
It was our own version of the film, Babette’s Feast. (The beautiful film about the stern Danish Protestants who shared an epicurean meal prepared by and offered to them by the French Catholic servant, Babette. She “wasted” all the money she had on one meal for her friends’ sheer delight.)
Feasts are not reasonable. In fact they can be embarrassingly costly because they go over the top.
The woman did what she had the power to do; she gave what she could, just as the widow in the Temple gave her last penny. The two women’s gifts were very different in monetary values, but Jesus praised both women for what their generosity cost them.
Acting out of love, acting out of the abundance of our hearts, doing what is in our power to do is the evidence of the kingdom of God among us.
Without OVER-thinking it, Jesus never failed to respond to the needs presented to him. This time, conversely, a woman responded to the need before her – and it was Jesus who for the first time was on the receiving end of an act of mercy.
Often a person finds him or herself dropped into the midst of God’s call. The vocation God has for you might appear simply as a choice that has to be made. A need presents itself, and you find yourself responding to that need. It’s not like you were anticipating the call. You just have to do what in your power to do. You respond with what you have to offer. It’s like the Little Drummer Boy who brought what he had as a gift to the baby.
I know of a congregation in Ohio that called a pastor after a long search. The church was thrilled about their new pastor, and looked so forward to his family’s arrival. The pastor to-be and his young family were packing their house to make the move, but in the midst of the packing and saying their goodbyes, the new pastor was heartbreakingly diagnosed with a terminal and swiftly moving cancer.
The congregation beautifully responded to the news of his illness by discerning that their call was to care for him and his family through to his death. So they moved to the church anyway. His terminal illness presented a need, and it became the congregation’s vocation. They never could have expected it. It was not in their long-range plan. But they knew what they had to do. And they did what they had the power to do.
I’ve heard it said, “People in pain don’t remember what you say; they remember that you showed up.” Sometimes it’s costly to show up. It interrupts our life. We might have to get in the car. Pick up the phone. Take that flight. Send the gift. Mail the note.
These are the apostle Paul’s words to the Philippian community about what it is to love as God loves:
“Take one another’s interests into your heart and give them a home.” Phil 2:4
The woman holding the alabaster jar was holding Jesus’ interests in her heart. And out of love, she walked into that dining room bringing the necessary costly perfume to prepare the way of the Lord.
The disciples sadly did not have Jesus’ best interest in their hearts. Suffering and death most certainly did not factor into the equation for their own best interests.
All the while, Jesus was moving toward a deeper and deeper knowledge of what he had to do which was face his friends’ betrayal and abandonment, and to die on the cross. What his friends failed to understand while they were planning for revolution was that Jesus’ death WAS in their best interests.
Our best interests have a home in God’s heart.
It’s the third Sunday in Lent. We are in the middle of the liturgical season set aside to practice fasting and restraint. Austerity best describes Lent. And, yet, today we have heard the story of the woman who was praised by Jesus not for her prudence but for giving too much, for going overboard, for showing extravagant love and costly generosity.
“I tell you, Jesus said, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in all the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
May it be so.