April 1, 2012
Gregory Jones, a professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, tells a story of how he was asked to preach at a large Episcopal church some years ago. He was to preach on Mark 14:1-9. The church administrator asked him for his title and he sent it to her. So he sat, robed and ready to preach, before the assembled congregation that Sunday. He opened up the bulletin and looked through the order of worship and saw, to his horror, this note. "We are grateful to have as our guest speaker this morning His Extravagant Holiness the Reverend Dr. Gregory Jones."
Our passage for today is not about honoring ourselves. We know how to do that. It is about honoring Christ through following the example of a woman who showed him kindness in a cruel world, who honored him beautifully against a backdrop of brutality.
My parents were at a conference in Bermuda some years ago. They entered the dining room the first evening. The sun was setting, casting a lovely pinkish glow over the room. The candles at each table glowed, adding to the romantic atmosphere. The waiter seated them next to another couple attending the conference. The husband looked up and smiled, and said, "Please join us. We're happy to be celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary tonight." Whereupon his wife hissed, "Make that 34. You took a year off from our marriage with that bimbo from the office!"
Bitterness in the midst of a congenial context can be jarring. We don't expect it. It takes us by surprise.
For example, suppose a woman poured ointment over Jesus and as the sweet fragrance filled the room, somebody at the table, rather than praise, her, grumbled at her extravagance.
Kindness in the midst of a context of cruelty is also startling. I'm a history buff and have been reading Bill O'Reilly's fascinating book Killing Lincoln recently. In it he recounts how, after the brutal battle of Sayler's Creek on April 6, 1865, the Confederates, realizing they were outnumbered, raised their musket butts in the air as a sign of surrender. Union soldiers rounded up these men, whom they had fought so savagely for the previous hour. Then, shocked by the sunken eyes and gaunt Confederate faces, some of the bluecoats opened their rucksacks and shared their food.
Mark 14:1-9, referred to as "The Anointing at Bethany" is a beautiful act that is bracketed by brutality. Just before this event, the chief priests plot to kill Jesus (14:1) because he threatens their prestige and power. And just after this, Judas throws his lot in with theirs and begins to look for an opportunity to betray Jesus. What was his motive? I imagine his resentment has been building for months. Jesus has such charisma and influence. He has such powers to multiply loaves, to inspire crowds and to heal. If all those gifts could be harnessed to the cause of driving out the Romans, what a powerhouse he would be! He should be focusing his time and talents on working to undermine the Romans and gaining support for his uprising. He should be fundraising for his campaign. He shouldn't be praising a crazy woman who pours a year's wages over his head in one rash moment. That is the straw that breaks this camel's back.
And so Judas leaves the dinner to go and betray Jesus. And, in the gathering storm clouds of Mark's gospel, things are going to go from bad to worse. From here on out, Jesus can expect only cruelty from religious and political leaders. Even his disciples, slow studies all along, are about to desert him.
But in between the brutal brackets, there is this beautiful act, this extravagant gift. And it is offered by a nameless woman, not by a disciple. Ironically, the people in Mark's gospel who seem to really get Jesus' message and follow him, are not his disciples. The Gerasene demoniac does as Jesus asks him and proclaims the good news of what Jesus has done for him (Mk. 5:18-20). Bartimaeus (Mk. 10:46-52) after Jesus heals him, follows him to Jerusalem. The women disciples at the crucifixion keep vigil rather than head for the hills (Mk. 15:40-41). Joseph of Arimathea (Mk. 15:43) honors Jesus' body after his death. This woman who anoints Jesus with costly ointment deserves a star on the walk of fame, along with these other non-disciples who, in brief vignettes in the gospel, grasp Jesus' message and honor him in their own small way. This woman with the oil is among those who show him kindness in a context of cruelty.
This story in Mark 14 appears, with variations, in Matthew 26:6-13, Luke 7:36-50, and John 12:1-8. The purposes of the story differ. Luke uses it to emphasize the forgiveness of sins. John emphasizes the anointing of Jesus' body for burial. Mark and Matthew emphasize the need to proclaim her beautiful act of anointing to the whole world.
The settings differ. In Mark and Matthew, the event occurs in the house of Simon the leper. Luke locates it in the home of "one of the Pharisees." In John it takes place in the house of Lazarus. In Mark and Matthew the anointing comes between the authorities' plotting and Judas' betrayal. In Luke it comes closer to the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Lk. 7:36-50). In John it occurs just before Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. The protagonist varies as well. In Mark and Matthew she is an unnamed woman. In John she is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. In Luke she is "a woman in the city, who was a sinner." In Mark and Matthew, she anoints Jesus' head. In Luke she bathes his feet with the ointment and her tears and dries them with her hair. John's account mirrors Luke's, though Mary's action there is more matter of fact, minus the tears.