April 5, 2020
Mark 11:1-0; 14:3-11
Today’s gospel passage offers two instances when Jesus’ nature … his identity … are recognized and celebrated. And it offers two different outcomes.
We start with Jesus entrance into Jerusalem and the last week of his earthly life.
His appearance in the city precedes the Passover festival and comes with much fanfare … cloaks and branches are thrown onto his path. The crowds cheer as he rides by on a colt. The people recognize him as an ancestor of David … as part of a line of kings … someone who will liberate the people from oppression … someone who will usher in a new kingdom.
But even in the midst of the celebration, death is all around.
The chief priests are plotting how to get rid of this troublesome teacher … they decide that the Festival of Passover is too risky. There’ll be too many witnesses and too great a chance for an uprising. The conspirators will have to look for a more opportune time.
At the end of today’s passage, Judas presents them with one.
The second far-less-public celebration comes later in the day, after Jesus and the disciples head to Bethany and share a meal with Simon … a leper.
Mark doesn’t say if the Simon had been cured of leprosy, but since that he is identified as a leper, he has been marked by the disease even if he had been cured. This means that polite society would have avoided him … pushed him to the margins … actually the margins of the margins, since he lived away from the centre of religious life… about two kilometres southeast of Jerusalem.
Even as the cross nears, Jesus keeps breaking boundaries … eating … associating with the wrong kind of people.
While the chief priests and the scribes … the keepers of religious law … are busy conspiring to have Jesus quietly arrested … while Judas is biding his time until he meets with the priests to arrange to turn his teacher over to them … in the midst of all this intrigue … Jesus’ presence affirms Simon’s place in the community of followers.
During the meal, a woman enters the room … breaks open an alabaster container of nard … and pours it on Jesus’ head … anointing him.
The disciples and the people at the table are outraged by this extravagance.
They complain that it’s a waste of nard and money … money that they say could be better spent on helping the poor.
The bean-counters at the gathering mentally run the numbers and complain that the nard now running down Jesus’ head could have sold for more than 300 denarii … about a year’s wages for a labourer.
They scold the woman for not making better use of the ointment and its value.
But there is a bit of hypocrisy in their protests … and more than a little irony in that they do not see the true value of the act.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus criticize the temple-goers who are only concerned with appearances … who give out of abundance and scorn those they believe have not matched their benevolence.
Now, money again becomes an issue.
Jesus tells the critics to back off and leave the woman alone. What she did, she did out of love. The poor, he says, will always be present, but Jesus’ time with them is limited. Jesus tells the gathering that she has performed a good service by anointing him before his burial.
If the men around the table were truly concerned about the poor … Jesus implies … then they should be working to care for them rather than complaining about how one woman spends her money. Their skill at financial management has been forgotten over the centuries, but this woman’s one act has not been.
The woman … like the widow we heard about two weeks ago … probably struggled to afford such expensive oil. She offered from a place of scarcity.
Jesus lifts up the woman’s act of love … and tells the gathering that her act will be remembered … even if her identity is not.
Mark never says her name or where she came from … was she a member of Simon’s family? Was she a servant in the household? … Was she a party-crasher … or someone who just wants to honour Jesus and won’t let anything … not social rules or concern over repercussions … get in the way of her love?
In any event, to know her name is to move the focus away from her act … because through her act, the woman does what the disciples have not been able to do … recognize and understand Jesus’ true nature.
And she models the response to this comprehension.
Craig R. Koester is a professor and New Testament scholar at Luther Seminary in the United States
In a recent podcast Koester said:
“The act of anointing is a phenomenally important one … the woman who is anonymous, who seems to not have a lot of means, yet she is the one who can recognize what Jesus brings …
“It becomes this starting change in perspective of who can see “in and through her witness … to see simultaneously that Jesus’ death and burial is an enactment of kingship is the true gift that this woman has given.”
Jesus was anointed … affirmed … by an anonymous woman far away from the centre of religious power… away from public view
This is a more intimate affirmation than the grand entrance into the city.
The crowd that welcomed Jesus are the same people who will yell “crucify him!” a few days later. Like the disciples … the crowd recognizes, but does not understand.
Lutheran scholar Kathryn Schifferdecker points out that this unnamed woman is, in a sense, a prophet who proclaims what is going to happen to this Messiah. By doing so, she is the first preacher of the crucifixion.
She recognizes the kingdom that Jesus will usher into our lives … a kingdom marked by acts extravagant love… a kingdom that edges closer as the days progress.
As we mark Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem and the trials in the days that follow, perhaps we can consider how we love … both God and neighbour.
Do you love extravagantly? Do you love spontaneously?
Are we willing to be as vulnerable as such love requires and be whole-hearted in our witness and in our actions … or do we place limits … holding something back … just in case?
Even in this time of self-isolation and social distancing … especially in this time … we are called to allow love to push the boundaries … to keep us connected … and to remind people that … after the pandemic … we still belong in community.
Today’s story has two very different endings … the larger scale celebration doesn’t have the underpinnings of comprehension of what following Jesus entails and what will mark the new kingdom … while the second ending demonstrates what happens when you realize that … at a bare-bones level … we are simply called to love.
… to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength … and to love our neighbor as ourself.
Love … grace … lies at the centre of our ministry … at the centre of our call to discipleship … and that is at the core of the three days that are upon us.
Let us remember that the love we receive is unconditional and without end … and sharing such love extravagantly is never wrong.
Hosanna! Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord!