This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 8/23/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: Mark 14:3-9. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text)
This morning’s scripture reading provides a glimpse into Jesus’ world right before everything falls apart. A moment of peace before the storm. This is right before the beginning of Passover. A couple of days before the last supper. Before Jesus’ desperate prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Before his trial and crucifixion.
In this tender, pregnant moment, Jesus is at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Bethany was a place of safety and refuge for Jesus. It was his home base. This is where his truest friends lived. After his tumultuous visit to Jerusalem, with the cleansing of the Temple and public debates with the priests and scribes and Pharisees, Jesus retreats to Bethany to be with people who truly knew him and loved him.
It says that Jesus was staying at the house of Simon the leper. This location underscores the upside-down nature of Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom he proclaims. Jesus and his disciples made forays into the realm of the wealthy, the powerful, the respectable – but their true home was in the desolate places, on the margins, in the homes of those who the world judged to be unworthy, unclean.
And it says that they were seated together at the table, enjoying a moment of peace and friendship, when a woman entered the house, bringing with her an alabaster jar. This woman moved boldly. She did not ask permission. She touched Jesus, and poured expensive perfumed oil over Jesus’ head.
Some of the disciples seated around the table reacted immediately, with hostility. “What are you doing? Who do you think you are? Why are you wasting this precious ointment, which could have been sold for nearly a year’s wages? What you just poured on Jesus’ head could have been better used to feed the hungry and clothe the poor!”
These disciples had a point. This woman had just squandered wealth in an outrageous fashion. Wouldn’t it have been more loving – and more in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching – to sell the costly ointment and give the money to the poor?
How many of us, if we were there, might have responded in the same way? “We need to be fiscally responsible. We can’t just be burning money like this. We need to steward our resources wisely.”
We might have been surprised, along with the disciples, to find that Jesus didn’t share our point of view. Quite the opposite. 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.”
Jesus understood that the disciples were not basing their objection to the woman’s action in real agape love for other people. It was about power. It was about control. It was about establishing themselves as an in-crowd – people who followed the rules and obeyed the commandments of Jesus.
Jesus had said, “sell what you have and give the money to the poor,” so now those were the rules. The apostles sought to follow this new law of Jesus to the letter, and through their obedience to it, they hoped to become masters of the law. Like the scribes and Pharisees, their instinct was to turn God’s word into a legal code to be parsed. They saw the law of God as a source of social cohesion and power.
So when they rebuked the woman, it wasn’t about love; it was about control. It was about putting the woman in her place. This woman who dared to get close to Jesus, to touch him, to get into this intimate space with Jesus that his core disciples thought was only for them.
Jesus sees the insecurity and gate-keeping of the disciples. He sees how they are already beginning to turn his teaching into just another law to be parsed and bounded by human tradition. He looks around at his disciples, and he doesn’t see love for enemies and the child-like trust that he has been teaching. He sees the will-to-power of the men closest to him. He sees that they are already becoming like the priests and religious leaders who are about to kill Jesus.
If the disciples fail to learn this lesson – that God’s kingdom is not a law but a relationship of love with Jesus – they will end up building a new religion on top of Jesus’ words. They will construct a religion just as soul-destroying as the power politics of the priests, scribes, and Pharisees in Jerusalem.
But there is reason for hope. Because not all of the disciples are so blind. This woman, despite being outside of Jesus’ inner circle – or perhaps because she is – has found the way into the kingdom, the narrow way that leads to life.
Jesus saw to the heart of the woman’s action. He perceived the prophetic spirit that has guided her act of service. This act of anointing is a sign from God. The word “Christ,” after all, literally means “the anointed one.” Anointing with oil is a seal of messiahship. Jesus had already been anointed with water and the Holy Spirit at the river Jordan. Now he was being anointed with oil for burial. This anointing prepared him for his coronation on the cross.
Based on their reaction to the prophetic action of the woman, it seems that many of Jesus’ closest friends had lost sight of what Jesus was truly here to do. The kingdom of God had become an abstract idea for them, because human beings had become abstract for them, too.
For some of the disciples, “the poor” had become an idea. An ideology. Love for the poor and the marginalized had become a theory rather than a relationship with real flesh and blood. In the famous words of Charlie Brown, they had come to say, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand.”
Because humanity, as an abstract concept, is a cause that one can build a whole power structure around. But people – actual human beings – are messy, and they get in the way of our ambitions.
The woman with her alabaster jar was messy like that. She broke into what the apostles assumed was their special space with Jesus. She interrupted. This woman disciple may or may not have had any grand vision of humanity, but she loved Jesus. She responded to the Spirit that told her to pour that precious ointment on Jesus’ head, regardless of the cost. The woman discovered holy immoderation, the foolishness of God that abandons obedience to the rules in order to be faithful to incarnate love.
This woman is never identified by name. She is simply “a woman.” And I don’t believe this is an accident. Theologian Ched Myers suggests that the woman here “represents the female paradigm, which in Mark embodies both ‘service’ and an ability to ‘endure’ the cross…” as well as care for the body of Jesus.
The apostles still don’t seem to understand where this story is leading. Mere days before Jesus’ execution, they still believe that Jesus is going to lead them to triumph against the authorities in Jerusalem and Rome. The men don’t seem to get it, but the woman does. In the midst of much theorizing and jockeying for power, she demonstrates her flesh-and-blood solidarity with Jesus, giving everything she has with no hope of return.
And Jesus says: Look. That’s love. “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.”
How often are we as modern day disciples of Jesus just like the apostles in this story? How often do we make a new law out of Christianity, or Quakerism? It’s so easy to turn our faith in Jesus into a source of identity, a framework for justifying ourselves in our own eyes, and a justification for exercising power over others.
For most of human history, in most times and places, that’s been religion’s primary purpose: Identity, psychological security, and control. Knowing who we are, what our place is, and whether we are “ok” or not.
That’s natural. That’s what humans tend to do. But that’s not the faith of Jesus.
Jesus invites us into the faith of the woman. The faith that abandons everything to show love to real people. Not abstractions. Not categories. Not ideologies. But real flesh and blood. People we know and touch and pour out our lives for.
As Christians – and particularly as Christians in the Quaker tradition, with a strong emphasis on social justice as central to the gospel – we are at great risk of turning social justice into an ideology in the same way that the apostles did in this story. Especially now, in this age of social media, cable news, and constant bombardment by corporate and political advertising, we are in danger of loving humanity but hating people when they get in the way of our program.
But there is another way of seeing. There is an alternative to the prison of ideological thinking. We can receive Christ’s call to social justice by embracing the way of the woman, pouring out everything for the love of the real, flesh-and-blood people around us. We can release our hunger for victory and self-justification, and pour out our lives for love.
Just like Jesus did.