have been journeying through holy week this Lenten season. Two
weeks ago we took a look at Mark's story of the first day, of Monday of
that week. And last Sunday at Tuesday, and the choir has set us up
beautifully for the telling of the story on Wednesday, which unlike the
story on Tuesday is quite short. So I will read it in its
entirety, and I would invite you to listen for one of the literary
devices that Mark uses that I introduced a couple weeks ago, although I
didn't warn you that there would be a test J.
Reading from the 14th
chapter of Mark:
was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread.
The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest
Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, ‘Not during the
festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
3 While he was at
Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a
woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and
she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some
were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment
wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more
than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And
they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you
trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always
have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you
wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could;
she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you,
wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has
done will be told in remembrance of her.’
10 Then Judas
Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in
order to betray him to them. 11When they heard it, they were greatly
pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an
opportunity to betray him.
Alright, did you
catch that literary device used by Mark? Framing! Great,
some people have been paying attention! Framing, yeah. See,
Wednesday opens with this plot to kill Jesus and then concludes with the
plot to kill Jesus. Thus the anointing of Jesus by the unnamed
woman occurs within that context of the plot. Now that's
important, and I want to come back to that, so just hang on to that for
a second, and let me make just a couple other notes about this story.
The first one I have
to note, because it's such a familiar story for many people, is that
this is a different story from Luke's story in the 7th chapter [of
Luke]. You may, when you hear this story, think of that woman of
ill-repute, who washes the feet of Jesus with her tears, dries them with
her hair, anoints them with oil. That is a different story.
A different woman. A different place. A different
time. And most importantly, a different meaning in that
story. So read that story in Luke 7 and compare it this and you
can see the differences. So don't make that confusion of the two.
And secondly to note,
that this is the same story that John tells in the 12th chapter, also in
the context of the holy week, although it comes a little bit earlier in
John's version of the story. And in John's version, and only in
John's version, is the woman named. And in John it's who?
Mary. Mary the sister of Martha from Bethany. Now is that
Mary Magdalene? Most people think not.
And so the third
point is there is no place in the gospels where this woman who anoints
Jesus with oil is identified as Mary Magdalene as a woman of
ill-repute. There's no connection there. And that's
important because that connection is made three centuries later and then
only to slander the reputation of Mary Magdalene as a means to assert
male authority and domination over women. And it's time we purged
the record on that account.
And so there has been
a resurgence of interest in this woman, especially among feminist
scholars and theologians as a symbol for women in ministry and other
leadership roles in the church and society. And rightfully so, as
we will see.
Now whenever I read
this story, the image that comes to my mind is the wonderful scene in
Jesus Christ Superstar, remember Andrew Lloyd Weber's retelling of the
gospel. And in that scene, Mary sings to Jesus: "Try
not to get worried, try not to turn on to, problems that upset you, Oh
don't you know, everything's alright, yes everything's fine."
And then the chorus of women in the background start chanting:
"Everything's alright, yes, everything's alright, yes. . . . .
". So we can just get you going here, but I dare not try to
And Mary continues to
and I shall soothe you
Calm you and anoint you
Myrrh for your hot forehead
oh Then you'll feel
Everything's all right
Yes everything's fine
And it's cool and the ointment's sweet
For the fire in your head and feet
Close your eyes
Close your eyes
Think of nothing tonight
And then the angry
voice of Judas breaks in, complaining about how she's wasted this, and
it would be better used for the poor and he says to Jesus:
who are hungry
People who are starving
Than your feet and hair
And Jesus, of course,
comes to Mary's defense and Judas leaves in disgust. And then we
hear again Mary's calming, soothing voice: Everything's
Yes everything's fine, and Jesus
falls asleep in the loving and caring arms of Mary. And then she
sings that wonderful love song that's not a love song: I don't
know how to love him. It's a great scene.
And it's very
sensual, as I think the original surely must have been. And a
number of scholars in the last 20 or 30 years have noted that it would
be highly unusual for a Jewish woman of that time to touch a Jewish man
in this way. It wouldn't normally happen. Unless they're
married. And that has caused all kinds of speculation which
becomes the central plot in Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code.
But I don't want to go into that, because the movie is coming out in a
couple months, don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the
book. But just take note this is going to become a big topic once
again with lots of discussion in the press and hype over that. You
have to be careful how you read all of that, look at all of that, but
don't make too much out of it.
Well, Nancy Anderson
gave me a book for my birthday by Margaret Starbird, a Roman Catholic
scholar, that makes this argument for the woman of the alabaster jar as
the wife of Jesus. As if I need any more controversy in my life J.
I used to think Nancy liked me and wanted me to keep my job, but now I'm
not so sure!
Bishop John Shelby
Spong has made a point out of this, out of claming that Jesus was
married to Mary Magdalene, and stirred up all kinds of
controversy. But he's retired, what can anyone do to him?!
And it's not that I'm afraid to go out on a limb. But I have to
honestly say that I'm not convinced by that argument, as fascinating as
it is. But it has one value. It has one truth. Namely,
that this woman, perhaps not factually but certainly symbolically, is
presented in Mark as the bride of Christ.
Let me tell you what
I mean. She is the first of all around Jesus to take the vow to be
joined to him until death do us part. Three times on the way to
Jerusalem, Mark tells us, that Jesus tells the disciples that he must
die. And three times, he tells us, they don't get it. Peter
rebukes Jesus for saying such things. James and John jockey for
the places closest to him, at his right and left. Others argue
over who is the greatest. They think they are going to Jerusalem
for a coronation, not for a crucifixion.
And so two days
before the Passover, Mark tells us, as a way of pointing out it's just 2
days before the crucifixion, this unnamed woman gets it. Jesus is
going to die. And they're not going to have a chance to prepare
his body in the way they should after the crucifixion. So she
spends nearly a year's worth of wages -- 300 denarii -- which would be
about $20,000 or so by today's standards. And note the irony of
this gift in the home of Simon the leper -- is he still a leper?
He's got a home in the center of Bethany, but at least at one time was
part of the marginalized of society. It makes the lavishness all
the more outrageous.
And so she anoints
Jesus for his imminent burial. A job normally performed by women
-- yes, as we will see, on that Sunday morning, just a few days
later. But a job which specifically and precisely is led by the
wife, the widow, if there is one.
So here's the
point: just as we speak of the wife of the President as the
"First Lady" of the nation, this unnamed woman, is
symbolically presented by Mark as the First Christian. The one
before and above all others, who has united herself to her Lord until
death does them part.
Like the widow of the
previous day in Mark's gospel, who puts her last 2 coins in the
treasury, this woman -- the symbolic widow, if you will -- gives
everything to Jesus. She pours out her life's savings just as
Jesus pours out his life.
But it's not out of
lawful obedience but from a firm and deep desire of the heart. She
is, therefore, a model for all those who wish to be joined to
Christ. Her actions set the standard for all who follow.
This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. To give our very
best from the heart.
William Nichols, when
he was general Minister and President of our church, spoke at our
general assembly years ago. And he told this wonderful story
that's always stuck with me. Slim and Betty, celebrating their
50th wedding anniversary with all their family and friends gathered in a
rented banquet hall. Lots of speeches and accolades, and finally
the time came for Slim to say a few words. He thanked his family
and friends with some simple and sincere words. Then he tells this
story that he had read somewhere:
Victoria was Queen of the British Empire, she once visited the Punjab
in India. Her empire stretched around the globe. Britain
ruled the seas. When Queen Victoria spoke, the world
listened. That afternoon in the Punjab, she was told that a
young prince of a minor province would like to make a presentation to
her. She said 'show him in'. The young prince, really just
a small child, knelt before the Queen. And then he stood,
reached into his pocket, and held out a small cloth bag. The
Queen's attendant opened the bag. A large, brilliant, polished
diamond fell into his hands. The audience gasped, each one
whispering to the other about the gigantic size of the stone.
Queen Victoria thanked the child and promised him that his generous
gift would become a permanent part of the royal treasury of crown
jewels in London. Many, many years later, this prince made a
trip to England. He asked to see the aging Queen. She was
reminded of the young man's earlier gift and granted him an
audience. After proper introductions were made, the prince asked
if he might see the diamond he had given to the Queen many years
ago. It was brought to him from the vault and handed to
him. "Your highness", he said, "Years ago when I
was a small child I gave this diamond to you. At that time I had
no idea how much this stone was worth. Now that I am a man, I
know how much this stone is really worth. May I give it to you
again, with all my heart?"
And then Slim turns
to Betty, and he says: "I'm not a fancy stone. Nobody
would give many dollars for this weathered body. Once I stood at
the altar of our church and gave myself to you in marriage. Like
that young child-prince giving his priceless gift, I did not really know
at that time what I was giving you. But now after 50 years, the
great Depression, a World War, a chorus of laughter, an ocean of tears,
much hard work and countless prayers, two wonderful kids, beautiful
grandchildren, I know how much this life means. Betty, now that I
know what it's worth, may I give myself to you again with all my
I remind you that the
apostle Paul refers to the church as the bride of Christ. We are
all called to join ourselves with all our hearts to Jesus. This
unnamed woman is the first to do that. And therefore, Mark says,
wherever the good news is proclaimed, what she did is told in
remembrance of her.
Now recall that frame
in which this story is set. Mark wants us to compare and contrast
the deeds of this unnamed woman with those of the religious leaders and
especially with Judas. Judas is always identified in Mark up to
this point as "one of the twelve". Not as a traitor, as
one of the twelve. It's a stark reminder that we who think we are
on the inside sometimes may find ourselves on the wrong side. And
thus before we criticize others for their waste and lavishness, we
should first examine our own motives and our own heart.
Contrary to our
sensibilities on how one should use their resources to benefit others,
Mark lifts up this woman, with her gift, as the prime example of
Christian discipleship. Sure, her gift could have been better used
in other ways. But we remember and we praise her for this gift
because here at last is one person who does what she can, giving her
best not out of duty or guilt or shame or obligation, but out of
love. When that Friday, which hardly seems 'good', comes, and all
that is good, which hardly the world recognizes, is gone, when all those
around you cry out for blood and revenge, when all abandon our Lord and
he hangs there all alone, remember then the home of Simon the
leper. Remember the pain of poverty, the stench of death.
And remember for one glorious, fragrant moment, this woman overcame that
odor of death.
And remember, though
you cannot save the world, though you cannot eradicate poverty, though
you may not be able to stop war, though you cannot defeat death, you can
bring goodness and beauty into our world. You can witness to
another possibility of life. You can join with others to speak a
word of hope and peace as thousands did yesterday across our
country. You can act out of your love. You can give
yourself, with all your heart, to our Lord.
May we all do this.