God's Story, Our Story: Palm Sunday
Preaching: Janelle Koolhaas
Text: Mark 11:1-11; 14:3-9
The Anointing at Bethany
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. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 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. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[c] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Have you ever received a gift that was given, the meaning of which far out-valued the cost of the item? A quilt from your mother? A piece of woodwork lovingly crafted by your dad? Something your grandmother knitted for you? A crumbling glitter covered ornament made by your child in preschool, the first gift they ever gave you? A worn thin ring that cost a fortune at the time, and was reminds you of promises and a thousand valleys and mountaintops that make up a lifetime with your beloved?
Shirley Percival’s cross-stitched quilt was shared at her memorial yesterday… did any of you stop to marvel and the countless hours that went into all that needlework? As she stitched each square telling a piece of the good news of Jesus and his resurrection, imagine all of the quiet hours in spent immersed in their truth. What an extravagant use of her time to express something profound from her heart. Funny how items like that are the ones we treasure and save, often much more so than the ones that came with price tags and instructions.
So what was it exactly made this scene of the woman’s gift to Jesus so unforgettable?
Was it the potent feelings this scene evoked?
The overwhelming perfume?
The awkwardness of a woman so boldly and compellingly breaking the social rules--and Jesus defending her?
You probably could hear how the folks at the party were not pleased with that she did. She should have kept to her place. She should not have wasted such a valuable possession.4 Some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
They were thinking, “How inconsiderate” of her to make such a display during a festival when their people made a point of giving something extra to the poor as a sign of devotion to God? (Isn’t it so, that our own food pantries and toy drives are flooded during the holidays, while shelves go unstocked at other times of the year?) And there in Bethany, a village home to many folks who were too poor or too sick to manage life inside the city walls … so unseemly. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 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.
He must have been thinking: ‘Don’t hide behind the calling you have everyday to avoid what God is showing you right now. Don’t get sucked into an abstract dilemma about justice. You’ve had every day before, and you’ll have every day after to work to give comfort to the poor. But this is a moment unlike any other; you will not get it back!’
8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[c] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
This must have felt like a punch in the stomach to James and John given all their attempts to make themselves important to Jesus and have a legacy in his kingdom (Remember their jockeying for first place a few weeks ago? Remember their insistence that they were with Jesus no matter what, they could handle the cup he would drink, etc!) But here was this woman, who had done “nothing” except this crazy, frankly embarrassing spectacle of adoration. What has she done that they hadn’t?
She believed him without hesitation…In faith she took him at his word that he was who he said he was, and was filled with worship, love, and gratitude and she didn’t hold back.
The disciples had wanted so much to earn Jesus’ praise and commendation for their loyalty and courage on his behalf, they were parsing and trying to make logical sense of what Jesus spoke about himself, the Temple, the times, the terrifying thought of his death which must have sounded like defeat… but it was this woman whom Jesus commends. “She has performed a good service for me.” In the Greek, it says ‘kalon ergon’-- a beautiful, praiseworthy, upright work. Kalon is one of the roots of a word like calligraphy— writing that is ornate and striking, a thing of beauty… maybe even a little over-the-top, but in a manner that shows honor and lifts up something important.
She did the best thing she could think of. She didn’t brag, posture, promise, reason, or flatter Jesus with empty words, nor pester him with cunning questions and observations. To show who Jesus was to her, she took stock of all she had and who he was, and she wordlessly gave him this over-the-top, ridiculously expensive gift, and not just a symbolic few drops but poured out its entire content in a few seconds of stunning devotion.
I feel like it is one of those “thin places” where curtain of mystery that covers God’s planning and timing is pulled back for a moment of extraordinary meaning and illumination. This believer is profoundly moved with affection and pours out a gift that is all she has to honor him-- precisely as the reality that he would soon die was heavily upon him, and no one else could see it. What must this have meant to Jesus? How lonely was he in his fear and dread of what being handed over to his enemies, of death?
You see...What we don’t quite get by singling out this story in the course of the Mark narrative is what the writer tells just before, and just after.
- Booked ended by the scribes and Pharisees plotting to kill Jesus, just as soon as they can get him away from all the crowds that had filled the city
- What follows in the verses right after this story is Judas, mad, fed up, and impatient for a little more action than just talk about a new kingdom… Judas will slip out of the dinner party to go to make a deal with the religious leaders who are delighted to have an insider who will help them get Jesus right where they want him-- alone.
If we only had those stories, we could easily be led to believe that Jesus arrest and death were the direct result of cunning human scheming. Merely a “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, like the title of that famous novel. We might be tempted to wallow in the pitiful betrayal, and entertain “what if’s”... but there were no mistakes. It doesn’t mean that Jesus was calculating each step, or that he knew what to expect next. But this story is placed in the here in the gospel to remind us that there was no point when human plans got ahead of God’s plan. There was more going on than met the eye. I believe this woman was saying yes to God’s Spirit at work in her for her own sake, for the guests, and listen to us now, even for our sake.
Jesus went on to say: “she has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. You know the saying, “missing the forest for the trees?” Here they were grumbling about wasted perfume, and political correctness, and Jesus’ stomach was in knots, his heart racing at the realization that what her anointing was a foreshadowing of what was come… he too would soon make an immeasurable sacrifice, and be poured out for all of them. For all of us.
If there is anything that we can learn from this story, it is to step back in worshipful awe of the selfless, messy and stunning way that Christ gave all of himself for is on the cross. What a gift! What a cost!
As we now come to celebrate at the Lord’s Table, let us come with hearts full of love and gratitude for the One who spared no cost for our sake’s.