Many of us are uncomfortable when raw emotion is poured out in front of us, especially when we find ourselves embarrassed because we weren’t deeply touched by something that should have had the potency.
We find a woman, unnamed, in Mark 14:3, who apparently was such a one who was deeply touched, so much that she poured out over 300 day’s wages worth of perfume on Jesus. Americans averaged over $56,000 in annual salaries last year (2017) and a little over 300 days wages would amount to around $48,000 worth of perfume! Regardless of how accurate this illustration might be, this perfume was costly, not just expensive. Had the woman been living the American dream we might find such a gesture excessive but not wasteful. Yet, this woman wasn’t American and even though she may have been wealthy enough to provide this anointing, it cost her greatly. She was scolded by those around her, scolded by those around Jesus. Nevertheless, she is remembered, albeit in a more unique way, more than she could have imagined. Her bright moment is sandwiched carefully by Mark in between episodes that continually darken the skies over Jerusalem and as equally important, Jesus’ head.
By this time, Jesus and those closest to him are thought to have gone “underground.” Jesus has just made an entrance into Jerusalem in a politically volatile way. Many were acknowledging the fact that he was their true King (Mark 11:10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David…!”). Jesus then denounced the politicians of his day by demonstrating and teaching in the Temple, forecasting the demise of Israel and the Temple itself. This messianic movement wasn’t welcomed by the leaders of the Temple nor Herod. In fact, Herod became “friends” with Pilate the very day Herod interrogated Jesus and mocked him (Luke 23:12). No wonder the discipleship movement had gone underground prior to Jesus’ arrest. Mark 14:1 tells us the chief priests and scribes were seeking a way to capture Jesus secretly and then kill him. They could not risk doing this publicly because it was Passover. Many Jews made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate their ancient national liberation and crowds might riot if the Temple elite chose to murder the most popular candidate for the title of Christ (King) in a long while.
Jesus made a great entrance into the city but had now disappeared. Expectations soared when the crowds saw the palm branches waving, heard the chants of “BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!” and witnessed Jesus duel it out with the Temple leaders as he trapped them in their misguided understanding of who he was and what he was doing. Where in Jerusalem had he gone? Not surprisingly, Jesus was where he usually was, at “table” with the marginalized, but now preparing himself to eat his last Passover with those closest to him. Through the narrow streets and claustrophobic alleyways, and behind one of the thousands of common doors that seem to hide in the capital’s twisting shadows, Jesus was reclining in the home of Simon the leper, perhaps one of the last places arrogant authorities would choose to investigate.
The anonymous woman with the alabaster vial enters the scene and as readers, we’re immediately interrupted by her. Just as the tension seems to be broken in the narrative she breaks the vial and pours the costly nard over Jesus’ head. What is she doing?? This is most bizarre to everyone around Jesus. Everyone knew that kings of Israel were anointed with oil (1 Samuel 16:13) and the very term Messiah comes from the word anointed. Messiah means Anointed One. Yet, kings weren’t anointed by anonymous women. Israel was expecting the high priest to perform this. There was no prophet such as Samuel at this time. However, this gesture becomes famously symbolic even though it undermined the nation’s expectation. Did the woman grasp a critical key in Israel’s cryptic history that the chief priests and scribes didn’t? Did she have the ears that the closest disciples needed, especially at this point in Jesus’ campaign? Whether or not she did comprehend Jesus’ necessary death…those reclining near Jesus should have and so should we. We, too, in every generation, with all that our cultures saturate our heads with, need to be interrupted and shocked by what’s about to happen in Mark’s brilliant story.
Jesus rebukes those around him, “Leave her alone! Why are you bothering her? What she has done to ME is good!” Good? If that perfume was sold the money could be used to help the poor in a big way! That’s no ordinary perfume. It would take the average person today over ten months of their salary, right? Why couldn’t a small portion of it be used symbolically? Surely, that would be sufficient, wouldn’t it? How is this good? For starters, Jesus will not have a traditional anointing. He doesn’t have plans to accept a golden gem-filled crown on a padded purple suede throne. Instead, Jesus remarks that he will, in fact, accept this anointing as preparation for a different kind of throne; one that will involve his death and burial. He tells those around him that they will indeed continue their mission to dignify the poor and they will always have that opportunity if that’s what they’re truly concerned about but they need to be truly concerned about something more important during this Passover. Jesus, the one they’ve been risking their lives for, admiring, and dreaming of becoming the next emperor of the world…is leaving! The movement that Jesus has created will lose their identity and purpose if they fail to grasp where he is going! How much more important is it for us today to grasp where Jesus was going?? We can always continue our noble pursuits for the kingdom of God but if we fail to remember who we are and why we’re active, we’re headed down the same kind of path most of Israel chose. Without Jesus, those around him in Simon’s home have no purpose and no identity. Without Jesus, there is no hope of God’s kingdom coming to birth. Are we listening today?
Jesus was destined to suffer the cross. Merely dying wasn’t God’s requirement for Jesus. If it was, then why all the fuss? Why is a ministry needed? Why all the confrontations with authorities? Why risk having people misunderstand God’s motivations? Why? …Because Jesus is finishing a story that God began and he’s creating a new one. It’s critical that those who listen to Jesus learn who he is, why he lived, died, was raised, and lives to return. Clarity is what we need as his followers because clarity is what God desires for His creation.
“Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).
Why? Is it because she had clarity at the most critical moment in history when almost everyone else didn’t? I’d like to think she did but how can I know for sure? I do know that she, whoever she was, is a kindred spirit to those who yearn to know Jesus. She anointed Jesus with at least two things that were very costly, her perfume and her heart. She poured herself out in front of those who she knew would be angry with her and treat her as an outcast. Mark’s inclusion of this episode enabled readers to see what God’s coronation was going to look like. The kingdom of God is born anew in Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus defeats the Pharaohs and emperors of yesterday, today, and tomorrow by living out the celebration of the Passover. His death and burial put to rest the saga of Adam and Israel, and their failures to live as God’s co-rulers and rescue operation.
We may re-enact the anointing of Jesus when we pour out our hearts in front of others, friends or opponents, by communicating and clarifying his story. This can be very costly but nevertheless powerful. Mark wrote brilliantly, compelled by the reality of Jesus’ victory through his cross. May we never underestimate the potential and the power of learning and proclaiming the good news of the Christ, the Anointed One.