Mark 14: 1-9, NRSV
It 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; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
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.But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But 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. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 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.’
Preached Sunday, April 8, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
I bury a lot of people. It’s part of the job—welcoming people into the family of Christ at that font, accompanying them as far as we can in this earthly realm, then sending them off into God’s loving care as they depart from our presence. And when that time comes—the time to tell the story of their life—I’m nearly always brought to tears. Not because death is sad—although it can be, but loss is sadder. But because the weight of the responsibility is a difficult one. How do you sum up a life in an hour? It seems nearly impossible until you realize that it’s not up to me, not really. Their lives speak for themselves.
This weekend, the life I’ve been thinking about is that of Roger Logee. He was a story teller and he loved plants. And on a visit to his greenhouses, he was telling me about his time in the War. You see, he was one of that greatest generation to whom we’re all indebted and when it came time to leave the service, his commanding officer asked him if he’d be willing to stay. “No sir,” Roger replied. When asked he why, Roger simply said, “I’m tired of all this killin’. I’m gonna go home and plant flowers and make people happy.” And you know something? That’s what he did.
It wasn’t complicated. He didn’t work out the details right there and then. He didn’t worry about the ins and outs of it all, about the profitability of it. He knew what it was he wanted to do, what he had to do. And he went and did it.
Today’s scripture is about knowing the difference between what society tells you to do and what God tells you to do. And as much as we’d like to think that we’re following God’s call like the woman in the story, more often than not, we follow in Judas’ footsteps. That is, more often than not, we bow before profitability and expectation than before divine adoration.
Our passage begins with the assertion that the religious authorities were looking for a reason to arrest Jesus and kill him. We don’t get a whole lot of explanation of what that looks like, at least not in Mark, but we know it’s there. And we that religious-political intrigue makes for a moving backdrop when you consider what happens next.
Jesus is hanging out with his friends in Bethany, when 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.” Now other versions of this story give a name for the woman, but Mark doesn’t. Mark leaves her identity hidden, inviting us—inviting you—into the story.
Now there are a few details Mark includes that make a big difference in this story. The first is what Nard is. Nard was used for a few purposes, but the most common in this area was to anoint the dead. It was expensive and rare, costing up to 300 denarii for a small jar. To put that in perspective: a day’s wage at that time was 1 denarius, so 300 was nearly a year’s pay.
So when Judas objects to this rare, expensive oil being used (or, in his mind, wasted) on someone who’s alive, he’s not entirely wrong. I mean, it’s not the point of Nard—at least not according to tradition. And yet, this nameless woman throws tradition to the wind and does what she feels called to do.
Listen, here’s the truth: We won’t all agree on what’s practical or appropriate all the time. And I’m not sure we need, too. But what we must claim before all else is that this world is not ours, but God’s. And it’s God we are called to adore, not money—and particularly not money disguised as compassionate charity.
So how do we do that? We take our cue from the nameless woman, and we take the next faithful step. You see, Judas was looking three, four, five steps down the line. He isn’t necessarily wrong. He’s being strategic. And while strategy has its place, it can also be restricting, condemning. The woman, however, isn’t worried about what’s to come. Instead, she’s looking at what’s in front of her—a man who’s bound to die—and instead of planning her next six moves or her 10-year plan—she takes the next faithful step. She anoints Jesus and makes no apologies for it.
Starting today, whether it’s going home and planting flowers or using the good nard or taking a nap, don’t feel like you need to fix it all or figure it all out. All you need to do is take the next faithful step and God will be honored. Thanks be to God. Amen.