Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Lent 5 (C)
7 April 2019
[ video ]
A woman with a jar of expensive ointment …
The episode in today’s Gospel is one of my favourite stories.
It must have been a favourite story 2,000 years ago as well, because it shows up in all 4 Gospels.
That does not happen very often.
Lots of our favourite Jesus stories only occur in a single Gospel, while some occur in two or three. But it is quite rare for a story to have been included in all 4 of the Gospels.
For a list of Gospel episodes ranked by the date of the first document to mention them and then grouped according to the number of independent witness, see the Crossan inventory on the Jesus Database web site.
Now to be fair—and perhaps as we would expect—the story differs a bit depending on who is telling the tale:
Where and when: In Mark and Matthew the event happens at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper a few days before the arrest of Jesus. In Luke the event happens at the house of Simon the Pharisee in the Galilee, 100km north of Jerusalem and many months earlier. In John the event is again at Bethany in the last few days before Easter, but this time it is in the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary,
What happens: In Mark and Matthew an anonymous woman comes into the house with a jar of very expensive ointment (nard, according to Mark). She pours the oil over the head of Jesus, perhaps as a prophetic sign that he is the anointed one, the messiah. In Luke the anonymous woman is a “sinner” (sex worker perhaps?) who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes the dry with her hair, and then anoints his feet with the ointment while kissing them continuously. In John’s version of the story, they are hosting a party to celebrate Lazarus having been brought back to life by Jesus after being dead and buried for 4 days. What a party that would have been! Now the woman with the ointment is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and she anoints his feet with the ointment, then dries them with her hair.
The onlookers: The disciples in Mark and Matthew object at the waste of money involved in such an action. In Luke the Pharisees thinks to himself that if Jesus were really a prophet he would realise “what sort of woman this is” and not allow her to touch him like that. In John it is Judas who objects to the waste of money.
The response of Jesus: In Mark and Matthew, Jesus rebukes the disciples while commending the woman and giving her a blessing: “She has done something beautiful for me. Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed what she has done will be told in memory of her.” In Luke Jesus responds by saying that the extreme love being shown by the woman is because she has been blessed so much, and then he assures her that her sins have been forgiven. In John, Jesus accepts the action of Mary as a prophetic sign of his own burial and reminds his listeners that they will always have the poor to help, if they really care so much about them!
What do we make of a story like that, and especially so close to Holy Week?
The story in John is set “six days before the Passover” and the day before Palm Sunday.
Jesus is about to die, but he is having a family party with a guy who was dead before Jesus himself raised the man back to life just a few days earlier (in John chapter 11).
This is a story that drips with symbolism, and not just with massage oil.
How do we respond when God is up to something in our lives?
One option is to revert to the rules. Be sensible. Watch the spending. Avoid extravagance. Act out of fear. Be afraid. Try to protect yourself.
No good news in that kind of response.
Another option is to respond with open-hearted generosity, and to throw love around as if there is never going to be any shortage of hope. Cross the boundaries. Spend the savings. Show your feelings. Live in the moment.
In each version of this story, the woman with the ointment has caught a glimpse of God’s generosity in Jesus and she makes a whole-hearted response. She does not care what the powerful men sitting around the table think about her.
She wants to say YES to God … and express her thanks for the blessings in her life.
In the oldest version of this story, the one found in Mark and Matthew, Jesus makes a remarkable comment on her action:
Everywhere that the Gospel is proclaimed what she has done will be told in remembrance of her … in remembrance of her.
Those are words that evoke what Jesus said at the Last Supper a few nights later: Do this in remembrance of me … drink this cup in remembrance of me”.
Careful observance of the rules might be a sensible thing to do, but extravagant acts of random kindness and generosity are at the very heart of our faith as disciples of Jesus.
That is what we are called to do, and that is the mindset into which we baptise Lachlan this morning …