Good morning! It is a rainy morning – I am back home on Big Pine, and the rain is steady.
Mark 14: 1-11
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; 2for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
3While 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.”
10Then 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.
If I were to put Mark’s Gospel into the form of a play, or perhaps a movie, this passage would open with a scene in a dark room – the play nears its climax, as men gather to plot and scheme. They are mindful of their status; they were supposed to be the “good guys”. But this rabbi, this Jesus of Nazareth, is gaining too great a following; he has challenged their authority, and the crowds could soon catch the attention of Rome. They have tried tricking him into saying something incriminating – it hasn’t worked. They themselves were tricked; he always seemed to turn their tricks back upon them. And so, now they are left to plot in secret, in the dark. They plot a way to arrest him and kill him, in the darkness so as not to incite a riot. They need to control the situation.
Mark changes scenes – Jesus, with his disciples, has gone back out to Bethany for the evening, as he had been doing every evening, and is dining with a man called Simon the Leper. (There are other stories about other dinners and hosts and anointings – let’s not confound or combine stories, but talk simply about Mark’s story as it is presented here.) I wonder if Simon, the Leper, is one whom Jesus had healed at some point in his ministry? We do not know – but an interesting thought. While they are dining, a woman comes in. We know nothing about this woman, except that she brings an alabaster jar of costly ointment, or oil. The jar itself is precious, finely carved from a translucent white stone; the nard (spikenard – which is the scent of the oil I will be using for anointing in service on Sunday) was a costly, imported perfume. The woman breaks the jar, and pours the expensive perfume on Jesus’ head.
Some of those present (the disciples? Judas? Mark does not say) complain in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted?” They say it should have been sold (they claim a value of 300 denarii) and the proceeds given to the poor. Now, these complainers did not really care about the poor; they are jealous because the woman’s generosity towards Jesus exceeded theirs; they are people who need to be critical. Jesus, as usual, calls them on their behavior. “Leave her alone” he says, “Why do you trouble her?” The woman has done a good thing, an act of love, for Jesus. He says they will always have the poor, and can give to them, but they will not always have Jesus; this woman has anointed Jesus to prepare for his burial while he still lives. It was all that she could do.
Of course, this passage has been used to claim that we do not need to care for the poor. That is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying there is a place and a time for acts of great love, even extravagant acts that express great love. There is also a time for caring for the poor, for expressing our love to our neighbor. Jesus says that this woman’s act of extravagant love will be remembered wherever the good news is proclaimed.
We assume that one of those complaining was Judas Iscariot. Now the scene shifts again, back to the dark room with the plotters. Judas comes to them – notice, they do not seek him out; he goes to them. He offers to betray Jesus, and they agree on a price. Now Judas seeks his opportunity.