While the preachers and bible scholars are scheming and conniving to kill him, Jesus is hanging out with his buddies and a leper in a trailer park.
Jesus is in the neighborhood of Bethany, a place whose name literally means “House of the poor” in Hebrew – a place where, in all likelihood, the almshouse was located. And yet again, Jesus is eating with an outcast – he and his friends breaking bread with a sore-covered man named Simon. You’d think that, during the last week of his life, Jesus might have more important places to be, more important people to meet, more important things to do. Except that Jesus always seems to have a different definition of what and where and who is important.
As they’re eating, suddenly an unnamed women crashes the party and does something that makes everyone’s jaw drop. She just walks right in to a room full of men, carrying this beautiful alabaster jar. It looks like an heirloom, something worth way more than most anything else in the room – it should be in a museum.
I wonder what people thought when they saw her. Maybe they wondered where she got it – and whose it originally was. Maybe they wondered who she thought she was, just walking into a room uninvited. Maybe they just expect her to give the jar to Jesus, since everyone there knows he’s something special, anyway. One thing’s for certain: they didn’t expect what was coming next.
She opens the jar and starts pouring the oil over Jesus’ head. In Mark, she breaks the jar open – there’s no going back at that point. Suddenly, a beautiful fragrance fills the room, unlike something her present company has ever smelled before. This is something that is saved for the wealthy, worth a full year’s pay for a standard laborer. Even the folks that can afford this stuff use a dab here, a dab there – and here she is, pouring it all over Jesus’ head, all the way down to the last drop. It runs down his hair, over his face, dripping on to his clothes. It’s like the description of the anointing of Moses’ brother Aaron in Psalm 133:
How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like precious oil on the beard,
running down upon the beard,
On the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
The unnamed woman has just anointed the Christ – the anointed one. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t just prophets who were anointed. Kings – the ancient kings of Israel – were anointed by prophets when they poured oil over the kings’ head as a sign of God’s blessing. And now Jesus is the new King, the Messiah, the Christ – the anointed one. But his anointing doesn’t come on a throne, on a stage, from the powerful. Jesus’ coronation comes from a woman who no one seems to know in the house of a leper on the poor side of town. And it’s not just the symbolic anointing of a king to rule, but the practical anointing of a body for burial. This woman might be the only one in the room who knows exactly who Jesus is and demonstrates that she knows exactly where Jesus’ life is headed. So she decides to send her flowers before the funeral.
But to the men gathered around Jesus, this woman is a frivolous fool. They totally miss the symbolism, they completely miss the point. They belittle her actions, explode with frustration that her actions are a waste. What a waste! That oil – not to mention that beautiful jar – could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Instead, she just spent $25,000 on an oily scalp massage for Jesus. What a waste.
But Jesus defends her. Jesus defends her. Against the voices of condemnation brought by spiritual justification, by the waste management department, Jesus defends her. “You leave her alone,” he says. “Why are you burdening her? She has done a good and beautiful thing for me. What she could do, she has done. She has anointed my body for burial. And truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told as a memorial to her.”
The disciples looked at the woman’s act of devotion, at that shattered jar and the puddle of oily perfume on the floor, and they just saw a waste. But Jesus sees and feels something else. Jesus sees and feels a beautiful act of love.
Once Jesus said, “Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The word used in that verse for “lose” is the same word the disciples use here to describe the “waste” of perfume. Knowing that, Jesus might have been saying earlier: “Those who waste their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it.”
Jesus invites us to waste our lives on him, in the same sense that this woman supposedly “wasted” that perfume on a dying Messiah. Paul Tillich wrote that genuine love will always appear to some as a kind of extravagant waste. Love does not follow the cold, utilitarian calculus of a spreadsheet. Love does not perform cost-benefit analysis before giving itself away. The logic of love makes its own math, and always overflows the bounds of the leger book. Love is priceless.
She may have “wasted” her whole jar of perfume, but its’ a beautiful waste – a saving waste. It’s a waste of extravagant love that comes from a full, overflowing heart. If she “wastes” her perfume, she “wastes” it in the same way that God “wastes” God’s love in nature and in history – always giving us more than we need, more than we imagine, more than we deserve.
This woman with the alabaster jar tells us what ministry is: it’s not for the watchers, but for Jesus. She does what she does for God. And nothing we do for God can ever be considered wasteful. May we be so bold. Amen.
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