August 30, 2015
“What We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
3 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. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 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. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.9 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.”
I’ve mentioned before that I am a member of The Young Clergy Women Project and we have a facebook forum where we share ideas and prayer requests, and one pastor was doing a sermon series entitled, “Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said” and she asked for input from the group, and today’s passage was one of the suggestions.
Perhaps that title isn’t quite right and we should say instead that there are things we wish Jesus had spelled out more clearly, or said differently. Because as it is, his words, “For you always have the poor with you” have been misused and misappropriated by preachers and politicians, among others, to say that we should do nothing to help those is need because that was what Jesus said.
So we come back to the text to see what Jesus really said and what that means for us today.
The scene takes place in Bethany. In the few verses before this account, we learn some vital information – that the Passover was only two days away, meaning that this is the time of preparation for the Passover and Jesus has already entered into Jerusalem like king with the crowds chanting and laying down branches and their cloaks on the road, making a red carpet of sorts for the man they expect to be king.
Several days have past, and in the eyes of the chief priests and scribes, things have gotten worse with this whole Jesus-situation.
And they look for a way to arrest and kill Jesus in secret because the festival is going on, the city is flooded with pilgrims, by some estimates in the hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have high expectations for Jesus, but the Romans are breathing down their necks to keep the peace, and in the city is the kind of restless energy that comes when large numbers of people are packed in together. Anything could happen.
Jesus is in Bethany eating a meal with friends because that is who you ate with – those who belonged to you, those of your tribe, the people you loved, the people you approved of.
So the first interesting detail of this story is who Jesus is eating with. Again, we find this account in Mark, the earliest and briefest account of Jesus life. Mark’s account of Jesus’ life comes across as hurried, breathless, sometimes even harsh and secretive.
So we need to pay attention when we come across unique and seemingly unnecessary details in the story – like that Jesus was eating with a man called Simon the Leper in Bethany. Simon appears nowhere else in the story. Some scholars believe he is so named to distinguish him from other Simons in Jesus’ life.
But what if Mark includes that little detail to tell us something absolutely vital about God.
Simon is sick – leprosy was an umbrella term used to cover a number of disfiguring diseases.
Simon was disabled, and therefore on the fringe of society, an outcast, one of the suffering, and also likely to be one of the poor.
In Jesus’ time disease, disability, pain, poverty, these were all signs that God hated you, that you or your parents had done something wrong and you were being punished.
When Jesus encounters a blind man, his disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned this man or his parents?” (John 9) And Jesus says neither of them – their sinfulness has nothing to do with his disability – and he says, in essence, this man will reflect God’s glory.
We can fall into this line of thinking as well.
When we get terrible news, when we are in pain, when something terrible happens to us or those we love, we wonder why God is doing this to us, we wonder if we are being punished, we wonder where is God.
We see this kind of talk about God come up when there is a terrible natural disaster and we see this theology bubble up that God was punishing those people and that is why they are suffering.
But contrary to all that, we see God in Jesus Christ (Jesus Christ was God with his feet on the ground) in the heart of suffering, sitting with those who suffered, even as he knew that in a matter of days he take up his own suffering.
This is one of the most profound theological statements we can make about God – that we are not abandoned in our suffering, God sits with us – and more than that God knows what it is to suffer.
New Testament scholar NT Wright tells us that “Bethany” means “house of the poor” and he suggests that maybe that tells us something about what was going on there – that this was a community that intentionally cared for the poor.
So Jesus, with death hanging over his head, sits and eats with a disabled man and others in a community that cares for the poor.
And a woman takes a large container of expensive perfume and breaks it open and pours it over Jesus’ head.
The verb that Mark uses in not that she dabbed it on or rubbed it on, but poured it over his head – imagine when a coach wins the Super Bowl and his players come up behind him, and dump the Gatorade over his head – imagine it like that only much smellier and much more expensive.
The perfume was worth a year’s worth of wages for a day laborer. Some scholars suggest that the woman was wealthy; others suggest that this was her life savings. Either way it is unsettlingly extravagant. And the people in the house are probably rightly outraged. What a waste, especially if these were the people running this community for the poor, where there were never enough resources to cover all the need.
Here is what we need to understand about anointing at that unique moment in time – because it signified two important things.
First, kings were anointed – this was an Old Testament mandate for the kings of God’s choosing, who were to lead and save and protect God’s people.
In Psalm 23 we hear this language: “You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows . . .”
Finally after so much secrecy and speculation, this unnamed woman (and usually it was a male prophet who anointed kings) finally shows us the truth: this is God, king, savior.
Second, dead people were anointed. In ancient gravesites were broken vessels just like the woman’s, poured over dead bodies and then sealed into the tomb. This is the preparation for death.
No one believed that Jesus was going to die – at this moment in history, he is at the top of his popularity and influence – throngs of hundreds of thousands of people are in Jerusalem believing that the savior of their people who they have been waiting for, for hundreds of year, has finally arrived. No one believed he would die. Again this unnamed woman tells us the truth.
The people in the house are outraged and in our translation they scolded her; in the NIV, they rebuked her harshly – they screamed at her.
And knowing the things people say to each other when they believe they are right, and the other person is wrong, we can imagine the vitriol in their words.
Then Jesus says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you . . . “
But, here is the really important thing: that is not where the Jesus stops talking – there is more to that thought – and what a disservice we have done to Jesus’ words by ripping these words out and letting them stand on their own.
He goes on to say, “7 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.”
This is not an either/or situation: either you take care of the poor OR you perform a tremendous act of devotion to God. This is a both/and situation.
We didn’t realize it but Jesus is quoting a passage from Hebrew law (Deuteronomy 15:11, NIV) in which God says, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”
He is recognizing and not diminishing the good work that they are doing – and that work goes on – God commands it – take care of the poor and the needy in your land.
But also do not be so blind that you cannot see and know God in your midst.
Jesus teaches earlier in Mark’s account the two greatest commandments that God has given us: love God and love neighbor. It is not either/or (love God or love neighbor), it is both/and.
Love God and love neighbor – the one feeds and nourishes the other, the one is hopeless and lost without the other. Both matter.
We read in Luke’s account about a woman named Martha who opens her home to Jesus and the people with him. Hospitality is a good thing, a high calling, spoken about many times throughout the Bible. Martha is doing the work to make it happen. Her sister sits in devotion at the feet of Jesus. Martha thinks that her work is more important than what Mary is doing. But Jesus says that what Mary is doing is important and it matters.
New Testament scholar NT Wright writes that what Jesus says about the poor is not meant to be read as “a shrug of the shoulders, an excuse for rich people to say that since there will always be poor people, we don’t have to help them out of their poverty.”
Jesus is not saying don’t take care of the poor – it is just the opposite. He is telling them that that work is important, we are compelled to such works of compassion by God, and the work continues on. And there is much work to be done.
Terrible humanitarian crises are happening even as we speak. People are fleeing their homelands, leaving everything behind, paying human traffickers to put them on unsafe boats and hoping to find a new life. Families are sending their children alone across our borders to get them away from violence. Poverty envelopes billions of people. There are poor people in the land – the work of caring for them continues on.
AND Jesus is also saying don’t miss out on opportunities for devotion – don’t miss out on opportunities for worship and singing God’s praises – don’t miss those opportunities for prayer and spiritual formation – don’t miss those opportunities for extravagant love towards God.
Don’t discount the good work that others are doing.
Don’t be blind to acts of love and grace that happen all around.
And don’t forget to love God first of all. Amen.