- Published: 17 March 2015
Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper. I want to pause there for a moment in this story found in Mark 14:3-9. Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper. Do you notice what the story doesn’t say?
I have read the Bible for a long time, a lot of years. My job requires it, yet in all these years I am loathe to admit I have never noticed this aspect of the story before. Maybe I have been asleep on the job and all of you are grateful I am finally catching up.
Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper and what isn’t said in the story is this. Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper who Jesus had healed or cured the day before or the week before or the month before. It doesn’t say that.
I have often bemoaned that when I am walking alongside persons with chronic illness or in varying stages of palliative care, I often bemoan that there is not a story where Jesus doesn’t cure the person, a story where there is healing but not necessarily curing. I wanted just one story. Well here it is.
Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper. Jesus was being sacred presence among the company of a leper. This detail impacts the story because it makes me wonder about the house of Simon the leper. Lepers, in the time of Jesus, didn’t have houses but were relegated to communal colonies outside mainstream society.
Previously, I have always pictured this scene as happening in a home, a large home with lots of people around, sort of like a banquet or a dinner party. Not so. Simon the leper’s house would be more like Centre 507 here in Ottawa. This is the sort of setting Jesus was having dinner.
When I conjure up that picture the story shifts.
Jesus is at dinner in the house of Simon the leper choosing to break bread among the ostracized and the marginalized. It is not some fancy dinner. While at this kind of dinner, a woman comes with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, pure nard.
Again, there is an unnamed woman figuring into the Jesus story, and unlike the story of last week, we know even less about this woman. There is an absence, a dearth, of detail about her life and her life story. Is she also a leper, one where illness has stolen from her opportunity and acceptance? Is this jar of costly ointment her only treasure, something she has guarded and protected for many years? We don’t know.
One of the literary techniques in sacred storytelling, is to provide a minimum of detail so that the character embraces a wide and broad human experience. This terse style of writing invites connection with the readers, with our own experiences and our own context.
The experience of this woman is to say something to our lives and our stories. Be this woman for a moment.
The unnamed woman comes and breaks open an alabaster jar and pours the ointment over the head of Jesus. She anoints Jesus. The dramatic beauty of this scene always stills me. There is a vividness in the sensuality, in the extravagance, in the unusualness of this action.
This anointing, this pouring oil on the head, is intriguing. Kings were anointed by having oil poured on their heads both in the Hebrew tradition and the Roman tradition. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus is presented as an alternative to the Emperor of Rome. The Emperor was identified as the Son of God and Jesus is given the same title, but the "Jesus way" is radically different from the ways of empire. Instead of exerting power over, Jesus is empowering. The woman is anoint Jesus as an alternative King or Emperor.
Not only that but the word "Christ" means the "anointed one". This woman, this unnamed woman, at a dinner in the house of a leper, this is the one who recognizes and anoints Jesus as Christ. In her is the power to anoint. I find that intriguing. Consider it for a moment. While it is Jesus who is being anointed, Jesus who is being set apart, the focus or the power is in this woman. This is what makes the immediate criticism of the woman so fascinating. Alongside the rising fragrance of the pure nard ointment is a rising indignation. Why wasn’t this valuable ointment sold and the money given to the poor? Why waste this resource? Every effort is being made to resist the power of this woman. The story tells us that indignation becomes anger.
This angry indignation is an assault both on the power and dignity of the woman. This assault tries to strip the woman of her own decision making power, the assault dictates that her treasure, her possession is not hers to do with as she discerns. There is an immediate assumption that her treasure is to be spent on everyone else, because after all, this unnamed woman doesn’t really matter. The assault is particularly insidious because it is done in the name of “do-goodism”.
Jesus puts an immediate halt to the assault. Jesus want to acknowledge what was in her power. Listen to what Jesus says. Leave her alone. Don’t upset her, what she is doing to me is one of the good works. You have the poor with you always, and you can be kind to them whenever you want, but you will not always have me. She has done what was in her power….she has anointed by body before its burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever throughout all the world the Good news is proclaimed, what this woman has done will be told in remembrance of her.
While we don’t have time to explore all the nuance, this action is about lifting up the poor. Jesus acknowledges that one can be kind to the poor anytime, an emphasis in the text. This action is to recognize the place of beauty and sacred insight among the poor. It is not all dour and gloomy. There is celebration and beauty and fragrance and extravagance. This is needed in life as well.
What I do want to explore is that in the gospel of Mark, this scene occurs as the writer begins to describe the passion of Jesus, the death and crucifixion of Jesus. This is in fact the opening scene. With a masterful literary deftness, the writer alludes to images from Psalm 23, yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, thy rod and thy staff comfort me, thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, thou anointest my head with oil.
This woman is the one who sees and understands and embodies the sacred teachings.
This woman, in the house of lepers, is the Holy One who anoints Jesus as Jesus begins to walk in the valley of the shadow of death. This woman is the prophet, this woman is the religious elder, this woman is the true priest/priestess and not the conspirators rallying about to murder Jesus. This is what is in this woman’s power.
While we don’t know her story, something compels her to finally break open and spend this valuable treasure that was in her possession. There is a huge letting go that is evident in this breaking open of a jar and freeing of beautiful fragrance. The power of letting go is unleashed. Jesus, who is sharing a meal with the marginalized, has been lifting up and empowering the marginalized has awakened in this woman an inner strength and inner resiliency that comes alive with her beautiful action of anointing.
The healing work of Jesus lifted up the shamed and guilted and powerlessness. Jesus chose to eat with the lepers who were constantly shamed and guilted and rendered powerless. This woman, in this act of anointing, embraces her own healing experience by letting go of shame and guilt and powerlessness. This woman regains her foundational and grounded self. She recovers self-knowledge and self-love, a love she now expresses towards Jesus in this passionate, sensual act of anointing.
This woman perhaps a leper still, this woman is healed, and in her healing is portrayed as healer. Oils were the substances of healers, and oil was also used in preparing bodies for burial and these oils were often identified as “hands of the gods”. In this woman is sacred healing power, in her are the “hands of god” and hence Jesus says, What she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
When I was a boy, I attended a church where we had a wooden communion table. Carved into the communion table were the words in remembrance of me. These words allude to the “holy meal” where the broken bread and shared wine are done in remembrance of Jesus. In a few short paragraphs following this story of this unnamed woman anointing Jesus, the writer of the gospel of Mark describes Jesus at a Passover supper breaking bread and blessing the cup. The words in remembrance of me are not used by the writer.
I mention that because it intrigues me. I believe, as do many theologians like Rita Nakashima Brock and many of the scholars of the Jesus seminar, that if Jesus had his druthers and walked into our churches today, he would prefer that carved into our communion tables the words in remembrance of her or at minimum to have both inscriptions. This would give us a better sense that salvation does not happen through one person, but through the dynamics of community. These are the dynamics that Rita Nakashima Brock talks about in her book Journeys By Heart, a work building on Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's ground breaking theological work titled In Memory of Her.
Like we noted last week, sacred power is transferred, transferred from Jesus to this woman. Jesus wants her to be remembered because the power of the Christ is in her, the power of the Christ is in the community that is initiated around the Jesus story.
Remember the death of Jesus is not the end of the Christ story because the Christ power is awakened and affirmed in the community of the followers of Jesus, is awakened and affirmed in this unnamed woman, this woman who leaves behind her shame and guilt and powerlessness to become a part of the community which would survive the death of Jesus. She is doing one of the good works, works done in remembrance of her. In this poignant moment, divine power and divine love flows between this woman and Jesus. The Christ is happening in the empowering of community.
And it is that same divine power and divine love which flows among us. It is an ancient love that is a right now love,
We are this woman. We carry in us sacred teaching, the Christ is within. Through the Jesus story comes an invitation to let go of shame and guilt and powerlessness, an invitation to recover our true self, the self God made us to be and calls us to be, a self that is alive, and made most especially alive when we have opportunity to eat our dinner in the houses of Simon the leper.
We are this woman, and we remember her as we tell our stories of faith this day.
May our prayer today, be a prayer of healing that we offer and sing in remembrance of her.