During the season of Lent, our teaching times are focussed on characters from the stories in Mark’s Gospel, chapters 14-16. This morning we hear from the woman who gave Jesus an extravagant gift. Why did she do that?
I was an outcast and alone, and was welcomed to the banquet. Simon, the one they so unkindly called the Leper understood life on the fringe of things. He had filled his house with close friends and any neighbours willing to enter the home of a man like him.
In our world people walked a wide circle around people with skin diseases. They called them lepers, a catch-all phrase for a variety of ailments, some serious, some just unsightly. People worried about the disease spreading to them. More than that, they saw the scars, or rash, or leaking wounds as outward signs of some moral sickness or spiritual rot, inside the person. You might catch what they had, and the temple priests would look at you funny, or worse, avert their gaze as they passed you by. There was a cost to being seen with the wrong sort of people.
That’s me. I was the wrong sort. My outcast status was harder to cure than a skin rash. I lived in a culture in which there was room for me only if I was a good daughter or a wife- with some man to care for me. I had no public voice and no rights. Women and children were considered property of the eldest male of their household.
A woman on her own, without a man to shield her from lustful eyes, and to rein her in, was a threat. If she had her own money, dark rumours clouded around her. How did she get her money? I did not have a man. I had my own money. Never mind how I earned it. They never ask a man that question!
Some people talked about me, and wrote stories about me, as a woman painted with shame. The kind overlooked by parents seeking a suitable wife for their sons. It is hard to wash off the stink of rumours and gossip.
I was made welcome in the house of Simon the leper, but that didn’t last. I’d brought a gift for Jesus, the guest of honour. I knew about Jesus. I’d heard him speak. I had seen something in his gaze. He did not look at me, or anyone, with an eye to judge our worth. He told us we were each of infinite value. He told me we are all children of the One who made the earth, the sky, all the creatures that live. Jesus said the life within us surged from the source of all life.
I loved hearing Jesus talk about God as being closer than close. He mocked priestly efforts to enforce rules about who was worthy to approach the holy of holies. How dare they keep us away from the temple, when the kingdom of God is within us?
Jesus chuckled at their feeble logic. I loved when he laughed. That laugh, and those loving eyes gave me hope. Jesus gave me courage to love God without fear, and to love this beautiful world, in spite of all the darkness and cruelty that people inflict on it, and on each other. He showed me God loves each of us with endless generosity. There is no worry God will run out of love.
I wanted to give Jesus something wonderful. Something extravagant and ridiculous, with no purpose except to be beautiful. His laughter had pointed me toward this truth that changed my life. God made beauty. God makes each of us, and sees us as beautiful. I wanted to give Jesus a gift, in gratitude for all he gave me.
I had to act soon, because when Jesus looked at the world with loving eyes, and laughed out loud, not everyone was laughing with him. There were some who wanted Jesus out of the picture even more than they wanted to keep out the likes of Simon and me.
I hoped there wouldn’t be any of those cold eyed scowlers at the party. And such a party it was! The table richly laden with roasted lamb and quail, and vegetables and grains. The luxuriant smell of the olives, and the bread, and the wine. I ate and drank my fill, and perhaps a little more.
I looked around the crowded room as I made my way to the head table. Jesus was at the centre of things. I knew most of the other people by sight. There was joy in the air, and I loved feeling welcome at the feast. But as I said, the welcome turned out to be temporary.
The only strangers were in a group of men sitting close to Jesus. One of them glared at me as I came close to the teacher. I remember he held a drink to his lips with one hand, and his other hand tightly gripped a money pouch. Here was a man who could not enjoy the party for fear of what it cost.
Jesus greeted me warmly, and nodded approval of my gift. He saw what I meant to do. I cracked open the perfume bottle, and poured the loose, oily liquid into his hair. I wiped at it with my hand as it dripped on to his brow.
As my fingers combed through his hair, I remembered the words of the psalm we sang at the synagogue when I was a girl, “how wonderful it is when people get along, it is like oils running down the beard of Aaron.” That would be the real joy, the real glory of God, if we could just love each other, and see each other as God does.
I heard a gasp in the room when I touched Jesus, but I tried to ignore it. I’d heard that sound before. The sound of callous judgement. The snide whispers were not long in following.
“Why didn’t she sell the oil and give the money to the poor?”
They were so quick to condemn. They had no way of knowing what I shared with the poor.
Tears welled in my eyes. Why were they so critical? Did my generosity shame them? Was it easier to judge me than to face their own poverty of spirit? Some people hold on so tight to what is in their grasp, like that man at the head table with the money bag. They can’t bring themselves to give anything away unless they have enough for themselves. How much is enough?
Should I stay or go? Jesus looked into my eyes, and gave me his warm smile. He then turned his gaze towards the grumblers, and used the moment to teach. His words washed over me like oil running down the Aaron’s beard.
He said, “Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly.”
In spite of Jesus words, I did not stay much longer at the party. I felt poured out, and just wanted to go home. As I was leaving, I saw the man with the money bag out in the courtyard, deep in conversation with some officials from the temple. They did not know me, but I recognized them. They’d not been at the feast. They would not have been caught dead in Simon’s house.
I heard the rattle of coins changing hands. A lot of coins. Even that did not bring a smile to the bag-man’s face. What would be enough for him?