Grace and peace to you from God our mother and father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen
Just to get an idea how much an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard might cost in our contemporary day, I went to the Nieman Marcus website, and checked the pricetag of designer perfumes. The most expensive perfume I could find was $500 for 2.4 ounces. That is far more money than I would ever consider investing in perfume!
Yet it doesn’t come close to the equivalent value of the perfume, the costly ointment of nard, an anonymous woman used to anoint Jesus’ head. 300 denarii. Bible historians explain it this way—a year’s wages for the common worker. In our terms, the value of this perfume was like the finest bottle of wine in a connoisseur’s collection, or a piece of museum-quality art. It is indescribably precious and rare.
The woman brings it to anoint Jesus because to her, he is indescribably precious and rare. By this time in the story of Jesus and his ministry, two things are quite clear: Jesus is an unusual man of great gifts of healing and preaching and teaching—already many people have come to believe that he is the Messiah, God’s anointed Son. That’s the first thing.
The second is that Jesus is on a collision course with the powers that govern and control Jerusalem, Judea, and the whole Mediterranean world—the Roman Empire. Just before we hear of this dinner at the house of Simon the leper, Mark’s Gospel tells us, “The chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” Just afterward, Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples, one of those closest to Jesus, goes to the chief priests to arrange to betray Jesus.
The woman who anoints Jesus is not named in Mark’s telling of this story. She is an anonymous follower, a disciple who does not crave recognition, does not wish to have her name recorded for posterity. All we know about her is that she is wealthy, a woman of privilege. She had to be a person of status, in order to have this costly ointment in her possession. This woman of privilege comes to the home of Simon the Leper, an outcast by name and reputation, in the village of Bethany outside of Jerusalem. She comes at a precarious moment to perform a holy task. She prepares Jesus for burial. It is Jesus’ death that she is anticipating, affirming and anointing. Yes, this beautiful and precious man is undertaking a dangerous and sacrificial mission. Yes, she says, God has given Jesus this mission, and she believes in it, too.
In Jesus, God becomes human, one of us. In him, God says, ‘my life, the divine life, is for you.’ For this, Jesus was born, for this, Jesus lived, and for this, he dies. Jesus shows us the depth and breadth of God’s love for us—that God will live, die, and live again, in order that we might live.
There is no length to which God will not go, to give us life. This is the God we worship with love and life, with all the heart and breath we have within us.
It is the life and death of Jesus, our Lord, that tell us, the sacrifices we make for one another, are good, right, and meaningful.
In a moment of extreme need, we will go to great lengths—to death even—to protect our loved ones. So we have gone these past few weeks into self-quarantine, solitude, stay-at-home sabbatical. Grandparents have stayed away from grandchildren, children have stayed away from parents, friends have steered clear of friends. A friend of mine sent a photo of her brand-new grandbaby—whom she has not been able to visit, much less hold and cuddle, in this time of self-quarantine.
But at this time of global emergency, people are putting their lives on the line even to protect those they do not know—emergency med-techs, doctors, nurses, caregivers and cleaning staff. Ordinary workers, day-in, day-out workers, all the people who work in essential fields, warehouses and grocery stores—are risking illness and even death to keep up and running those sectors of our common life that we cannot live without.
Then there are the people who are giving up their livelihoods—this is not a sacrifice anyone wants to make. Take a 2-week vacation, OK, 2 weeks of sick-leave, yes, maybe even 2 weeks without pay. But to lose your job, your businesses, your savings and security?
The shock of this economic pause is already crescendoing around the world—to garment workers in factories in Bangladesh and Pakistan and Indonesia. To Africa, where so many advances have been made in recent years, lifting people at last out of hunger and subsistence. To countries in South America, where so much had been accomplished to reverse economic inequality.
Jesus says two things in today’s Gospel lesson. One is to acknowledge the holy anointing, the sacramental gift this woman has given, to prepare him for trial, execution and burial. “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”
But the other thing: Jesus rebukes the criticism of his disciples and at the same time, affirms what they say, what he has been teaching all along:
“You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” Kindness, generosity, and beyond generosity, sacrifice, to aid the helpless, the left behind, the marginalized and overlooked—this is indeed the heart of Jesus’ ministry, the justice for which he gives his life.
“You always have the poor with you, you can show kindness to them whenever you wish,” which should be, and shall be for us disciples, all the time.
The woman with the precious ointment of pure nard is not wasting her money by anointing Jesus. Quite the opposite, she is anointing the justice and mercy that he embodies.
As we worship and pray through this Holy Week, we thank God for all the people who are putting their lives on the line to save others. Do this in confidence that your gift, your work, your risk-taking, makes every difference. Human bein are precious. Every day of every life is worth saving.
And as we worship and pray through this Holy Week, listen, and be alert to God’s call to make sacrifices of a different kind—financial help now and in the future, from those who have, toward those who are in need. God has instilled in us the capacity to be generous, sacrificial givers—to look around us to see the hunger and fear, to help those who are hurting at all times and in all places. Start thinking now about how you will use the costly ointment in your possession, to anoint the dignified and essential human beings around you, in the weeks and months to come. Do this in Jesus’ name, and in the name of an anonymous woman who saw in Jesus someone indescribably precious and good.
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