Lynnhaven Colony Congregational Church UCC
“It’s just what we’ve always done” Mark 14: 1-9
14It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.” 3While 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.4But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
It is said that this unnamed woman is the first Christian, the first one to really see who Jesus was.
In our Thursday Lenten Learning group we have been studying Mark’s Gospel in particular as we look at the last week of Jesus’ life. We have been guided by the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and their book The Last Week. We’ve learned that the Gospel writer of Mark uses the theme of blindness throughout the Gospel. The writer places stories of Jesus healing the blind strategically located next to stories of the disciples not understanding who Jesus is and what his mission is.
Throughout the Gospel, Jesus heals the blind, but the disciples still don’t see. In the middle of that context we hear the story of the woman enters with a jar full of oil and anoints Jesus. The other disciples argued with Jesus when he told them the death that he expected for his challenge of the status quo. Some of the disciples still clearly expected and longed for a revolution, a military messiah to take out the Roman Empire and establish God’s reign of peace through the weapons of war.
Mark reminds us with these blindness stories that the disciples remain blind to who Jesus really is, and what the good news he is proclaiming is really about. But here we have a moment of sight. Jesus says, “9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” The story of the woman with the alabaster jar will be always told alongside the good news. In those brief moments she embodies the good news so clearly that she will be inseparable from its proclamation.
So I wonder, how is it that she sees Jesus for who he really is?
The Gospel writer tells us that Jesus and his disciples are at Simon’s house, who is a leper. They are safe there, the religious leaders wouldn’t go into the home of an unclean leper. But the woman with the alabaster jar does.
Why does she have this jar of oil that is worth a year’s wages?
I imagine that the woman with the alabaster jar is no stranger to this house. I imagine that she is a healer, ready with anointing oils of healing to tend the wounds of lepers and others who might cross her path. Perhaps she has learned this from her mother and from her mother’s mother, this work of tending with love both the living and the dead. As a woman, she is also one who is present at times of birth and times of death. When someone is near death, she is there, with anointing oil, to tend the dying, to mourn with the family and to anoint the dead. This jar of oil may be her oil for the whole year, or for many years, oil set aside for this sacred ritual of love in the most tender of times.
When one spends time with lepers and with the dying and anointing the bodies of those who have died, you find yourself with a different set of eyes with which to see the world. She had anointed the dead many times, it was her practice. So when Jesus proclaiming his coming death and resurrection, she did not hesitate. A body must be anointed. This body especially. And so as Jesus would pour out his life in love, she poured out all of her anointing oil, there could be no better destiny for that oil than to bathe this embodiment of love. How did she know to do this? She had been preparing for it all along.
I think about this question often when I hear of stories of great heroism. How did they know to do it? How were they compelled to stand up for what was right when so many sat idly by?
A few weeks ago I read an obituary of Dr. Tina Strobos who died at age 91 in Rye, New York. In the 1940s she was a young medical student living in Amsterdam during the Holocaust. She and her mother set up sanctuary for Jews in her rooming house, over time saving over 100 people from execution.
With the help from the Dutch resistance they built a small compartment that could house up to four people behind a hidden attic door. She would ride her bike for hours to bring ration stamps to Jews hiding on farms in the countryside, smuggled radios to resistance fighters and created false identification for Jews so they could flee the country.
Later, she moved to New York where she worked as a family psychiatrist, specializing in the mentally impaired. She used her modest fame to speak out against the torture of terrorists. After Hurricane Katrina, when she was in her 80s, she worked diligently, though unsuccessfully, to find homes for displaced Southerners at her senior-citizens residence in Rye.
When asked why she risked her life in sheltering the Jewish people. She simply said, “It was the right thing to do. Your conscience tells you to do it.” And it’s just what you did.
Her parents took in Belgian refugees during World War I and hid German and Austrian refugees before World War II. She was formed by the practice of radical hospitality, that providing shelter, protecting the lives of the most vulnerable even at your own peril was just the right thing to do, so you did it. She had been prepared for that great task by the work of her family. So when the time came for her to pour out her jar of alabaster oil, she was ready.
I think of Dr. Tina Strobos as I think of my own daughter now. What challenges will she and our world be facing that I might prepare her for?How can I build in her a heart of compassion and courage, so that when the time comes her own alabaster jar will be filled with holy oil ready to be pour out for the healing of the world?
My prayer for all our children is that they are so formed in the practices of love and compassion, that when they are asked…
Why did you help that homeless person?
Why did you visit that one who was sick?
Why did you visit that person who was in jail?
Why did you challenge that racist comment?
Why did you set up a water station in the desert for that thirsty migrant?
Why did you work for justice for the oppressed?
Why did you defend the poor?
Why did you work for an earth friendly solution to that problem?
They will answer, “It was the right thing to do. That is just what we’ve always done in my family and in my church family”.
My first prayer is first that they would so live that they would be asked those questions! Some of that preparation of my daughter’s heart and her spirit is out of my hands, but it is in my hands to teach her through my own life and actions, how to love her neighbor, how to stand up for what is right. The only way I can prepare her is to have the courage to stand up for love myself.
There is Grace that provides the strength and courage for our children when we fail, but how much stronger they will be if they just know…it is the right thing to do and they are not afraid, because this is what we’ve always done. May it be so for us and for our children and our grandchildren.