Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Woman with the Alabaster Jar

Yes, I know, my blog needs a real update. I'll try to get to that in the next day or so. For now, here is the homily I preached in class this morning. It's my first, before my peers. We picked passages from Mark on strips of paper our instructor held out to us; I seem to choose or be chosen for the ones I need most.

We are "pretending" to preach in a Eucharistic context, which explains a bit toward the end.

Mark 14:1-9

What is going on in this house? Who is this woman? How has she managed to scandalize everyone? And what can we make of Jesus’ answer?

What are we supposed to do with this story?

We come upon this dinner party in what we know will be the last week of Jesus’ life. Mark has set the scene just previously, with apocalyptic prophecies, warnings to be watchful, and a note that the Passover is two days away. Jesus is wanted by the Temple authorities. There is not even a pause between this story and the next, when Judas betrays Jesus. In our minds, we fast-forward to Friday. Jesus is doing the same.

Whom do we meet here? We are in Bethany, which strikes me as iconic because one of its Hebrew meanings is “house of the poor.” We see Jesus, at a dinner party at the home of an outcast, a man with a disease that marked him with a giant Quarantine sign. He is not alone; there are friends and family there with him. And here is a woman, appearing silently out of nowhere to pour oil over Jesus’ head. To the shock of everyone around him, Jesus doesn’t seem fazed by this. Instead, he castigates the others for mixing up their priorities.

We aren’t told her name. The writer of John identifies her as Martha’s sister Mary. The author of Luke considers her a prostitute, who not only anoints Jesus but weeps over him, and dries his feet with her hair. Mark, the first written gospel account, gives us the bare bones that others built from. She is simply a woman, who somehow came by a jar of ointment worth nearly a year’s wages. She breaks it open, and anoints Jesus’ head, as if he were truly a king.

She doesn’t just dribble a little. She pours it all out over him.

Picture this: A houseful of men are gathered, in occupied Jewish Palestine, two days before the festival celebrating their people’s deliverance from Egypt. They’re just sitting down to dinner. We don’t know who all is there. We don’t know how many. One commentator assumes an all-male gathering. We don’t know if Jesus brought the usual crew or if he showed up alone. We can guess that no one there came from any particular means; they would have risked too much by hanging out with a leper. We don’t know what they’re eating or drinking, or how much. We don’t know if they’re quietly or urgently making plans for liberation, or if they just want to have some fun before the craziness happens. There’s the potential for anything, here.

Suddenly, silently, she slips in, carrying a jar that cost a year’s daily wages. She carries it in front of her, with both hands, careful not to drop it. She knew what she was doing. She knew what she was risking. She locks her eyes on Jesus, breathes deeply, and slowly and with purpose, walks toward him.

There’s a rustling of elbows, a collective cough. She sets her jaw, and tunes them out. She grips the jar tighter, to keep her hands from shaking. She walks on, focused on what she came here to do.

Someone shouts, “Hey! Simon! Where did she get THAT?”

Simon shrugs back. They stop what they’re doing and watch. All eyes are on her now.

She reaches Jesus. He bows his head, so she can reach. She breaks the jar, pours it over him, and… instant apoplexy. Eyes popping out all over the place. There is oil everywhere, all over Jesus and running on the floor. Everyone in Judea can smell what it is.

There is one long indignant silence.

Then people start shouting. Where did you get that money? Why did you buy that jar? Don’t you care that people are starving? Why on earth did you pour that all over his head?

Maybe, who on earth are you? Who let you in here?

Definitely, what on earth just happened?

Jesus, somewhat used to calming storms, quiets this one. Sharply. “Leave her alone!”


“Yes, you. You were talking about the coming of the Kingdom. She just did something that mattered. You will have poor people, always, around you. You can care for them whenever you want. This woman—yes, this one right here—has anointed my head for burial. She has done a holy thing.”

I can hear them all just muttering, “oh.”

These are not shady characters. They’re thinking outside of themselves, already—they want to share what they have. They’re a bunch of people gathered in a house with Jesus, whom the Markan community knows as a tireless healer, teacher, and prophet with a pressing sense of urgency. Wherever Jesus is, things happen, and the kingdom of heaven is always breaking through. There is an energy always crackling around him. They are preparing for the great festival of liberation. They’ve got their minds on change.

Jesus doesn’t condemn them for that. He doesn’t tell them not to serve the poor. He takes for granted that they will do that anyway. He tells them that they have to do both. Sharing with people who have less than you is one way of loving God.

Seeing the need in one person, and filling that, is another.

Jesus often stands up for women. Why this one? It wasn’t she who gave her last penny to voracious Temple authorities. She did nothing like lose a quarter and search her whole house for it. She neither asks for healing, nor argues with him on behalf of someone she loves. She walks into this house without speaking a word, and she pours an entire jar of oil over Jesus’ head.

Nard is a member of the valerian family; it’s similar to what gives us Valium. It was imported from India, and was used both for healing and for anointing the dead. What she did, in her way, was to give healing to the healer.

She is told she’ll be remembered—but we don’t even know her name. Perhaps she is a member of Simon’s household. Perhaps she’s a perfect stranger here. We aren’t told how she got the money to pay for the ointment. The point isn’t how she paid for this. The point is that she held something precious, and she gave it away. She looked into Jesus, and she saw a king. She saw what he needed, and she did it for him.

She walked past all of these men, and she gave herself away.

If you look around, you can see people giving their whole selves for the healing of the world. Ten years ago, I met a man in downtown Olympia. He was sitting at a table in front of a magazine store I used to hang out in. He said hi. I said hi back. And I’m not sure why, but I sat at the table with him.

We got talking. He told me that he’d just gotten out of jail. He did time for something drug-related; I don’t remember what it was. He had just landed in Olympia, and was trying to figure out how to make a life there.

In the years since, he finished college and got involved in the local activist community. I know his last name, but I’ve never heard him use it. Everyone in town calls him “Long-Hair David.” He got involved with a program called “Books to Prisoners,” and brought it to town. There’s a regular thing now, where people bring books that they’re done with to a drop-off location, and volunteers package and mail them to inmates all over the US. He helped start a local harm-reduction program, and got the county health department to back him. He started a program offering donations of blankets and other essential items to local homeless youth. Many fall and winter evenings, you can see him on his bicycle, trailer packed with things to give away.

A year ago, I came to Berkeley with a question. When I trained to volunteer at a domestic violence/rape relief agency, we played a game on the last day of training. The instructors got us all together in a circle, and asked us this:

“How do you want to love the world?”

We were quiet for a minute, and then we played the game. One would ask the question, and throw a ball of yarn to another. That one would speak her answer, hold the string, and toss the ball to someone else. We repeated this until we had a spider’s web of connections, speaking who we were and what was in us to give.

I don’t remember what I said then. But I ask it again, now. Probably we all do. God has called us into a time of study and questioning, a time of learning and preparation for lives of intentional service. Sometimes we are absolutely clear about our passions and our callings. We’re off organizing for immigrants’ rights, or creating liturgies for peace. Sometimes we’re drowning in paper and deadlines, and can’t think past the next cup of coffee.

As we come to this Eucharistic table, let us remember who we are. Jesus saw the woman’s worth. Like her, we all are worth the love we have inside us. Our world is worth the love we have to give it.

Let us eat this bread, drink this cup, and with all the love we are given, give ourselves away.


max said...

Every hair on the back of my neck is standing at rigid attention.
You have an extraordinary, amazing, explosive gift of unbelievable power. For which I thank God.



Anonymous said...

Thank you, You've drawn a beautiful portrayal of one of my favorite women in the scrpiture.

The fragrance of the perfume that still lingers.....is the fragrance of adoration!

Be blessed,