Scripture: John 12:1-8 (with references to Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50)
2 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
James Tissot. The Ointment of the Magdalene (Le parfum de Madeleine)
Today we’re entering the story of a woman anointing Jesus with costly perfume. This story is told in some variation in all four gospels. Each gospel writer recalls the account uniquely, but all four remember this remarkable incident that involved the breaking of social norms, the extravagant and intimate lavishing that a woman provided for Jesus during a dinner. So whether it was Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, or Mary Magdalene, or some unnamed woman, the gospel stories recount an occasion when a woman interrupted a dinner by bringing out a jar of pure nard, of sweet-smelling oil made from myrrh, which was so expensive it cost about one year’s salary in ancient Palestine. Can you imagine spending an entire year’s salary on scented oil? Can you even imagine having that much disposable income? We don’t know whether the woman had the money to purchase this herself, or whether it was gifted to her, or whether she sold off other possessions or even herself in order to acquire it. What we do know is that she came to Jesus, and in an act of extravagance she broke the jar and poured out all of it – all of it – on him.
Whether Jesus was eating with his disciples, or even with some of the religious leaders like Simon the Pharisee, as the different versions tell us, the reactions around the table were all the same – shock, anger, embarrassment, criticism and contempt! We can imagine the room falling quiet as the strong, sweet smell wafts through the air and as this woman anoints Jesus in a tender, intimate act of devotion. The scriptures in both the Old and New Testaments describe different types of anointing: there were rituals to anoint kings, pillars and altars were anointed for their use in worship, women’s bodies were anointed with perfume, and the bodies of those who died would be anointed with strong-smelling spices and ointments to cover the stench of rotting flesh. Jesus, was called the Christ, or Messiah, which mean “the anointed one.” So, sometimes anointing had the connotation of being commissioned by God, and other times, not. So what kind of anointing was this?
We get a clue from Mark’s account of Jesus’ rebuke to those who are offended and casting judgement on the women when he says, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me…she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” (Mark 14:6,8) Jesus is not at all offended by her act of extravagance or devotion. Instead, in his defense of her, we catch a glimpse of Jesus’ appreciation for what she has done, almost as if in this moment, Jesus the Healer and Caretaker of the World allows himself to be the one cared for. I can only wonder at the enormity of the weight or burden Jesus must have been carrying as he entered Jerusalem that week. As he saw so much still to be done to create God’s kingdom of heaven on earth, to end injustice, to restore physical and mental health to those who were sick and dying, to restore dignity and worth to those who had been used and abused by those in power, and to inspire the hearts of humanity to turn and see their neighbor as their sister or brother, as God’s dearly beloved child. I’ve often heard the question asked, “why didn’t Jesus just fix everything? Why didn’t he put an end to diseases, or overthrow the government, why didn’t he just make everything right?”
Do you remember that once upon a time, everything was right, and at peace, and was “as it should be?” And do you remember that with the gift of free will, we humans have chosen time and again to put our own self-interests, our own security and wealth and preferences and desires ahead of the needs of others, and sometimes in stark contrast of what God calls good? Do you remember that God has been pursuing humanity through teachers and prophets in order to restore us and all of creation back to our intended wholeness? And when nothing else seemed to work, God sent Godself in the form of Jesus, to try one more thing… to be the ultimate example of what love and goodness and wholeness looks like. To show us once and for all the way that we can live a restored life. Jesus didn’t just come to demonstrate God’s power and ability to heal, but also to demonstrate God’s love, God’s vulnerability, God’s humility, and God’s servanthood, as well as God’s restraint in allowing free will to take its natural course. Jesus was tempted to give in to the ultimate power he possessed, but that wasn’t going to change us!
Yes Jesus, could have made everything right by his own power, could have healed the world from every ailment, every disease, every injury and abuse; Jesus could have overthrown the government as easily as he overthrew the tables of the moneychangers. But that wouldn’t have overthrown our own selfish ways of living. Instead, Jesus came to heal our hearts toward others, to overthrow pride and arrogance and willful ignorance and intolerance. Jesus came to turn the wounded into the healer, to turn the outcast into a gracious host, to show us how in God’s economy, the poor widow who gives only two mites is more generous than anyone, and to show us that love looks like being broken and poured out.
And yet, even though Jesus’s divinity gave him access to unlimited power, he was also fully human, fully susceptible to hunger, fatigue, and I imagine even burnout. Jesus the Great Physician had needs too. And in this moment, I can imagine Jesus being able to relax and let go of all those burdens he carried, if even for a moment. Jesus spent an enormous amount of time caring for others; but in this moment, he allowed himself to be cared for; to be appreciated, to be adored. This beautiful act of devotion reminds me of the time I spent in Mississippi the year after our family moved to St. Louis.
My grandmother’s sister was admitted to the hospital when she became ill with something that caused her to develop pneumonia. Since I had been staying home fulltime with the kids after our move I had time to give. So I took the kids with me, and they got to spend time visiting with my other grandparents while I sat at the hospital with my great aunt. Over those weeks, as she slipped into a coma, I had the opportunity to smooth lotion on her dry skin after they came to administer her morning bath and to apply the Vaseline to the lining of her nose so the oxygen tubes didn’t irritate her skin. I wonder if this act of anointing felt something like that… the doctors had prepared us for her death. We knew there was no way for her body to recover. And yet, we did what we could to care for her as long as she was still with us.
Jesus had also tried to prepare his friends and his closest followers for his impending death. Some were still waiting, still hoping to see Jesus rise up in the fullness of his divine power to take back the throne of Israel. Some were hoping for an insurrection, for a fight against the romans who occupied their land. But some, like this woman, understood that Jesus practiced what he preached about loving your neighbors, and turning the other check, and becoming a servant. She sensed the end was near, so she gave everything she could for him in this moment – her devotion, her nurturing care, and the most expensive possession she owned. She poured it out generously, willingly, the same way Jesus would pour out his life on the cross.
Jeff Hood is another Methodist pastor, and writes a weekly blog about the life of faith. And this week he chose to write about Dr. Li Weinlang, the Chinese doctor who first starting investigating the growing number of deaths linked to a new respiratory virus he had never seen. Dr. Weinlang was so concerned about what he was seeing, that he began to sound the alarm to his medical colleagues, warning them to take precautions, to wear personal protective equipment so that they would not become infected from their patients. At this time, no one else really knew about what we now call COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus. And the authorities didn’t like that he was stirring up fear in the medical community. He was hauled in by the police for questioning, and then charged with disseminating false information. But even with the threat of the authorities and the disease itself, Dr. Weinlang was so concerned with saving people that he would not remain silent. He kept investigating those who were infected, those who had died, and kept sending warnings to his colleagues and his community. By the time a large number of deaths had finally convinced other that he was right, Dr. Weinlang had himself become infected and had to be hospitalized. Even from his hospital bed, he continued to do all he could to help others. Ever day he grew sicker, he continued to send messages to try to save lives. In the end, he risked everything – being rejected by his colleagues, being arrested by the authorities, he risked and eventually gave his own life – all so that others might live.
Dr. Weinlang and many other doctors, nurses, medial staff, janitors, grocery clerks, and production workers are carrying the burden right now to do all they can to provide care, treatment, and sustenance for people all over the world as the global pandemic of COVID-19 continues to spread. These people are on the front lines of this virus that has already infected thousands all over the world. We may feel as though the threat doesn’t really pertain to us, or we may feel overwhelmed with fear. We may feel as though staying in our homes and refraining from going to work or church or to the store feels repressive and ridiculous, or we may have taken the pleas seriously from the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, to the President of the U. S. to state governors, including ours, to stay home in order to save lives.
Right now, every single American is being asked to take a 15-day pause to help slow the spread of the virus. But experts tell us that it will only work if every single American participates. Community buildings, places of worship, and business are all being asked to observe the pause, as well as schools, workplaces, individuals and families. In this moment of time, we are being asked to do something – not for ourselves – but for others. By staying home, you keep any germs you may already be carrying at home, and don’t risk spreading them, especially to those with compromised immunity. And by staying home, you leave the hospitals, emergency rooms and clinics open to only the most serious of cases. It may feel like we are risking a lot to do this – perhaps risking our jobs and livelihoods, our mental or emotional wellbeing. But we have the opportunity in this moment to live in a way that mirrors Jesus sacrificial love for us all; to put others first, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to care for the sick and vulnerable among us.
Meanwhile, we also have an opportunity to pour out our gratitude and thanks for those healers in our community and others who are working to provide necessary services at great personal risk. Jesus said that whenever this story about his anointing is told, it will be told “in remembrance of her” – of her generous offering of care and devotion. So this week, I’m urging everyone to send some words of encouragement and thanks to all those on the front lines – to our hospital and medical community, to our first responders, to grocery clerks and production line workers and those providing for sanitation and clean water and utilities. Our website has a downloadable list of Community Helpers along with their address. You may wonder about the safety of sending and receiving mail during this outbreak, and the WHO and CDC have both said that the risk of the virus surviving on paper or cardboard, and being strong enough to infect someone is very low. There are also social media pages for these community heroes, so in some way this week, send them your thanks, send them your praise, send them words of encouragements. And as the viral photo of a medical team has said, “we stay here [at the hospital] for you, so please stay home for us.”
As Jesus loved us, may we so love. Amen.
Pastor Melody Webb
Sermons and other notes from Pastor Melody