Arguing Over Poured Perfume
As many of you know, my son was born on February 13th. It was a very amazing moment. There were people running around everywhere. I finally got to hold him after he was cleaned up and checked out. Melanie and I spent a couple of days in the hospital with him. It was a good time as we visited with friends and family. We learned a lot about taking care of him.
Amazingly, they let us out of the hospital with him on Sunday afternoon. I remember asking two nurses if they were actually going to let me out of the hospital with him. Carrying to the car really made it sink in that the hard work and the memories were just beginning.
The same is true in our Christian faith. Oftentimes we refer to the moment of following Jesus as our "new birth." The actual act of following him is where the difficulty and memories really begin.
In the early church there was a practice to prepare Christians for this journey of following Jesus. The day before Easter, new converts were baptized as a mark of following Jesus. They would enter into a time of preparation for six weeks, which became known as Lent. After the candidates were baptized, they would be anointed with oil as a sign of being a part of the community of faith as they pledged to live the Christian life together.
In the season of Lent, we will be studying the last 24 hours of Jesus' life. We hope that during this time of preparation we will be able to grow in our faith commitment so that we can better follow Jesus.
As we begin studying the last 24 hours of Jesus' life, we are going to begin with the story found in Mark 14. It says,
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. "But not during the Festival," they said, "or the people may riot."
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.
"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
This story is also recorded in Matthew and in the Gospel of John, although the sequential order is different. John's gospel has the story situated just before Jesus enters Jerusalem in the last week of his life. Mark locates the story just after the temple arguments and the prediction of the temple's destruction. Mark tells us that this event could have happened two days before Passover, which would have been on a Wednesday. The text does not actually say this even happened two days before Passover, but that it happened when Jesus was spending time in Bethany, before the Passover dinner.
You may be wondering why I would begin a sermon series about the last twenty four hours of Jesus life with a passage that may well have happened days before. The answer is that while this passage may not have happened in the last day of his life, it certainly points to the theme of Jesus' last day.
Jesus was dinning at the home of Simon the Leaper when a woman comes up to him and anoints his head with expensive perfume. We are told that this perfume was so expensive that it cost about a year's wages. Another difference between the story recorded in Mark and Matthew and John's gospel is that John says that Jesus was at the home of Lazarus in Bethany. Mary is the woman who has the perfume.
There is a similar story recorded in Luke's gospel where an unnamed woman, who is called a "sinner" anoints Jesus with oil at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Some people have claimed that these stories are the same story, but I believe there are actually two anointing stories.
Notice right away the disciples get upset because of the waste of money. John's gospel focuses particularly on Judas, who John says wanted to steal money. Either way, it appears that the disciples as a whole are uncomfortable with this action because it was such a waste of money.
Jesus' words contradict the disciples as he tells his disciples that what she has done is a good thing. He then explains why he believes this is good. He tells them again a message that he has been trying to get across to them. He tells them that they will always have the poor with them, but he will not be with them much longer.
As I was studying this passage, one question kept popping up in my mind. The question I asked myself was, "What did this woman believe the significance of this action was?" As I began studying I learned that there were really three reasons to anoint someone with perfume or oil. (1) Romantic or cosmetic reasons (2) Burial Rites (3) In the Old Testament, kings and prophets were anointed with oil. Interestingly enough, kings who were being buried were anointed with oil on their head.
The woman in this passage seems to understand two truths that the disciples are still having a tough time with. She seems to know that Jesus is a true king and that this king would soon die. I think this is the truth Mark hope we will see.
Notice the different characters in this passage. The chief priests and the teacher of the law, along with Judas are looking for ways to kill Jesus. They seem to know that he will die, but they fail to recognize who Mark believes Jesus to be. The disciples on the other hand seem to understand that Jesus is a king like figure, but just can't comprehend that he is about to die. Although over and over again, he tells them these two truths, they cannot put it together like this woman at Simon the Leaper's home.
Believing vs. Obeying
The two approaches to Jesus in the first century remind me some of the way I see folks approaching Jesus today. On the one hand, we have people who remind me of the disciples and they believe all the correct things about Jesus. They can tell you the exact date they came to believe in Jesus. Yet sometimes those of us, who believe so strongly in Jesus, seem to fail to follow what Jesus is teaching us. I don't know if it is because we get caught up in believing the right things, but we do not live out the things Jesus taught us. Like the disciples who failed to grasp the reality that Jesus would die soon and that his kingdom was very different from what they had in mind.
On the other hand, there are those who say Jesus was an amazing teacher and we should respect his teaching and live by it, but they fail to believe the things that Jesus claimed about himself. For some reason they fail to recognize that God sent Jesus into the world to lead people out of brokenness and into wholeness. The story of the woman anointing Jesus reminds us that Believing and Obedience go had in hand.
A couple of years ago I taught a class here at the church called, "The Chronicles of Narnia and Philosophy." The class was modeled after some of the essays from a book by the same name. I love CS Lewis and I have studied him a lot, but I was not really a philosophy expert.
After reading the book, I set out to teach this class and I found out that while I could read the book and understand the philosophy in the book, I really did not understand how it all fit together. I struggled with a lot of the philosophy in that class because I did not really know or understand philosophy. In order to teach something like that you have to know it inside and out. In order to know it inside and out, you have to immerse yourself in it, you have to have a true passions for it.
I think the same is true about following Jesus. In order to really follow Jesus, we have to immerse ourselves with the truth about who he was and is. Then we have to fall in love with him and his teaching. I believe the Lenten journey calls us to a deep committed faith in Jesus.