Encountering Jesus: A Devoted Woman

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 14:3-9

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the jar and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Mark 14:3-9 rsv

This little account from the gospels always moves me. It’s about extravagant devotion, about the criticism it sometimes arouses, and about the gracious Lord who appreciates what His people do for Him. Listen. I’m reading from Mark, chapter 14, beginning at verse 3:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the jar and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.

Mark doesn’t tell us the woman’s name. There’s a passage in John’s gospel where Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet in Bethany. Luke tells us of a sinful woman who anointed Jesus in the home of Simon the Pharisee and washed His feet with her tears. But Mark does not identify this woman or say anything about her character. For him, she’s a person to whom many names could be given. She stands for all who are truly devoted to Jesus Christ. It would be a grand thing if any one of us could ever find ourselves acting in this way.

WHAT SHE DID

Let’s look first at just what it was that she did. You may recall the setting in Mark’s gospel. We’re in Jerusalem and it’s two days before the Passover. The chief priests and scribes have already decided that things have gone too far. Jesus has to die. They’re searching for a way to seize Him and yet to do it quietly away from public view. Crafty foes with murder in their hearts are closing in on Jesus. This woman’s simple act of love shines all the more brilliantly against that somber background.

It was while Jesus was dining at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, perhaps a man whom Jesus had healed. While Jesus was reclining at table, this woman came up to Him, carrying an alabaster jar of ointment. Mark tells us that it was pure nard, very costly. Its equivalent today would be the most exquisite perfume. It was probably a family heirloom passed down through the family from mother to daughter – surely the greatest treasure this woman had possessed.

The guests notice her now standing behind Jesus. Did she plan to touch the ointment with her fingers and offer Him its fragrance? Will she sprinkle it perhaps upon Him? To everyone’s astonishment, she breaks the jar and pours the entire contents on Jesus’ head. The aroma instantly floods the room. This is an act impossible to ignore.

There was no announcement about it beforehand and no explanation afterwards. She simply did it and let the act speak its poignant, powerful message.

How can we call this anything but extravagance? A few drops would have been a lovely tribute, but the whole jar? Most of it could well have been saved for other special occasions, but now the jar was broken. Nothing could be retrieved. It was all poured out, used up. It was like water slipping through your fingers into the thirsty earth. All at once it was gone.

Have you ever received a gift anything like that? When someone gives us something expensive, or a gift that required a great deal of time and labor, we feel awed by that, don’t we? We say, “You shouldn’t have done it!” But every now and then someone may bestow on us a gift so priceless, that involves such a sacrifice, that we’re simply speechless. We don’t know how to respond.

King David was once thirsty in the heat of a battle. He let his men know that. Some of them risked almost certain death to break through the enemy lines and bring their king a drink from a familiar well. David was so moved by that that he couldn’t drink the water they had brought. He poured it out instead before the Lord, the only One worthy of such devotion. Have you ever given to a loved one something really extravagant? You couldn’t afford it. You went in debt to do it. But you knew it would make that special someone happy. So you threw caution to the winds and bought it anyway. Just to see her or him delighted was more than worth it all.

We can only imagine what was behind this woman’s gift of precious ointment. She must have come to know Jesus’ pardoning mercy, His healing love. She must have gotten some glimpse of who He really was. Overwhelmed with grateful love, she brought the best she had and poured it all out for Him.

HOW SOME RESPONDED

But not everyone was favorably impressed. Some were shocked. They thought it was a shame. “Why this waste of the ointment?” they complained. The magnitude of the tribute offended them. All that expense for one teacher at one meal! It made no sense to them. They had no capacity to understand or appreciate devotion like that. Next came the weighty charge: “This ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” Why was this woman so foolish and wasteful as to break the flask and pour all the ointment on Jesus’ head? She showed no sensitivity to human need, they implied. If she didn’t care to keep this expensive perfume, why didn’t she use it for something worthwhile? Why didn’t she sell it and give the money to those in desperate need?

That sounded pious and humane, didn’t it? So concerned these people were about good stewardship! So sensitive to the needs of the underclassed! They would obviously have made much better use of such a treasure. They would have sold it all and given it to charity. At least, that’s what their objection implied.

Now we witness a strange spectacle. Some of those sitting around the table in Simon’s house begin to reproach this dear woman. They heap on her scorn and blame. You can almost see her there wilting, withering under their disapproval.

We don’t really learn anything here about the woman’s action. The value of it isn’t changed by this storm of accusation. But we learn a good deal about those who object. Interesting that they should use the term waste. Something poured out upon Jesus in a kind of lavish, single-minded devotion was offensive to them. They didn’t see Him (and this is the real indictment against them) as especially worthy of this. They didn’t see the teacher from Nazareth through the eyes of this thankful worshiper. They apparently saw nothing in Him to call forth such an outpouring of grateful love.

And this thing about giving the proceeds to the poor. Can we take that seriously from them? Is that what these critics were doing with whatever of value they had? Often the people most truly generous in giving to the poor are those who talk least about it. From these observers, though, so furious against this woman, the objection seems heartless instead of human. They were quite ready to put down a person who had just become poor, who had shown a truly generous heart, who had manifested a sacrificial spirit.

What about us? Are we sometimes like these grumbling guests? Does it make us uncomfortable when someone is evidently, enthusiastically devoted to the Lord – much more than we are? Do we find ourselves ready to carp at a Christian commitment which seems to go beyond prudence, at a love for Christ which takes risks we would never consider? Do we sometimes look for ways to disparage those people who embarrass us by their flaming zeal for Christ, their witness for Him? We can sometimes find ourselves in the position of judging people whose shoes we aren’t worthy to untie. Or, with high-sounding words, we pretend to be a good deal better than we really are.

THE LORD’S APPROVAL

Jesus doesn’t leave this woman defenseless. “Let her alone,” He says. “Why do you make trouble for her?” He tells them to stop picking on her. Their blame is undeserved, to say the least. She has nothing to apologize for. Why should anyone trouble her over what she’s done?

They have been speaking on behalf of the poor, and that, Jesus says, is always appropriate. “You have the poor among you always and you can help them whenever you like.” He points them to their own responsibility. Let them do what they can with their resources for the poor, not just now but all the time. This woman, on the other hand, has captured a special moment. The poor are always here but Jesus is with His followers for only a very short time. This woman has sensed that. Her critics have not.

She has done something else, according to Jesus. She has anointed His body in anticipation of His burial. Perhaps the woman herself realized that Jesus was about to die, perhaps not. But to Jesus, knowing what awaited Him in the next few days, that was how He received her gift. He took it as an anointing for the great work He was about to do in bearing our sins, in dying that we might have life. They had thought this outpouring of love was a waste. Jesus saw in it a high and holy purpose. Further, what they were quick to criticize, Jesus saw as worthy of praise and celebration. He tells them that, “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” When these critics have long been forgotten, this woman will be remembered. What they call a shameful waste will be lifted up for her honor.

Think of it, friends, Jesus, about to be condemned to death and crucified, knows that the good news of His saving love will be proclaimed in all the earth. He knows that His followers will do that. They will preach His message. And He knows that they will so understand the meaning of His death and resurrection that they will tell the story everywhere of this woman’s loving preparation for it.

Now pause for a moment to reflect on that little prophecy. There are thousands of languages into which this Gospel According to Mark has been translated. There are hundreds of millions of people in the world today who have read or heard of how this woman anointed Jesus. She to all of them is a model of what it means to be a devoted disciple. It happened, didn’t it, just as Jesus said it would?

He sums up His reaction to the woman’s gift in these words, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” The word can also be translated a “fine” or an “honorable” thing. What these other guests have despised, Jesus esteems highly. What they call wasteful, He calls wonderful. Where they see something blameworthy, He sees beauty. And His evaluation, needless to say, is what really matters.

What’s the real difference between this woman and those who chided her? It’s in what she saw in Jesus. She saw Him as someone supremely worthy. She looked on Him as Master and King. She trusted Him as God’s anointed One and expressed that by what she did. And most deeply, she felt a sense of debt to Him which the richest of gifts could not possibly discharge. But all of that was lost on those who found fault with her.

Is it any different now? Isn’t it still true that the genuine believers, those who realize who Jesus is and what He has done for us, are always those who feel a measureless indebtedness to Jesus, a gratefulness, a devotion to Him that knows no bounds. They are ready to sing, “What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend, for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? O make me thine forever, and should I fainting be, Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love to Thee!”