Imagine for a moment that you’re at a dinner with an important person. It could be President Bush or Senator Kerry, depending on your political preference. (Or maybe, Thad Matta or Terrence Dials.) Chances are that whether you were the host or another guest, with your special honoree present, you’d want everything about this dinner to go just right.
But then imagine that someone you’ve never seen before--an anonymous woman--bursts in on your dinner party, breaks open a bottle of expensive ointment, and then, before anybody knows what to say or do, pours its contents onto the head of the important guest.
What would you do? Call for security? Bodily toss the woman out of the place yourself? Start dabbing the honoree with your napkin? Apologize profusely?
Of course, our Bible lesson for today recounts an incident similar to that imaginary scenario. It happened two days before the beginning of the Passover holiday period that would bring Jesus’ death. Jesus was eating at a dinner in the town of Bethany, being hosted by a man who was once leprous. All of the Biblical scholars presume--and I presume--that Jesus was surrounded by disciples, people who were His followers, a friendly crowd.
Then it happens: This unknown woman walks in, uninvited. The type of flask she has in hand is designed to have its stem broken once. (After all there are no resealable containers in first-century Judea!) Once such a flask was broken, everything inside had to be used at one single moment.
The ointment inside this particular flask is made from a perennial herb imported from India. Its aroma is so pungent that as soon as the woman breaks the bottle open, everyone in the house can smell it.
Not only are the other guests overwhelmed by the beauty of the aroma, they also are taken by the extravagance of this woman’s action. The cost of one bottle of this ointment is the equivalent of a year’s wages for a day laborer.
The woman proceeds to pour the contents of this ointment on Jesus’ head.
By now, Jesus’ followers in the room have gotten over their shock and begin to react. Being good Jews who know that at Passover time, believers are called to give to charitable causes, several ask indignantly, “Why has this woman done this? The flask could have been sold and given the money to the poor!”
(Frankly, I don't think that the real reason the disciples were so offended was concern for the poor, something to which Jesus will allude in a moment. I think instead that they're embarrassed by this unknown woman's devotion to Jesus. They weren't prepared to give so much to Him! They resent being "shown-up" by this interloper!)
But after forcefully condemning the woman, the disciples get their second shock over dinner, this time from Jesus. Jesus tells them, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for Me.” Then He says, “You’ll always have the poor. You can serve them any time you choose. You don’t need a special occasion for it. But I won’t always be around in bodily form. This woman did the thing she could do at this moment. She’s gotten my body ready to be buried.”
Then Jesus spoke words which we fulfill again today two-thousand years after this incident took place: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
We’re on the fifteenth day of our 40-Days to Servanthood here at Friendship. As we prepare for two-weeks in which our daily readings will consider the things that servants of God do, what can we learn from this woman and what she did for Jesus?
First: Servants do what they can. Jesus said. “She has done what she could.”
My mother used to always tell me as I was growing up, “Mark, can’t never did a thing.” I’ve been trying to learn that lesson ever since.
Through much of my life as a follower of Jesus, I’ve been an Excuse Christian, offering all sorts of excuses for why I can’t do this, can’t do that. The simple fact of the matter is that most of my “I can’t” statements are really “I won’t statements”: I won’t serve or seek justice for the poor, I won’t volunteer my time for a ministry of the Church or in the community, I won’t invite others to worship, I won't teach Sunday School.
The woman who anointed Jesus’ head may have held onto that expensive flask of anointment for years. It may have been a family heirloom. She could have thought, “Once I break open this bottle, I have to use it. I can’t use it now.” But then, she resolved, “I will use it now.”
What will you and I do now for Jesus and in His service? Whatever it is, I guarantee that you and I can do a lot more than we think we can!
Second: Servants honor Jesus. The Hebrew word Messiah and the Greek word Christ mean Anointed One. Old Testament prophecy said that an Anointed One, a Christ, would enter our world and would save all who believed in Him from sin and death. By her service, this woman was confessing her belief that Jesus was that Messiah.
She was doing something else, Jesus says. In first-century Judean culture, whenever people died, the bodies weren't embalmed. They were anointed with spices, ointments, or perfumes. But when, a few days after this dinner, Jesus died on a cross, his death happened just before the sundown which began a sabbath day. (Remember that sabbath days, for Jews, run from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.) Jesus’ body had to be buried before the sabbath started. Otherwise, those who handled it would be considered ritually unclean and so, unable to participate in the Passover. Jesus says here in our lesson that the woman who intrudes on the dinner in Bethany has prepared His body for burial even before He goes to the cross.
Of course, the woman couldn’t have known that. She simply sought to honor Jesus. That should be our goal as well. Jesus tells us in the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you have done to the least of these... you have done for me.” When we serve others, we honor Jesus.
Third: Servants don’t seek recognition for themselves. During the discussion at this past Wednesday’s Soup, Salad, and Servanthood gathering, I was reminded of the Friendship couple who, a few years ago, were at an upscale restaurant.
They spied an elderly man dining alone. They told their waiter to bring the man’s check to them. They told the waiter: “If he asks who’s buying his dinner, just tell him that it’s someone who wants to share God’s love in a practical way.” They weren’t out to showcase themselves.
(It turns out that the waiter wasn’t too good at keeping secrets, though. Soon, the elderly man approached this couple to thank them. He had just lost his wife, he explained. So, their kindness meant a lot.)
It’s interesting that neither Mark or Matthew, who both tell the story of the woman who anoints Jesus in Bethany, mention her name. That’s appropriate because her name wasn’t important. What she did was important. She served not to point to herself, but to Jesus.
As we seek to serve Jesus, we could do worse than to adopt the party-crashing woman of Bethany as our role model.
- She realized that servants do what they can with what they have, when they have it;
- that servants honor Jesus; and
- that servants don’t seek recognition for themselves, but for the Savior Who offers forgiveness and everlasting life to all who surrender to Him and follow Him.