SJF • Palm Sunday 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
We have just heard the passion of Christ according to the evangelist Mark, as we do every three years. What is unusual about this year is the fact that this is the first time we have heard the Passion according to the new Revised Common Lectionary — the set of Scripture readings appointed for use in the Episcopal Church since the end of 2010. This is the first year we’ve been reading “Year B” as it is called.
One of the revisions that the editors of this Lectionary made, was the decision to begin the Passion with that passage about the woman who poured ointment on the head of Jesus as he sat at table in the home of Simon the leper, in Bethany. This passage of Scripture has never been included in the Sunday gospel readings of the Episcopal Church. That is all the more ironic given the fact that Jesus says that wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what that woman did for him would be told in remembrance of her.
So it is about time she was remembered, and high time the authorities who determine such things took note of this woman and what Jesus said of her. And so I am glad to have this opportunity, finally, to preach on this important text on a Sunday, and Palm Sunday at that. I’m particularly happy to do so because I believe that as with so much of Mark’s Gospel — the shortest of the four Gospels — everything in his text is significant: Mark doesn’t waste words with irrelevant details and if he tells us something, it is important to record it.
This gospel passage also formed the substance of one of the Bible studies in which I took part in South Africa last fall, and this gives me an opportunity to share something of what I learned from that wonderful experience — breaking open the words of Scripture almost like breaking open that jar of expensive ointment, in honor of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
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The first thing to note about this passage is that it takes place in Bethany, a small town a Sabbath’s day journey outside the walls of Jerusalem. Remember that a Sabbath’s day journey is a very short one since you are not supposed to travel very far on the Sabbath. This little town outside of Jerusalem — what was it? The name “Bethany” is thought by some to mean “House of Figs” or “House of Dates” — like the Mount of Olives, also outside the city — that this was a place where fig trees grew, or perhaps date palms. But it is far more likely that it relates to the Aramaic word anyi, “the poor.” “Beth-anyi” “the House of the Poor.” Let’s face it, folks, this was the slums outside of Jerusalem. This is the place where the poor and the outcast lived. If you wanted an image of Bethany look at the shanty-towns in South Africa, or the slums outside of Rio, and you’ll have an idea of what Bethany was. It was a place of the poor.
The other striking detail is that this incident takes place in the home of Simon the leper. Now, we don’t know if this Simon was a leper whom Jesus had cured of his leprosy — or even that he had been cured of his leprosy at all. Cured or not, the fact that he was still known as Simon the leper lets us know something about how people regarded him, and his house. This is the home of someone doubly on the edge of society, not someone at its center — Simon is not a person of power and prestige, but someone known as a leper, and his house, “Simon the leper’s house, in Bethany, the house of the poor.” This is a man shunted off to the side, not someone at the center. Even if healed, he was a side-liner if not an outcast
So Jesus, true to his tendency to seek out the lowliest and the most despised with whom to spend his time, is sitting at table in a leper’s house, in the village of the poor. And into this already unorthodox setting there comes this woman with a jar of expensive ointment which she breaks open and pours on Jesus’s head. We are not told her name; we are not told her station in life. Because this incident is similar to accounts from the other evangelists some have suggested that as in Luke, she is a “woman of the city” — and you know what that means. Others have suggested that this might be Mary, who lived there in Bethany with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus. This could be, they think, a different version of the similar event in John’s gospel, where she is identified.
But Mark gives us none of these details, not even her name, and by choosing not to do so, he invites us to focus on the details he does provide: which is about how expensive this ointment is, and how the woman doesn’t just open the jar and pour the ointment out, but breaks the jar, which means it had to be used up then and there — there was nothing to hold it. This is extravagance, an extravagant offering, broken and poured out and completely given. And the disciples turn on her for and say she is “wasting” it. Jesus immediately places what she has done in the context of his coming passion and death, while also reminding them as the first things he says — and you can imagine again, picturing him sitting where he is sitting: in this shanty-town surrounded by poverty — and when they say, We could have sold this for the poor; he says, “The poor you have with you always” — and all he would have needed do is gesture around him, “What are you talking about, my friends? Where do you think you are now? You will have the poor with you always.”
And so he immediately shifts his attention to his coming death and passion and notes three things in quick succession:
— you will not always have me; I am going away.
— she has done what she could; she gave everything she had in that broken jar; she couldn’t save anything of it in that broken jar once it was given.
— and she has anointed me for in advance of my burial.
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But perhaps the most striking thing for me about this passage is that introductory line about where it takes place, Bethany. For the setting is Bethany is not just the poor-house outside of Jerusalem, this town of outcasts and irregular and unconventional people: Simon the leper, and the household of Lazarus, Mary and Martha; and this unnamed woman. And what struck the Bible study group I was with in South Africa was how little of real importance in the gospel takes place inside the walls of Jerusalem, in the Holy City, and how much of importance takes place outside of those city walls or even further from it — from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem the city of David, about five miles south of Jerusalem; through his coming death on Golgotha, outside the city walls; and his burial and being raised to life again in the garden, also outside the walls; and even his ascension from Mount Olivet, also outside the city.
All of these crucial events (and I use the word “crucial” with an emphasis on the cross of which it speaks, that cross that stood “outside the city walls” on the “green hill far away”) all of these acts in the drama of salvation take place outside the city walls or even further from it. Only the Last Supper itself takes place in the city — perhaps a way to remind us that it is the priestly act of Christ, joined with his disciples as a new priestly people, in the city whose temple has become corrupted by abuse and misuse. But the acts of salvation themselves, from the incarnation through the ascension — the descent of Godhead into human flesh and the bearing up of the human nature into the transcendent realm of God — all of these things take place outside the walls of the holy city and apart from it — out there with the poor and the outcast. For the holy city has remained content in its own holiness, unwilling to be broken open like that ointment jar, to be poured out, and spent. Remember that those who seek to save their lives, lose, and those who lose their life — who spend them — for his sake, will keep them.
And so it is, is that this unnamed woman performs an emblematic act in breaking open that jar of precious ointment, not only anointing Jesus for his burial but echoing his self-giving emptying of himself for our sake and for our salvation upon the cross, that stood outside the city walls. And this is why her act is so tied up with the good news itself: why else would Jesus say that wherever the good news is proclaimed this will be told in remembrance of her? Her act is emblematic of the good news itself; it is the good news.
It is good news that God did not remain a distant and foreign, benign Creator, looking down upon the earth from a heavenly throne on an earth below; it is good news that God in Christ broke through that great gap fixed between this world and the perfect world of heaven, and entered into the fallen creation, emptying himself of all attributes of majesty, to take upon himself our human likeness, the likeness of one outcast, the likeness of one poor and humble; it is good news that he took on the form of a slave, humbling himself, and becoming obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
We have entered the beginning of this holy week. In a few moments at this altar, and again on Maundy Thursday we will celebrate that Memorial of his passion, which he said to do in remembrance of him, and which he committed to us in that upper room in Jerusalem. But on Good Friday we will also walk again outside those city walls, walking to the place where he was crucified. We will walk with those bearing his body to the tomb, and we will rest through that quiet Sabbath Saturday. Then on Easter... Well, you know what happens then. Let us not rush on to that; let us pause for a moment for that other remembrance: that remembrance of this woman, finally included in our Sunday readings after all these years, remembering what she did in making that offering, giving of herself as an emblem of Jesus’ own giving of him self. Let us make use, over these next days, of the breaking open of God’s word, like precious ointment, valuable not for how much it could be sold for, but for the honor that it shows to the one for whom it is given. Let us give thanks for the action of that anonymous woman, and like her offer all that we have of value to honor our Lord and our God. He will come to us, in our poverty, in our weakness, outside the walls; where we wait in expectation for the day of his coming in might and majesty, even Jesus Christ our Lord.