It is Wednesday the Last Week of Jesus’ life and the day’s activities point us to both the cross and the empty tomb, to darkness and light, to death and resurrection. Jesus arrived in Jerusalem on Sunday in a protest march of sorts. He spent the beginning of the week at the Temple and his evenings in Bethany two miles Southeast of Jerusalem. We remember that Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus live in Bethany but on Wednesday of his last week Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper. It is important that we do not lose the significance of this. Leprosy was regarded as contagious and was only cured by divine power. Now we don’t know if Simon was leprous on this day or not. It could be that Simon was a leper who had been healed. Maybe everyone continued to call him that to distinguish him from other Simons. But it could also be that Simon was still a leper and that Jesus ate not only with the sinners and tax collectors, but with lepers.
While Jesus was at the house of Simon the leper Mark weaves the stories of two people together. As he so often does, Mark connects two different stories so that we will interpret them with or against each other. Remember on Monday Jesus’ cursed a fig tree because it lacked any fruit while on his way to the Temple which also lacked fruit, fruit of the spirit. Here on Wednesday we find two contrasting stories, the betrayal by Judas and the anointing of Jesus by the woman with the alabaster jar; the disciple who set Jesus’ physical death in motion and a disciple who cared for Jesus’ physical body with love and care; the disloyal male disciple who took money from Jesus’ killers and the loyal female disciple who gave an expensive gift.
The story of the nameless woman with the Alabaster jar occurs in all four Gospels. While Matthew (26:6-13) used Mark’s version almost word for word, Luke (7:36-50) and John’s (12: 1-8) versions are a bit different most importantly the anointing was changed from the head to the feet.
We do not know anything about this woman with a jar of very expensive nard ointment but we do know that in the Gospel of Mark, women were usually models of how disciples were to behave. Women were often the subjects of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom and discipleship. Women had great faith in Christ, they believed in Him. They sacrificed of money and material possessions for him or for their faith. They were present at the crucifixion, they were present for the burial of his body and they were the first to find the tomb empty. And women were the first to know of the resurrection. When females are in a story, Mark wants us to pay close attention.
Simon’s wife was healed by Jesus and in response, she served others. A woman who had an issue of blood which she had dealt with for years had such faith in Jesus that just touching His garment healed her. The Syrophencian woman fell at Jesus’ feet humbling herself to beg, like a dog, for just the crumbs from Jesus’ symbolic healing table in order that her daughter would be healed. The poor widow put all the money she had in the offering plate – giving everything. The women did not desert Jesus as he suffered and died on the cross and they were present at the empty tomb, faithful all their days. When females are included in a story in Mark’s gospel, we are to look for the meaning behind their words and actions.
But, who was the woman with the alabaster jar? The Gospel of John says she was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. There is a book published in 1993 called The Woman with the Alabaster Jar. It has 4 out of 5 starts on Amazon and was the book that sparked the writing of the DaVinci Code, it claims that she was Mary Magdalene. This author is not the first to believe that the woman with the alabaster jar was Mary Magdalene. It is because the Gospel of Luke calls her a sinner, which due to the fact that she is a woman must mean she was a prostitute. Tradition, not fact, says that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. But even if she was, surely she was not the only one. But while we will never know the woman with the alabaster jar’s name for sure or anything about her, as Jesus predicted, she will always be remembered. 2,000 years later “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Not a bad legacy – to have performed a good service for Jesus, –for celebrating with extravagance the person of Jesus. Not a bad legacy –to be remembered for showing kindness to Jesus, –for anointing his head in the manner of royalty two days before he would suffer and die. Not a bad legacy –to be remembered for anointing Jesus’ body, –for acknowledging and celebrating his humanness. Not a bad legacy –to be remembered as the woman who first recognized who Jesus was, the first believer. Not bad!
In the Gospel of Mark Jesus told the Disciples on three different occasions what was going to happen to him for his resistance to, his demonstration against Roman imperial power. Jesus told the disciples, not only how he must die but also the implications for them as his followers.
In chapter 8:31-32, it says: then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly.
In chapter 9:31, Jesus was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’
And in chapter 10:33-34, Jesus explains, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’
Jesus tried to prepare them but they did not get it. Instead of believing Him, instead of caring for Jesus in his last days, some got angry over the cost of the nard that the woman used to anoint Jesus. No one has denied that the perfume was expensive – its cost was equal to a year’s wages. It was expensive, but had they been more intuitive, if they had paid closer attention, had they simply taken Jesus’ words to heart, they would not have been worried about the cost of the perfume – they would have been concerned about these last days with him.
And then Judas who, Mark almost always reminds us, is one of the twelve went to the chief priests to betray Him. Judas was not simply a follower, he was not simply a disciple of Jesus, he was part of the inner circle. Judas was one of the twelve, he was part of the family.
The chief priest and scribes had been looking for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him but they were afraid. Now remember that it was the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, who appointed, oversaw, and had the power to dismiss the chief priest. Remember that when King Herrod rebuilt the Temple he added government buildings including a palace for the Governor. Remember that within the Temple walls were kept the debt and tax records for Rome. The chief priest and some of the other high Jewish officials had to keep the Roman governor happy at the least and may have been in cahoots with him.
On Monday the Jewish leaders were afraid of Jesus because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teachings. On Tuesday they did not answer Jesus’ question because they were afraid of the crowds. Jesus had a strong following, people loved him, people had been healed by him, Jesus gave life and light to all people. The chief priests and scribes wanted to arrest him because he was causing a whole lot of trouble and they did not want to lose their positions and they did not want trouble for the Jews. But, they needed to be careful, they did not want to cause a riot. They needed to get Jesus away from the crowds, out of the Temple, away from the center of Jerusalem. It would be helpful to do it in the cover of darkness. So when Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priest in order to betray Jesus, they were greatly pleased. The plan was falling into place. They had an insider who would help them arrest Jesus away from all the people, away from the Temple, at night.
The woman with the alabaster jar was generous and faithful. Judas was greedy and unfaithful. The woman recognized Jesus – even before he was crucified and before the empty tomb. The twelve, including Judas, did not get Him even though they were closest to him and were with him pretty much all the time.
The woman was a model disciple through her acts of loving kindness and generosity. Judas was a betrayer and the worst example of a disciple and family member. The woman with the Alabaster Jar was the first believer in the Gospel of Mark – the first Christian if you will. Her behavior the last week of Jesus’ life foreshadowed what Jesus would do for all people. The woman anointed Jesus out of love – no one told her or asked her to do it. She sacrificed financially, she could have sold the perfume for a lot of money, but instead she gave it as an offering. She did a beautiful thing, and extravagant thing, an outrageous thing. She was radical without concern with what others thought of her, without concern with social restrictions on her. She acted out of deep love and complete devotion.
The woman with the Alabaster Jar reminds me that I am too often reserved, too concerned with what other people think, too much in my head instead of my heart. I would like to be criticized for being outrageous, even foolish in my faith life and for being part of some act of extraordinary beauty. I would like others to think that I am bold with my love. I know that I am not loving Jesus as much as I ought. I am too concerned with myself. I have been given things I have not deserved and things I have not appreciated. God’s grace toward me abounds. The Holy Spirit strengthens me. Jesus brings me life and light. How, at this time in my life, during this Lenten season can I be more like the woman with the Alabaster jar?