by Daniel Harrell
Tonight wraps up what has been an almost two-year journey through the red letters of Mark’s gospel—those places where many Bibles mark Jesus’ words with red ink. It may seem odd to stop at chapter 14, but we covered the rest of Mark last Easter. However, as this is the Sunday before Thanksgiving, Mark 14 is actually a perfect place to land. Nowhere in the gospel is gratitude better exemplified than in this woman’s extravagant expression toward Jesus. Indeed, Jesus himself acknowledged that “wherever the good news is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
When you think of all there is to be thankful for, why are there not more people like this woman? Why is she so unusual? Why is it that we’re so negligent and reticent to express gratitude―even on Thanksgiving? OK, maybe it’s just me, but I’m don’t always forward to the annual ritual of having to go around the table and share all that I’m thankful for before I dig in to the stuffing and sweet potatoes. I know, you’re thinking “what kind of pastor is this guy?” Maybe I don’t like the feeling of having my gratitude coerced. I don’t like my hunger being held hostage. How am I supposed to concentrate with a plateful of tantalizing turkey and gravy going cold right below my nose. There are traditions where people pray after they eat. I don’t know, maybe I suffer from some aversion to PDG: public display of gratitude. Mostly, I think, it’s due to my over-spiritual Aunt Myrtle who takes the annual Thanksgiving ritual as permission to gratuitously thank Jesus for every person, place and thing she has encountered over the past twelve months. Ten minutes into her detailed litany of appreciation, our hands grasped in prayer start to sweat, our noses itch, our knees start to jiggle and our mouths start to drool. Somebody will try to stop her by coughing. Another will try throat clearing. I’ll try to cut her off by saying Amen, but she’ll just keep on going and going until she’s done. We’ve tried assigning grace to a designated hitter, but Aunt Myrtle jumps in to add her year’s worth anyway. She says she can’t help but gush over Jesus.
She’s like this woman who gushes all over Jesus at Bethany. Bethany is the last stop on the road to Jerusalem and crucifixion. Jesus reclines at the dinner table of Simon the Leper―which has to mean former Leper since no one except Jesus would have entered a leper’s house to eat. Jesus may have had a mouthful of food when this woman walks over, breaks open her fragrant flask and empties the whole thing on Jesus’ head. Back then, like now, perfume was used cosmetically, for enjoyment and allure as well as an expression of love. Unlike now, dinner hosts back then would customarily perfume the heads of their guests as a sign of honor. But typically they would do that at the door, not once everyone had sat down to eat. And they would dab just a bit, not pour out the whole bottle. And they would definitely not pour out a whole bottle of the good stuff. One whiff and everyone knew this perfume was nothing you bought by the quart. Mark describes it as being made of pure nard, an exotic root native to India. And it was expensive—think “Night Flight” or in French, Vol de Nuit by Guerlain, which this Christmas will run you about $315 an ounce.
As the woman gushed over Jesus, there was no coughing, throat clearing or shouting Amen. Instead, Mark says the guests were indignant at what they interpreted to be wastefulness. Like your parents who chastised you for not eating all the food on your plate, the angry dinner guests barked, “What a waste! This perfume could have been sold for a fortune and the money given to starving children in Africa!” Clearly their scorn was aimed at the woman, but Jesus took it as aimed at himself. “Leave her alone,” he said, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a good and beautiful thing to me.” And then as to their rationale, he said, “The poor you will always have with you. You can help them whenever you want.” Ironically, this saying is often used as a way to get around helping people in need. “Hey, Jesus said that you’ll always have the poor with you, so why bother? What can you do?” But Jesus is actually quoting Deuteronomy 15 here where God commands his people to always help the needy. It’s not a remark of convenient resignation, but in fact a bit of rebuke: “You will always have the poor with you. You can help them whenever you want.” In other words, if you really wanted to help the poor, you’d be doing it already. Just like God told you to.
But this wasn’t about helping the poor. It was about saving face. Mark doesn’t say, but if Simon the Leper was a leper Jesus healed, why didn’t Simon show some gratitude by pouring perfume on Jesus too? That’s the least a good dinner host would have done for an honored guest who hadn’t cured him of his skin condition and gained him access back into polite society. In Luke’s gospel, Simon is a Pharisee and the woman is one who had “lived a sinful life.” Simon wonders to himself why Jesus can’t smell a sinner when he sees one. If Mark and Luke are describing the same scene, you may be wondering to yourself how a leper could ever become a Pharisee in the first place. But then again, the church is chock full of sinners saved by grace who for some reason start acting like they don’t need grace anymore. And of course once you stop needing grace, it’s not long before you stop giving it too. In Luke, Jesus employs that annoying ability he has to know what you’re thinking and responds to Simon with a parable about a certain creditor who had two debtors; one owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts of both. Jesus then asked Simon which debtor would love the creditor more. Simon replies the one who had the bigger debt canceled. Jesus then proceeded not to judge or to scorn, but to forgive the woman, much to the continued consternation of the Pharisees present. Nobody forgave sins except God. Who did Jesus think he was? Of course, the Pharisees and the whole religious establishment already knew the answer to that. This is why in verse 1 Mark writes that the chief priests and teachers of the law were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him.
Unlike Luke, Mark makes no mention of this woman being a sinner in any special sense. She is a party crasher. A bottle breaker. A fragrance counter sales rep gone crazy. The costly and posh perfume runs down Jesus’ hair, onto his shoulders, and drips off of his sleeves. A whole year’s salary worth in a puddle on the floor. Who does that? Why spend all that money on something that’s just going to get washed off once Jesus takes a shower?
I read a review this past week for a new book out just in time for Christmas, entitled Scroogenomics by Wharton Business School economist Joel Waldfogel. In it he argues what so many of us instinctively feel: expensive gifts are wasteful. He rolls out the stats to prove it. Even in the down economy, Americans will give somewhere between 60-90 billion dollars in holiday gifts this year and according to the surveys, most people value gifts at about 50 cents on the dollar. That’s a lot of waste. Half of those surveyed admitted to re-gifting whatever they received.
One of my favorite stories is about a member of our church who keeps a stash of unwanted gifts for those holiday emergencies when someone she hadn’t had on her Christmas list shows up with a present for her. Without missing a beat, she’s able to counter-gift and thereby ward off any shame or relational disequilibrium which would require compensatory over-gifting in order to reestablish relational balance. If you got nothing when somebody gives you something, you have to give them more than they gave you just to alleviate the stress. One Christmas, an elderly neighbor unexpectedly gave this church member a lovely Christmas candle. She was graciously able to receive the gift, prepared as she was to retaliate from her emergency stash. Being well-mannered to boot, she promptly took time afterwards to write a thank-you note. But the next day, as she was walking to the mailbox to post the note, the elderly neighbor reappeared with another gift—only it was an identical Christmas candle. (As it turned out, the poor dear was growing somewhat forgetful in her old age.) Nonplussed, all the church member could do was hand the elderly neighbor the thank-you note which upon opening it, caused the old woman’s eyes to bulge with astonishment. “How did you know exactly what I was going to give you?”
In his review of Scroogenomics, economist Tyler Cowen writes that running the numbers on gift-giving misses their other less extrinsic values. Not only is giving a way of expressing what you feel for somebody, receiving a gift can be a dependable way of determining who the people are in your life who truly understand you and are therefore worthy of your time. For instance, Cowan writes that he could never date a woman who gave him a copy of the The Da Vinci Code. But that’s a good thing. Because if he did receive the book from someone he was dating, he would know that the relationship had no future. So if there’s somebody you’re interested in, exchange presents this Christmas. A bad gift from someone you’re considering may be the best gift you can get.
If Cowan is right that receiving a gift can be a dependable way of determining who truly understands you, then the woman here in Mark understood Jesus even better than she realized. For her, her waste was sheer worship. She did what she could, Jesus says, by which he means she did everything she could―just like the widow in chapter 12 who gave everything she had, even though she only had two pennies. The widow’s poverty was no more the point of chapter 12 than this woman’s extravagance is the point here. Both are acts of total devotion, motivated by love. In chapter 12, the widow’s gift decidedly sharpens the contrast between pretense and true piety. Unlike the pretentious scribes and Pharisees, the poor widow loved God wholeheartedly. An impoverished, disenfranchised, uneducated woman, she represented the least and the last whom Jesus said would be first in God’s kingdom.
Mark draws the same kind of contrast here in chapter 14. He uses a familiar literary device we’ve come to know as the Mark Sandwich. Throughout this gospel, Mark often sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here the first slice of bread is verse 1 and 2. The chief priests and lawyers are gunning for Jesus—something they’ve been doing since way back in chapter 3. They want him dead not just for flouting the Sabbath and acting like God Almighty, but because his popularity threatened their corner on the religious market. He’s so popular that Mark writes the religious authorities were looking for a sly or stealthy way to arrest him so as not to incite a riot. Their chance comes with the bottom slice of bread. In verse 10, one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, Judas Iscariot, steps up with his offer of betrayal. He’d let the religious authorities backstage away from the crush of Jesus’ fans. The priests and Pharisees couldn’t believe their luck. They probably even thanked God for it. They definitely thanked Judas by offering him a finder’s fee that amounted to the price one would pay for a cheap servant.
The meat that Mark sandwiches between two slices of odorous and cheap deceit is the woman’s fragrantly wasteful devotion of Jesus. He receives her lavish gift as good and beautiful, but also timely. She understood Jesus even better than she realized. “The poor you will always have with you…” he said, “but you will not always have me.” Jesus knows he’s a dead man, having predicted as much already back in chapters 8, 9 and 10. “She did what she could,” he says. “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” Perfume was used to express love and honor to the living, but also to the dead. Perfume anointed dead bodies prior to burial as a sign of respect. Because Jesus would be executed as an outlaw, due respect would be purposely denied him. Yet Mark demonstrates that Jesus did not sustain the disgrace his opponents would later assume he had. The chief priests and Judas plotted for Jesus’ execution as a criminal; but the woman gave him a proper funeral. Jesus died as an outlaw, but he never violated any law. He died for sinners who did. This is why, verse 9, “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world,” this woman’s act would be remembered for what it was: an expression of extravagant, lavish, wasteful devotion and honor vindicating Jesus as the righteous lamb of God who took on the sins of the world.
The word to waste comes from a Latin root meaning to empty out. Interestingly, however, the same Latin root also gives us the word vast, meaning enormous or great. In other words, to make empty is related to making great, which does sound just like the gospel. Now the Greek word translated as waste in Mark is the word meaning ruin or ravage, which is hard to never thought of as great―unless it’s the ruin of Jesus. That is the gospel. As Isaiah famously intones, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed, ruined, ravaged for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus empties himself that we might have vastness of life. In Jesus, all of our wasted lives can find redemption. In Jesus, all our lives wasted on him find vastness―because in Jesus nothing gets wasted.
We live in a culture where to waste―waste time, waste money or waste words―is to invite scorn, induce guilt and impede success. Waste is what we call what we flush down our toilets or have hauled from our curbs and out of sight. We say, “Waste not, want not.” Want not and need nothing. But the problem is once you don’t need anything, you stop giving anything. Love and grace included. Which is why Jesus applauds this woman. He wants us all to go crazy. To worship, to love, to forgive, to give to people in need, waste your life for Jesus and nothing will ever go to waste.