The Plot to Kill Jesus
14 It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2 for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
The Anointing at Bethany
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 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.”
Imagine the followers of Jesus gathered in someone’s home to share a meal. It’s a busy scene. There are people preparing the meal, while others are washing hands and feet of guests. People are gathering and talking in small groups. Everyone is doing their own thing. It’s a fairly ordinary occasion. That is until a powerful odor permeates the home with the sweetness perfume, spices, and oil. Nard is used to describe extravagant love in the first and fourth chapter of Song of Songs. This ointment is extremely special. The aroma draws everyone’s attention to Jesus. The oil has poured over his head, dripping from his hair washing his face, and running down his beard, and onto his clothing. Samuel similarly poured oil on Saul’s head to anoint him as king (1 Sam 10:1). Psalm 133 describes oil running from Aaron’s head, down his beard, and onto his robes when he is anointed as a priest. Fragrant oils were also used to prepare bodies for burial. This woman made a loving, extravagant, and prophetic act when she shattered a jar of nard and used the entirety to anoint Jesus. She held nothing back. I imagine her hands were sticky sweet too. Everything and everyone she (and Jesus) touch for the rest of the evening smelled like nard, like extravagant love, like blessings.
There is something really beautiful when oils are used in worship. When I worked at Concord Church, we had healing and wholeness services quarterly. During the service the pastor and I would anoint people with oil and pray with them individually. By the end of the service the oil would be all over my hand and dripping down my wrist. I could smell the prayers long into the evening. I’ve also seen Instagram pictures of hands after an Ash Wednesday service covered in soot and oil and tears and love. I can’t remember the last time I saw faces in worship, let alone touched one of them. And there are faces that I touched for the last time without realizing it was the last time. The memories are sad and sweet.
And there is a sad sweetness in the woman’s prophetic act. She knows that Jesus’ death is eminent. He knows it too. Her remaining time with him is short. Perhaps this is the last time she will touch his face. I imagine there were a few beautiful and sorrowful seconds where their tear-filled eyes and oily hands met in the moment before the scent drew everyone out of their ordinary pre-dinner tasks and small talk and brought their attention to Jesus and the woman.
The air smells sweet but the mood in the room quickly soured.
The others are upset but not about the plot to kill Jesus described earlier in the chapter; they are not aware of that plan. They are not upset that Jesus is about to die, because they haven’t really understood what he meant when he predicted his death earlier in Mark’s gospel. No, they are mad at the woman. The beautiful act of love is turned into a debate about how her money should have been spent. Instead of recognizing the prophetic act, instead of worshiping, instead of seeing the blessing of Jesus in their midst, instead of honoring the gift of God in their presence, the people turn on the woman and the cost of her nard. They tell her the nard is too much, too extravagant, too costly. The money she spent on it would have been better spent on the poor.
In verses 6-8 of our passage, Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 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.”
Jesus exposes their hypocrisy by praising the woman and reminding the others that they can give the poor whenever they want but at this moment the only one doing any charitable thing is the woman. She is doing what is appropriate in this moment by preparing Jesus for his death by pouring nard and love over his head. When the story of Jesus is proclaimed, this woman’s prophetic act, her participation in Jesus’ mission, her extravagant love, will be part of that story.
Our participation in Jesus’ mission is part of that story too.
It’s our choice if we engage in ministry like the woman or like the others who scolded her without engaging in actual charity.
I hope we choose extravagant love.