Sermon: “In Remembrance of Her”
Text: Mark 14:1-11
Is anybody in the mood for a sandwich? Mark in his gospel frequently employs a style of writing that “sandwiches” two different stories together. He’ll begin with one thing, then abruptly switch to another, then return back to the first thing he was talking about. If you read the gospel of Mark straight through you’ll notice dozens of these sandwiches throughout his writing. In Chapter 14, he’s at it again.
We begin with an ominous note. The chief priests and scribes are looking for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. Mark has already told us previously that the large crowds that Jesus attracts make the priests and scribes nervous. They see him as a threat to their power, and so they’ve made the decision already that he needs to be killed. There’s a problem, though. It’s now only two days before the Passover festival. Large crowds of people are everywhere, many of whom greeted Jesus when he first entered the city on Sunday. If they try to arrest Jesus in front of all those people there is likely to be a riot, and the priests and scribes will end up with a much worse situation. Their only chance is to find a way to arrest him away from the city when he has withdrawn to the countryside with his disciples. The implication is that in order to get him when he’s outside the city, they need the help of someone who knows where he will be. They need help from someone on the inside.
That’s how Wednesday of Jesus’ last week begins. It ends with Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, willingly going to the chief priests in order to betray Jesus into their hands. It’s as if Mark is painting a triptych, a painting with three panels. On one side, we see greed, murderous intent, lust for power. The high priests are plotting to kill Jesus. On the opposite side we see cold, calculating betrayal. Judas has made us his mind. He’s going to deliver Jesus into the hands of his would-be murderers. Sandwiched in between those dark and deadly scenes we see an unnamed woman. She approaches Jesus at his table while he eats, an unconventional thing to do considering that she’s a woman and likely not allowed at the same table as Jesus and the disciples. She brings with her an extremely expensive jar of oil, worth about an entire year’s wages. Think about that for a moment. Do you own anything that’s worth an entire year’s salary? Would you be willing to break it? This woman’s alabaster jar of oil is probably a family heirloom, and it’s definitely the most expensive thing that she owns. She could sell it if she wanted to and get rich quick. Or, as the disciples accurately point out, she could sell it and give the money to the poor. Instead, she breaks it. She pours the oil over Jesus’ head, seemingly wasting the most valuable thing she has. Only, it’s not a waste. She is anointing his body for its burial, Jesus says, and he commends her astonishing deed even as his disciples protest. Wherever the good news is proclaimed, he says, her story will be told in remembrance of her. Mark’s central scene is poignant, curious, and beautiful.
On the left and right: deceit and betrayal.
In the center: loving devotion.
On the left and right: Failure to understand who Jesus is.
In the center: acknowledging that he’s going to die.
On the left and right: cold, calculating schemes and thought-out plans.
In the center: unbridled enthusiasm.
This unnamed woman stands out in many ways. As those around Jesus plot to betray him, she stands out for her fierce and passionate loyalty to him. As his own disciples fail to grasp the fact that he has come to die and they are called to follow him, she stands out for her recognition that his death is imminent. As the priests calculate and Judas schemes, as Jesus’ disciples coldly think of this expensive oil only in terms of its material worth, this woman stands out for her unbridled enthusiasm for her Lord without regard for finance or appearance. She gets it! What she did, she did out of love for Jesus.
Today, we read this woman’s story as we are entering a period of examination. During the season of Lent we are called to examine our own lives and come to terms with the ways in which our relationships with God and with other people are not as they should be. If I use this unnamed woman’s story to turn the spotlight inward on myself, then I discover that there are times when I seem to be very much like her. I give what I have out of devotion to God, and love for Jesus. I also discover that there are plenty of times that I seem more like the disciples. I act only out of concern for the church budget, or my own personal finances. I get caught seeing things only in terms of material value, and I fail to see the spiritual dimension of my life. There are even times when I discover that I’m more like the chief priests or even Judas, overreacting to a perceived threat, or acting only out of a sense of self-preservation. These are things that we all do, things that we will all see if we turn that spotlight inward on ourselves.
In many ways, this woman’s story is a reminder of what we ought to be as followers of Jesus. It’s been said that she’s the first Christian in scripture. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” We’re meant to remember that being a Christian isn’t all about budgets and bank balances. We’re meant to remember that being a Christian means sacrifice. There’s something very spiritual and very beautiful about just giving what you have. We’re meant to remember that being a Christian means acting out of our loving devotion to God in Jesus Christ, even if it isn’t the proper thing to do, even if it looks silly or strange, even if it doesn’t make good business sense.
There’s an old story from the days of ancient Greece about a runner who took part in one of the earliest Olympic Games. He was known far and wide to be the fastest runner around, and his participation in the Olympic races was eagerly anticipated by many people. But it wasn’t eagerly anticipated by all, however. Most of the other runners running against him dreaded his domination of the race. They so hated the thought of getting beaten by him that some of them tried to bribe him not to run. The winner of the race would get a laurel wreath and the privilege of standing next to the emperor for the remainder of the games, so they tried to offer him things that were much greater. They offered him money. They offered him possessions. They offered him land and property. To their dismay, he declined all of their offers. He then ran the race, won it, and gladly received his laurel wreath and his place beside the emperor. As the games continued on, someone said to him, “I know how much you gave up to run in that race, and I have to ask: Is a wreath of laurel more valuable than anything they offered you?” He simply replied, “I don’t run for laurel wreathes, or money, or possessions. I run so that I may stand beside my Lord. That’s all that matters.”
Brothers and sisters, let the life that you live, the race that you run, not be about a bank account, or about power, or about self-preservation. Let your life simply be about standing next to your Lord, Jesus Christ. Let everything you do be an expression of your love for your Lord. That’s all that matters.
Thanks be to God. Amen.