...a story surrounded by death...
To really understand the story, you’ve got to put it in its context... it begins with a plot to kill Jesus. The priests and teachers are discretely scheming to find a way to kill Jesus, to get him out of the way, to have him executed.... and it ends with a plot to kill Jesus. Judas, one of Jesus’ friends, joins the scheming and becomes that piece in the priests’ puzzle, just what they need to have Jesus executed. This story of Jesus being anointed by an anonymous woman in the house of a leper comes as an interruption to the story of the plot to kill Jesus. It is a story sandwiched in death. If we miss this, we miss the cryptic meaning of the passage.
Jesus is reclining in the house of his friend, a leper (which, by the way, is something in itself—lepers were marginalized people, just the sort of people Jesus liked to hang out with...). Some anonymous woman comes in and starts pouring perfume all over Jesus... now I can’t say I wouldn’t have been confused at this scene. Who is this lady and what is she doing? I’d have been distracted by the mess, I’m sure, but Jesus’ friends are distracted by the waste. “What a waste!” they say. “That perfume looks expensive, couldn’t we have done something more productive with it? Ah, I know... couldn’t we have helped the poor (that’ll get us points with Jesus).” So they begin criticizing the woman. “Hey lady! What are you thinking?”
But Jesus surprises them. “Leave her alone,” he says. “Can’t you see she’s done a beautiful thing for me? You can help the poor anytime, but you’re not always gonna have meeee! What this woman has done is gonna be remembered forever... she’s prepared me for my burial.”
What a frustrating thing for Jesus to say... frustrating enough, at least, to trigger Judas’ temper.
We ourselves might be confused by this story if we don’t remember that the reality of death surrounds it... and nobody recognizes it but Jesus and the actions of this unnamed woman.
Jesus says, “this woman has done a beautiful thing”... What exactly does the woman do for Jesus other than simply and finally acknowledge the reality of death that’s closing in on Jesus. Everyone else is so distracted by their own agendas, and even Jesus’ agendas, that they can’t recognize the darkness of the situation. They’re so busy saving the world, that they can’t stop to feel its pain.
When I was in high school and part of college, I had a girlfriend... we had a relatively strong relationship. For four whole years, we dated. That’s like an eternity in teenage years... We’d gone off to the same college together and we were even talking about marriage. It was serious.... until one day, for reasons to which I was not privy, she decided to end it.... and, of all our friends, I was among the last to find out about it. Not only was I grieved over the loss of a relationship, but I was made to feel like a fool. She painted a very dark picture of who I was. I lost some of my dearest friendships. And I found myself in a very dark place. My friends didn’t really know what to do with me. Most of them went on, pretending that nothing happened... I felt alone and pretty much hopeless. But one of my friends refused to pretend. They refused to be too distracted to see what I was going through and to share my suffering. They acknowledged the death that seemed to surround me... and when someone finally opened this space for me to expose my darkness to the light, it was a beautiful thing. They couldn’t fix my situation... they didn't try to... but they reminded me that I was not alone. Just by enduring it with me, by acknowledging it, they gave me hope.
For Jesus, this woman’s actions were the only actions that acknowledged the darkness of the situation... even if she didn’t know that’s what she was doing. She made space for the humanity of the situation, for the reality of death.
When the woman anoints Jesus, her actions are incoherent to the disciples... what a waste! They can’t understand what she’s doing because they’re only concerned with effectiveness. They think Jesus is there to save the world, so saving the world is all they can focus on ...But when effectiveness, relevance, and influence are your highest values, then humanity—the reality of death—is an obstacle between you and your agenda. Suffering is something to be overcome, not entered into.
What the woman did was incarnational... we sometimes think of incarnation as a means to an end, we think Jesus came to save the world... but as Andrew Root has said,
“Maybe a more honest theological understanding of the incarnation is to assert that God entered our foreign world not to convince or save it but to love it even to the point of death... God chose to bear its deepest, darkest suffering so that God might be fully with us and for us.” (Relationships Unfiltered, 41)This woman’s actions were’t effective, they didn’t do anything... but they opened a space for the reality of death, she entered into Jesus’ humanity, she was the only one whose actions acknowledged Jesus’ impending death, and so she was put in participation with Jesus. She did a beautiful thing.
Ministry is not about effectiveness... it’s about incarnation.... taking the time to feel the world’s pain...
We try to find God in our effectiveness... we try to help the poor so we can catch up to God, but we miss that God is present in the darkness. God is with us because God has chosen to enter into our suffering. Jurgen Moltmann wrote,
“The incarnate God is present, and can be experienced, in the humanity of every [person]... There is no loneliness and no rejection which [God] has not taken to [God]self and assumed in the cross of Jesus.” (The Crucified God, 276-277)So in Christ, we are invited to open space for humanity, to acknowledge the reality of death and, from the place where nothing can be done, to be with and for others as God has been with and for us.
Ministry is not about effectiveness, it’s about incarnation. Henri Nouwen (why not quote another theologian?) once wrote,
“...No one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his or her whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded, or even destroyed in the process...” (Seeds of Hope, 55)If we want to find ourselves in participation with Jesus Christ, then we must find ourselves in the suffering of others... even when there’s nothing we can do about it. We must take the risk of acknowledging the death of the present, so that we might witness the resurrection of our future. Amen.