She has done what she could. . .

Good morning, Friends! Welcome to the month of March! You may not know this, but back in ancient times, March 1st was the start of the New Year. It kind of makes sense – winter is over, spring is just around the corner!

The start of the New Year has been moved around a lot over the past 2,000 years. We sometimes think of the new year starting in the fall, when school starts, or we think of the year ending when school ends.

Back in the 1930’s, income taxes were due on March 15th, not April 15th. They moved it up when taxes got so complicated, everyone needed a little extra time.

Anyway, the big thing coming up this month is Easter. We have an interesting, complicated story to tell during the coming month. And today’s Scripture is part of it.

All during January and February, we’ve been looking at stories of how different people met Jesus. And usually, Jesus did something for them. Jesus healed them, or forgave them, or fed them or restored them in some way.

Today we have one of the very few stories where a person did something for Jesus instead.

Jesus was eating in Bethany at the home of Simon, who once had leprosy, when a woman came in with a very expensive bottle of sweet-smelling perfume. After breaking it open, she poured the perfume on Jesus’ head.

This made some of the guests angry, and they complained, “Why such a waste? We could have sold this perfume for more than 300 silver coins and given the money to the poor!” So they started saying cruel things to the woman.

But Jesus said: “Leave her alone! Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. You will always have the poor with you. And whenever you want to, you can give to them. But you won’t always have me here with you. She has done all she could by pouring perfume on my body to prepare it for burial.

You may be sure that wherever the good news is told all over the world, people will remember what she has done. And they will tell others.

Mark 14:3-9

We really don’t know enough about this beautiful story. It’s one of a handful of stories found in all four gospels, which makes it pretty important. We’re going to look at most of these stories in the coming month.

The stories all four gospel writers all agree on are:

  • Jesus fed a big crowd of 5,000 people
  • the story of Palm Sunday
  • Judas betrays Jesus
  • Jesus’ closest friend, Peter, denies Jesus three times
  • Pilate, the Roman governor, condemns Jesus to death
  • Jesus dies and is buried
  • the tomb was empty on Easter morning

And then there’s this story, the one we just heard a minute ago. Why was this story so important? Why was this story one of the handful that everyone remembered and handed down?

It’s strange, because we don’t even know the woman’s name, or her relationship to Jesus.

Matthew and Mark simply call her “a woman.” We have no idea who she is, or why she shows up. In Luke, people refer to her as a sinner.

The story takes place in Bethany, a village just outside Jerusalem. According to John, Bethany was the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.

Mary is the woman who just wanted to sit close to Jesus, at Jesus’ feet, and listen to every word he said. Mary and her family had a special relationship to Jesus, because Jesus brought her brother Lazarus back to life. So, maybe Mary was the woman in the story.

There’s also another Mary – Mary was one of the most common names for Jewish women. That’s Mary of Magdala – Magdala was a small fishing town up north in Galilee, close to where Jesus’ home was in Capernaum.

Two of the gospels say that Mary of Magdala was a woman who had been possessed by demons, and that Jesus had driven seven demons out of her. So, she had a special reason to love Jesus for what he’d done for her.

Mary of Magdala was also one of the women who went to the tomb on Easter morning and found that it was empty. She may have been the woman Jesus spoke to in the garden, in the gospel of John.

But these are just hints of who the woman in today’s story might have been.

There was a dinner party. Jesus and his friends were having supper, at the home of a man called Simon, who Jesus had cured of leprosy.

And in the middle of the meal, a woman came in, carrying a jar made of alabaster, which is a special and beautiful stone. Alabaster can be carved easily, and it’s translucent, so that light can shine through it. Alabaster containers were used to hold rare and expensive things.

The jar she was holding contained a kind of perfume or ointment. We don’t know what it was originally intended for.

In the Middle East at that time, when guests arrived, the host family would greet the guest with a hug and a kiss. The host family would wash the guest’s feet from the dust outside, and they would give them a dab of perfume or ointment as well.

So, it could have been a special greeting that this woman meant to give to Jesus, as the honored guest in her house. She could have been welcoming Jesus this way. But instead of putting just a dab on Jesus, it says she broke open the jar and poured all of it on him.

That got everybody’s attention. This wasn’t your drugstore perfume or a tube of Brylcreem we’re talking about. This wasn’t anything you could buy at the department store out at the mall.

It says it was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was a day’s wages for a working person. Let’s call it $15 an hour, times 8 hours a day, equals 120 dollars, times 300, we’re talking over $30,000 here. I don’t even know where you’d go to buy something like that! Do you?

She poured thousands of dollars worth of stuff all over Jesus. Talk about making a gesture! Matthew and Mark say she poured it on Jesus’ head. Luke and John say she poured it on Jesus’ feet, and that she wiped his feet with her hair.

It’s interesting, that the gospels don’t agree about who was most upset by what she did. Matthew says that the disciples got all worked up about it. Luke says that it was the host at the dinner who got angry.

John says that it was Judas Iscariot who made a big scene. John says it wasn’t because Judas actually wanted to give the money to the poor – John says that Judas was the treasurer for the group and carried the money bag. Judas wanted to reach in there and take the money for himself.

Mark, the gospel we read this morning, simply says that “some people were there” who got angry. Whoever, whatever, this suddenly turned into a great big fight. The disciples, the host, Judas, everybody was yelling all at once. Not a peaceful dinner party any more!

Finally Jesus shut them all down. “Leave her alone!” Jesus said. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing for me.”

It’s so easy for us to get all self-righteous and criticize the gifts that other people give. It’s so easy for us to feel smarter and more superior and to judge people when we see someone being extravagant.

You know, that’s part of what happened back in the beginning, with the story of Cain and Abel. Both brothers brought gifts to offer to God. And God liked Abel’s gift, but not Cain’s. Cain got so angry at his brother, that he killed him. Killed his own brother! Instead of asking himself what he’d done wrong, instead of taking the log out of his own eye, Cain got angry and resentful and envious. The first murder in the Bible.

There’s a story in the gospel, about a time when Jesus was sitting on the steps by the door of the temple, right across from the donation box. Do you remember this one? Rich people came and dropped whole bags of money into the box. Everybody was impressed by the sound of the coins rattling as they went in.

Then a poor woman came along, reached into her bag, and dropped in two pennies.

Do you remember what Jesus said? He said, “Don’t be impressed. Those other people, they’ve got lots more money in the bank. But that poor woman, she put in everything she had.”

The point isn’t always about the size of the gift. Two pennies can be worth more than a Platinum Visa card. It all depends on the circumstances. Jesus once said that just giving a cup of cold water can be a greater gift than anything else.

In today’s story, people got upset and angry, because this woman poured a whole jar of precious ointment over Jesus. They said it was wasted.

But the economy of heaven is an interesting thing. So much depends on our intention. Why do we give, and what do we mean by it? Sometimes intention matters more than the size of the gift. After all, God owns everything, right? Everything that we think we own, is really on loan to us from God.

What mattered was that this woman was giving with her whole heart. Yes, it was an extravagant gift. But sometimes people do that.

You talk about giving your best. This was a once-in-a-lifetime gift. It was an alabaster gift. It wasn’t ordinary. It was extraordinary.

The Christian lifestyle is supposed to be generous. Jesus talked about giving to the poor, dozens of times.

Maybe this woman gave regularly to the Temple, or to her local synagogue. Maybe she brought soup to neighbors who were sick, or gave food to street people. But here was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, where she could do something amazing for Jesus himself. And she did it.

And Jesus said, “Let her alone. She has done what she could. . .”

That phrase, “She has done what she could” isn’t any kind of a put-down. It was praise. It was the highest praise. She did what she could, and Jesus loved her for it. It was a gift of love and grace. And Jesus saw what was in her heart.

All this happened, just a few weeks or days before Easter. It was an anxious and uncertain time.

Jesus had been saying that he was going to Jerusalem, and that he was going to be killed there. And everyone – all of Jesus’ followers – were in total denial. They shut their ears to what Jesus was saying.

How could he be killed? Wasn’t he going to overcome the world, and destroy evil? Wasn’t he the son of David? Wasn’t he going to reclaim King David’s throne, and rule forever?

That night, in that house, only two people knew what was going to happen. Jesus knew. And somehow, in her heart, this woman knew. Jesus was the son of God, but he was going to be killed. And only two people knew it.

There were only a few things you could do with a container of super-expensive perfume or ointment like that. You could keep it for yourself. You could dab it on a special guest. Or you could save it, as the ultimate gift, as the final gift of love, to anoint someone who had died.

They didn’t have funeral directors back then. When somebody died, the family took care of it. The body was washed, and anointed, and wrapped, and laid to rest.

Maybe, if this was the family of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, maybe this was perfume or ointment they had purchased for Lazarus, who Jesus called back to life. Maybe she was sharing the gift of love she had saved for her brother, and was sharing it with Jesus, instead.

Or maybe it was something she had saved up for, all her life, and she intended it to be used for herself, whenever her own time came. Like saving up and putting it aside for a funeral.

Whatever. She knew in that moment, she wanted to give it all to Jesus.

And maybe Jesus needed it. We always forget Jesus’ human side, his human needs. Even if Jesus knew this was coming, even if he accepted it, didn’t Jesus say, “Father, not my will, but your will be done?”

Maybe Jesus needed that human gift, that human gesture, that human touch, at this turning point of his life. Maybe this woman’s alabaster gift helped Jesus, when he needed love and courage and grace for the days ahead?

We don’t even know her name. But Jesus said, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 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. . .”

More people have heard what this woman did, than ever heard the name of Caesar. More people have heard what she did, than the accomplishments of any athlete, any actor, any hero in history.

She loved Jesus. She made an amazing gesture. She did what she could. And Jesus said that people would remember her forever.

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