5 min. to read.
We’re up to the 43rd day of Lent, Holy Wednesday. I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditation.
Mark 14:1-9 is the scripture today, when a woman anoints Jesus to the surprise and consternation of the other dinner guests.
Midweek, after his dramatic entrance into Jerusalem, after making a scene at the temple, after teaching the crowds, Jesus headed to the nearby town of Bethany. That evening a dinner was thrown in his honor. In Mark’s Gospel, this meal happened at the house of a man named Simon. In Luke’s version, it was at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s home. A woman interrupted the meal, breaking open a small bottle of aromatic oil and anointed Jesus.
Anointing was a ritual act marking a person with oil to set them aside for a certain task. Priests, even the high priest, were consecrated with oil. Israel’s kings were anointed with oil. Depending on the status of the role, the oil could be made from quite costly ingredients. There was another time when oil was commonly used to anoint the body. That was when a dead body was being washed and prepared for burial.
In both Matthew and Mark’s gospels, it was an unnamed woman who did this. No further information about her is given. In Luke’s gospel, the woman is also unnamed, but she is known. For unspecified reasons, the dinner guests consider her a sinner and take offense at her forwardness with Jesus. She weeps over Jesus, and his interaction with her is centered on forgiveness. In John’s gospel, the woman is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
In all the versions, this unexpected act evokes a reaction. In Matthew, Mark & John, someone in the room considers this an irresponsible waste of resources and says so. In Matthew’s version, it’s the disciples in general. Mark puts the words in the mouth of some indignant but unnamed guest. In John’s version, it is Judas the Betrayer who levels the criticism. For Luke, the problem isn’t the lavish waste. The problem is the woman herself. Simon, the host of the meal and a religious leader, thanks the woman doesn’t know her place.
In all the versions, Jesus intervenes on her behalf. In Matthew, Mark, and John, he stops the criticism, saying she is doing a beautiful thing. Certainly, spending resources to care for the poor is essential, but the time for honoring Jesus in this way is running out. Her intention is honorable, and regardless of the reason the woman did this, Jesus receives it as preparation for his burial. In Luke’s version, the implication is that Jesus rescued this woman from something difficult and sinful. She was lavishly expressing much love to Jesus because he had forgiven much sin. In three of the Gospels, Jesus says her act would be remembered as long as his story is told. (Here we are, talking about it!)
What can we hear in this story if we read it through the lens of lent? Lent invites us to let go of those things that get in the way of an encounter with Jesus. Where in this story is an encounter with Jesus being missed?
In all four versions of the story, certain people cannot really see the woman’s act of love and adoration because it violated their standards. In Luke, the critic is speaking from his prejudice and religious legalism. He condemns the woman because of his assessment of her character and past. He thinks she has no right to be near Jesus. For him, judgment and condemnation impeded an authentic encounter with Jesus.
But in Matthew, Mark & John, the critics have a point. This was an extravagant purchase. That money could have made a difference. Jesus encouraged practical service of the poor, even going so far as to tell us (in Matthew 25) that when we serve those in need, we are serving him. In light of that teaching, spending all of this money to meet physical needs like food, water, and shelter, would have been serving him directly. We love him by serving those in need. These critics were right, and yet, their judgment impeded an experience of true worship.
The common factor? Judgment of the other. Too often, I start measuring the authenticity, morality, and orthodoxy of someone else’s pursuit of God. My extended Christian family of faith seems to have majored in this ability over the centuries. We’ve invested a lot of time and energy into deciding who is pursuing God in the right way, who knows God best, and which spiritual practices are correct and which are off-limits.
Sometimes in our judgment, we are wrong. We measure the wrong things and exclude people because of it. At times, we’ve decided certain classes of people aren’t welcome to worship, serve, or lead in our communities. We legislate standards of moral behavior and act as if our judgment on those matters is the same as God’s. Other times we’re right. We can point to passage and verse supporting our view of things. We’re not just confident; we’re also correct! And yet, whether we are right or wrong, when our focus is on measuring and weighing the spiritual experience of others, we end up missing the presence of God.
Lent invites us to stop judging the spiritual experience of others. This way is life.