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Extravagant Lavishness
November 24, 1996

MARK 14:3-9

The men didn't get it. Were they thick-headed, or was Jesus so different from what they expected a messiah to be, they couldn't make the transition? Or, do women more often have the gift of insight, the spiritual gift of discernment?

The event described in the Scripture lesson this morning happened a few days before Jesus was crucified. Jesus had told the disciples on three different occasions that when he went to Jerusalem, he would suffer and die. They denied it. They argued with him. They thought Jesus, who worked miracles, was invincible. Suffering and cross bearing and death surely could not be part of the equation for discipleship. They protested. They became anxious. And they argued about who would be given the best place of honor.

Misunderstood by his disciples and threatened with imminent arrest by the chief priests and scribes whom he had alienated, Jesus felt lonely and isolated. His heart ached for love and companionship. He looked to his friends for support but found denial and bravado, like Peter blustering that he would never let Jesus down. Jesus knew otherwise, and he felt lonely. Perhaps Simon's invitation to a dinner party should be accepted. It could be that a dinner party was what they all needed to relieve some of the tension that had been building, and provide some companionship.

So Jesus and his friends went outside the Jerusalem city gates to a small village called Bethany to the house of Simon. While they were eating, a woman came out of nowhere. According to Mark, we don't know her name. She burst in-- uninvited and unwanted. She had courage and audacity. She was breaking the Jewish custom that prohibited women from entering the dining room when men were eating. Not only that, she stood or knelt higher than a man's head! To dine in those days, the guests reclined on low couches around the table. So, the woman standing or kneeling was above Jesus. She didn't know or care about a woman's place! As if this was not enough to anger the men, the woman did another completely unexpected act. In front of the astounded and indignant male guests, she broke the alabaster jar she carried and poured a senseless, extravagant amount of precious perfume over Jesus' head!

It was the custom in those days for hosts to pour oil over the head of guests who had walked long miles through hot, dusty country to get to their homes. Such oil was refreshing and soothing. But, what the woman used was not ordinary oil. It was precious nard, and cost a year's wages for a laborer. Nard was made from flowers that grew on the slopes of the Himalayan Mountains far from Jerusalem. It was usually transported overland by caravan. Nard was a fragrance found on the cosmetic shelf of any woman from Egypt to China who could afford it. Because it was very expensive, it would never be used in excess. It was dabbed, not poured! To break open a container and pour it all out was an extravagant lavishness unheard of!

It seemed as if this woman understood who Jesus was and what was going to happen to him. Unlike the disciples, the woman seemed to understand that Jesus would not be with them much longer. It was also the custom in that day for women to anoint bodies for burial. Jesus told the disciples that the woman had anointed his body before he died. She seemed to realize he was going to die.

Also, going way back to Samuel, it was the custom to anoint kings. Did the woman perceive that Jesus was the Messiah, and she was anointing him? Women could not speak publicly and announce, "Truly, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God," as did Peter when they were gathered at Caesarea Philippi. The woman was not allowed to speak, but she could act. She could pour oil on his head, before they knew what was happening, and before they could stop her. To anoint the head of a designated leader of the people was considered a task for a male prophet, not for a woman. The culture of first-century Jerusalem would not permit this woman to speak prophetic words, but she could act.

The entire action of the woman was startling and shocking. It was also deliberate. She must have been convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, and she willingly risked her reputation to declare it by bursting in where she was not allowed and anointing Jesus. Whatever it meant to the other guests, this was a deeply religious ceremony for Jesus and the woman. She broke in upon a banquet where the invited guests were all male, and she broke the alabaster jar of precious perfume. With this symbolic action, she broke the silence of who Jesus really was. Stepping behind Jesus as he reclined, and standing or kneeling above him, she anointed him, consecrated him, and equipped him for what was yet ahead-- even his burial. She anointed Jesus as the Messiah and understood this included his coming death. Jesus would soon suffer, and this woman, through her action and without saying a single word, shouted to the world, "This is the Anointed One! This is the Messiah-- the long expected Savior of Israel!"

The men were outraged. They thought it foolish and wasteful. They began to consider what they could have done with that money! It's interesting to read in Mark that the next incident reported is Judas visiting with the chief priests to arrange for his betrayal of Jesus. Was Judas so incensed by this outrageous, extravagant lavishness that it helped him make up his mind to do the dastardly act? The men probably felt it was Jesus who seemed not to understand the gravity of the situation. This was the time to plan a revolution-- not to sit around and be pampered. How they must have resented the scolding Jesus gave them when he praised the woman and actually delighted in what she did.

For, it was the woman, not the male disciples, who was doing, acting, caring, touching, anointing, giving and risking. Jesus accepted her silent acts of intimacy and devotion with profound respect and reverent silence. Perhaps Jesus longed for the warmth and comfort of another's touch. Perhaps the cool ointment cascading from his head over his face and neck was like a baptism of sorts. Perhaps this tender act of mercy brought healing to his heavy heart. Perhaps, just once, it felt good to receive, to sit and be passive, to let someone minister to him. It's like going on the Walk to Emmaus, a real treat for yourself, where you are pampered and cared for, where you are loved and served.

Jesus had told his disciples, "I came not to be served, but to serve," but on this occasion Jesus was served-- spontaneously, extravagantly, lavishly. Jesus gave and gave, how often was he allowed to receive? Jesus was not ashamed or embarrassed or defensive. He did not rebuke or resist or reject the woman. "Leave her alone," Jesus told the disciples when they were so outraged, "She has done a lovely and beautiful thing for me."

Jesus received, the woman gave. It is wonderful to receive. Aren't birthdays and Christmas great times when we receive gifts, when we receive offerings of love and appreciation. I really enjoyed the notes and cards I received for Clergy Appreciation. Thank you! It feels good to receive. But, it also feels good to give. The woman felt the need to give. We can't receive all the time, or we become selfish and stagnant. We receive in order to give. There is something in all of us that propels us to give and, at times, extravagantly. The essence, the nature, of God is giving. God so loved the world he gave his Son is the heart of the gospel, the good news. We were created to receive God's love and to pass it on through giving. We were created to give. When you are filled, blessed with the Holy Spirit, you can't contain yourself, and you give extravagantly, lavishly.

Giving and serving is the heart of the gospel. Giving and serving is what it means to be a Christian. Giving and serving is how we proclaim Christ to a dying world. Giving and serving is how we announce to the world, "Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Jesus Christ is the Savior." Giving and serving is what will ultimately save this world.

© 1996 Douglas I. Norris