The First Dinner: Risking Rejection, Mark 14:3-9
First United Methodist Church, March 22, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
Enter the story
Enter the place you belong
Not just looking on
For this is your story
Enter the story. Amen.
It’s an over-the-top gift; pure extravagance. An expression of love; an outpouring of emotion.
Perhaps you’ve been the recipient of an expression of love such as this.
Perhaps you’ve felt that outpouring of love yourself: a straight-from-the-heart desire to somehow express tangibly what your words can’t quite describe.
The woman didn’t care who was there, who saw it. She didn’t care what they thought. She needed to tell him, to show him, so he’d know.
It seems that this woman who is unnamed in the gospel of Mark, understands what others don’t. How could she have known? Perhaps she is one of those women who follow Jesus, who is always with him, just like the other disciples. We’re told that there were more than 12 disciples: there was this inner circle of those whom Jesus had called to follow him, who are named in scripture. And then there is this larger circle of men and women who also follow him. Who do their best to listen to every word, to every story. Some couldn’t be there all the time, they had other responsibilities, work they had to attend to, family who needed to be cared for. But then there were others who didn’t have so much to leave behind, who didn’t have family, or a home…no one who really cared about them. But Jesus did. Jesus cared. And so they follow him. They listen to him. They learn from him. They find their home in him.
Mary Magdalene is one of those who follow Jesus, who is thought to be a benefactor of his ministry. Her past is uncertain, except we read in the 7th chapter of Luke that she led a sinful life. Tradition has it that she was a prostitute, and that she is the one who anointed Jesus with the precious oil. The 8th chapter of Luke tells us that Jesus cast 7 demons from her. If she is the one who pours this expensive perfume over Jesus’ head, if she is the one who demonstrates such love—with such disregard for the cost of what she’s doing—it may be because she feels she owes her life to him…that he has saved her from a life that was killing her, if not physically, then spiritually and emotionally.
A parallel story in the gospel of John names the woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Her unexpected outpouring might have come in overwhelming thankfulness for raising her brother from the dead. She too, must have recognized that in spite of her belief that he was the Son of God, he was going to die. She didn’t know how to help, didn’t know what to do, how to stop what was happening. But this, she could do.
The woman breaks open the jar of this expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. As the rich scent fills the room, everyone notices. They turn toward Jesus, toward the woman, and for just a moment, the room goes absolutely silent. The men are stunned. They see what she’s doing, but the significance of her act is beyond them. They don’t understand. Of course, so few do at this point. What they DO see are the dollar signs: this is a waste of resources! If she didn’t want the stuff anymore, they could have sold it to feed the poor! The price they could have gotten for it could have gone a long way to provide for the poor. The men in the room begin scolding the woman for what she’s done, for what she could have done—but Jesus stops them. Cuts them off: “Leave her alone. The poor will always be among you and you can show them kindness whenever you wish; but you won’t always have me. She has done what she can (with what she has); she has anointed my body for burial. And for this, she will always be remembered.”
Now before we go any further, I think it’s important to stop a minute and clarify what Jesus is saying. “The poor will always be with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; you won’t always have me.” This is NOT instruction for us to stop giving to the poor, with the rationalization that we can’t do anything about it anyway. “Even Jesus said that,” you may be tempted to say. Remember Jesus’ many acts of love and mercy and compassion for the poor, the sick and the dying. He never once walked by without giving, without showing compassion or care, without expressing love. The poor may always be with us, but Jesus isn’t telling us here that we’re not to care for them. Remember Matthew 25: “Whatever you have done to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you’ve done it to me,” Jesus said. But on the day of this conversation, Jesus is 2 days from the Passover feast, 3 days away from the cross, and he is preparing his disciples for the absolutely, unexpected, incomprehensible, soul-saving event that is about to happen.
This is NOT a statement that we might as well quit caring for the poor.
What Jesus is doing, is guiding us toward a deeper truth. In principle and in practice, the critics are correct: the oil was “wasted,” and its sale could have helped the poor. But Jesus isn’t talking about resources and distribution (or redistribution). Jesus doesn’t live in a world of scarcity. He’s introducing us to a new economy where the defining force is love. And there’s enough of that for everyone.
Something that I think is very important for us to remember is that Jesus didn’t come into the world to tell us something we already know. He didn’t come to remind us of truths that we’ve forgotten or to confirm what we’re able to figure out by common sense. Jesus comes to us with a new reality that calls us to acts of service and sacrifice that don’t make sense without him. Outside of the context of God’s extravagant love, this act of extravagance makes no sense. But in the context of who God is, of who Jesus is, it does.
Jesus came into the world to transform the world. To transform us. To make things new. To give new life. To help us see things in a different way. He shakes things up and turns us around; urges us to look at life/to live our lives in a different way. And still, we keep relying on our own resources. We don’t expect something that we can’t produce for ourselves. And we don’t see how that limits what God can do.
Back some years ago I watched a movie where the main character made a decision—and the movie continued based on that decision. But when we came to what we thought was the end of the movie—the whole thing reeled back to that decision, but this time the character made a different one. We watched the story unfold once again, as it could have played out had he made that second decision.
Have you ever wondered what might have happened if Jesus hadn’t died on the cross? If he wouldn’t have trusted God, but relied on the wisdom of man?
Donald Chatfield was one of my preaching professors in seminary who wrote what he called “left-handed sermons,” coming from the “back side” of a text, encouraging us to think about the story in a little different way. He explored what might have happened if Jesus had decided not to accept the cup that had come to him, not to die…but to give his life up in a more conventional way—to preach and teach and to proclaim God’s will throughout a long and productive life.
In Chatfield’s story, Jesus wasn’t convinced by Peter when he said to him in Matthew 16:23 “God forbid, this will never happen to you,” believing that he was to give his life up, but finally, he relented to Peter’s persistence, and the disciples took it to a vote and agreed that Jesus could have a much greater impact alive than dead. Besides, who would believe all that bunk about rising on the third day?
Jesus ended up riding a powerful warhorse into town on Palm Sunday, and over the months to come became less threatening to the church and Rome as the disciples split up and set up a working coalition between the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes, the Sanhedrin, and the temple authorities, making all the necessary compromises so that everyone could get along. Jesus was eventually crowned prince and moved into a palace. They were able to lower taxes, fix the roads, make life better for people. Jesus died in his 60’s of a heart condition, still wondering if he’d done what God had called him to do.
Peter reassured Jesus that he had. In his generation he had done much good.
His body was placed in an elaborate tomb with a huge stone rolled over the front to fit.
In the final paragraph of Chatfield’s sermon, Peter muses:
I must admit that in the years since he died, many things we had accomplished for this nation have sort of begun to fall apart. But I guess you can’t have everything. At least he was successful during his lifetime. For thirty years he ruled our people well in Jerusalem, and even a few Gentiles who had heard of him came to consult with him and hear his teachings. He told people many, many stories. (We collected them in a two-volume set; some of you probably have them on your shelves.) But sometimes, like now, when I sit here and look at his silent tomb…I too, wonder, as he did in his dying moment: what would have happened if he had gone to Jerusalem and died on a Roman cross at the age of thirty-three?(Dinner With Jesus and Other Left-Handed Story Sermons, Donald Chatfield, Zondervan Press, 1988).
And then Peter ends, “But I’m awfully glad he didn’t. Aren’t you?”
Look at the man in the painting again. He’s startled by what the woman is doing. But he is even more troubled by Jesus’ response: that she’s preparing him for his burial. He doesn’t want to think about that…it’s too much. He realizes he needs to always remember this moment. To hold onto it. To remember her and this lavish expression of love for Jesus. To consider how he might better—more extravagantly—demonstrate his love.
If you or I were sitting there at the table when this happened, would we have complained about the waste of money?
Would we live our lives any differently if we trusted God to provide for our every need?
How do you show your love for Jesus?
Jesus said this woman will always be remembered. For what thing will you be remembered?