Message for March 22, 2020
The story of a woman coming into a dinner scene and anointing Jesus appears in each of the four gospels; however, each story varies so drastically in detail, one wonders if something like this happened to Jesus more than once, or if the differences are due to the storytellers and the different points that they wish to make.
Tradition has often conflated these stories — that is, combined the details — with the result that for many, this event is firmly planted in folks’ minds in a way that especially damages the reputation of Mary Magdalene, who I’ll bet at least some of you were led to believe was a prostitute before she met Jesus — something that the scripture never says. In fact, she isn’t even mentioned, by any of the gospel writers, as the person who anointed Jesus. John claims it was Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, who is another Mary entirely (and she wasn’t a prostitute, either). These stories deserve careful reading, and we will benefit from “entering the story” with our eyes open, so we can better take in what the author wants to tell us about Jesus.
Today, we look from the perspective of Mark, the earliest of the gospel writers. He tells of an event that happens early in Holy Week, at the home of a man named Simon. A woman enters uninvited at dinner, and pours a whole jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ head. It’s an extravagant act of generosity and devotion — not, perhaps, what we would do if we had the resources and access to Jesus. Some might have thought the woman, by her action, was declaring Jesus to be a king, or the Messiah (as that word means “anointed”). Jesus, however says, “She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial,” and, “what she’s done will be told in memory of her.” Ironically, though, we don’t even know her name.
An observation from AJ Levine’s book, which our Wednesday Bible study group is continuing to study from home and online, about the unnamed woman in this version of the anointing story, led me to look for other “unnamed’ characters in the Gospel of Mark (which includes the author himself — some think he may have been the mysterious anonymous man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested). I had not noticed this pattern of unnamed people in Mark’s gospel before, but it ends up standing in rather stark contrast to Luke, who, as a person who never met Jesus, and who dedicated himself to interviewing eyewitnesses and chronicling these Jesus stories for a person he addresses as “Theophilus,” regularly names everyone he can in his gospel.
I compiled what turned out to be a long list of “the unnamed” in Mark. (I will post these in the written version of this message on our website; I found 28 such instances, and it is probably a little tedious to list them all in a sermon):
- 1:30 Simon’s mother-in-law
- 1:40 man with leprosy
- 2:3-11 paralyzed man lowered through the roof and his four friends
- 3:1-5 man with withered hand
- 3:21,31-32 Jesus’ family members (even mother)
- 5:2-20 man possessed by a Legion of demons (Jesus asks his name, though! And then sends him off to tell others in that region)
- 5:25-34 bleeding woman
- 5:22-43 daughter of Jairus
- 6:3 Jesus’ brothers and mother are named (but no sisters)
- 7:25-30 Syrophoenician woman (and daughter) in Tyre
- 7:32-37 deaf man who could hardly speak (and then the people who brought him speak up against Jesus’ wishes)
- 8:22-26 blind who sees people as trees (Jesus tells him don’t go back to the village)
- 9:17-27 father of demon-possessed boy
- 9:36-37 child placed in their midst
- 9:38 someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name
- 10:13-16 children blessed
- 10:17-22 rich young man
- 12:28-34 legal expert
- 12:42-44 widow who gives two small coins
- 14:3-9 woman with the alabaster jar
- 14:51-52 disciple who ran away naked
- 14:53-63 the high priest
- 14:66-69 high priest’s servant who confronts Peter
- 14:70 others who point out Peter’s accent
- 15:16-20 soldiers who torture and mock Jesus
- 15:27 outlaws crucified beside Jesus (don’t speak)
- 15:29-36 those who mocked Jesus while he was on the cross
- 15:39, 44-45 the Centurion who said, “This was God’s Son.”
- 15:41 other women who supported Jesus’ ministry
- 16:5-7 young man in white robe
As you see, they include many who were healed, and people who, I suppose, might be embarrassed if they’d been named, like the rich young man who ended up choosing not to follow Jesus. Others might have had their reputations damaged, like the Centurion who stood watch at the crucifixion and declared, “This was God’s Son,” or the legal expert who seemed to be among those trying to trap Jesus, but who agreed with Jesus’ answer on the two greatest commandments. Oddly, the chief priest (noted by the other gospel writers as Caiaphus) is not named; at one point, Jesus’ family members are not named, and later they are — and this is the only time Jesus’ mother Mary is named in Mark.
There are notable exceptions to this tendency of Mark not to “name names:”
- Jairus (a synagogue leader whose daughter is healed)
- Bartimaeus (a blind man whom Jesus heals)
- Simon the leper (the host of the dinner we’re looking at today)
- Pontius Pilate
- Barabbas (the one whose life was spared by Pilate)
- Simon of Cyrene (who carried Jesus’ cross)
- Joseph of Arimathea (who arranged for Jesus’ burial in his own tomb)
- Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — who watched the crucifixion and burial, and after three days, returned to the tomb, becoming the first witnesses to the resurrection.
The twelve disciples are often named in stories by Mark, but not always (sometimes they are just referred to as ”The Twelve,” and sometimes, when they are being particularly clueless, they are lumped together and not singled out).
Overall, the “unnamed” vastly outnumber the “named” in Mark’s gospel. And I have to wonder if it’s just that Mark didn’t have that information, didn’t feel that such people were important enough to recognize with a name — or was he actually lifting up, calling attention to the folks who would otherwise escape notice?
When he sees the poor widow place two small coins in the temple treasury, Jesus says, “Pay attention.” (That’s one way AJ Levine interprets the phrase often translated “Truly, truly I say to you…”). And he does it again — the actual Greek is amen amen — with regard to this woman who crashes the party at Simon’s house, breaking open her alabaster jar and pouring perfume over Jesus’ head. “Pay attention. Remember her.” Yet we are not told the names of either of these women, who gave what they could, pouring out their life in devotion, just as Jesus will soon pour out his life for us.
And people like them — the nameless, the overlooked — will, as Jesus says, “always be among” us. If we open our eyes, and pay attention, they are all around — ready to teach us, both by modeling their faith in the midst of difficulty, and by providing us an opportunity to serve alongside them, to hear their stories, and learn their names.
Who are the overlooked today? Who is just beyond your sphere of attention, who might have something to teach you about generosity and faithfulness? Often we think of the so-called “needy” as people with no resources, to whom we feel called to “give” something. But as we are seeing now, sometimes life has a way of leveling the playing field, reminding us that we all are fragile, we all have needs — and we all have something to give. Knowledge, wisdom, curiosity, youth, time, kindness. And extraordinary times call for extraordinary compassion.
AJ Levine remarks that cut flowers, brought to a friend who is sick, could be regarded as an extravagant waste. Cutting the blossoms shortens their life, after all, and the money spent on the bouquet could go to feed someone, say, or provide medicine. And yet, the lifting of the spirits, given at the right time, might be just what the doctor ordered. The same could be said of laughter, or a phone call, or a gift of beauty. Each of us has something to give and to receive.
In these unprecedented times, when our movement and our ability to safely reach out and touch others is severely compromised, how might we take to heart the message to remember this unnamed woman and learn from her? What beautiful gift do we have to offer Jesus, and what form might that giving take?
We might pay greater attention, be on the lookout for the nameless ones — those who are working tirelessly, without fanfare or reward, to keep our community going and our people safe. There is a movement afoot to sew masks for healthcare personnel; perhaps that might be a skill you have to offer that you can do from home. If you are a person of adequate financial means, you might give (online) to support the work of UMCOR, or our local Food Bank. Maybe you can read a book over the phone to a child whose parent needs a break. Maybe you can learn something more about your computer and how it can help you connect to your neighbors.
All of these actions involve a risk. The unnamed woman was not invited to the dinner where Jesus sat, and her actions were judged by others. We might be rejected. We might feel a sting of loss, or the discomfort of trying something new and different. We might also make mistakes. But in the journey of faith, risk often leads to growth, and ultimately, to grace.
May grace and peace be with you. Amen.