1 It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2 for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people."
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 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."
10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
We have been spending Sundays in Lent following the Gospel of Mark through Holy Week, using a book titled The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan as our guide along the journey. This week we are looking at the events of Wednesday.
The chief priests were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. They knew they couldn’t do it during the Passover festival or the people would riot, because Jesus was extremely popular. Everywhere he went the crowds gathered – when he entered the city crowds laid palms at his feet. When he turned over the moneychangers tables in the temple on Monday the crowd was there to admire him. Tuesdays crowd was very pleased by his confounding of the priests and Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees, they were spellbound by his teachings. So they couldn’t take the chance of arresting him while the crowds were present or they might riot, and if they rioted the Romans would retaliate, people would be injured and killed, the Temple leadership could lose their positions or even their lives. I know we have learned to think of the crowds of Jews as being opposed to Jesus when Pilate is asking what to do with him, but right here, in this passage, it is clear that the crowds were with Jesus and against the Temple leadership. And the Temple leaders give up. Unless they can find some way to arrest and try Jesus in secret, they can’t move against him.
Meanwhile, Jesus is frustrated with his disciples. Throughout his gospel Mark keeps telling us about ways the disciples are just not getting it at all. Jesus has now prophesied his own death three times, first in Chapter 8, then in Chapter 9 and finally in Chapter 10. In each case he refers to himself as the Son of Man, speaks of his betrayal and death and of his resurrection three days after he is killed. But the disciples don’t understand what he means. Even after three prophesies he catches them arguing over who will be closest to him when he comes to power. I can just imagine Jesus shaking his head over his disciples’ lack of understanding.
As they sit at the table a woman comes in and anoints him with very rare and expensive ointment, pouring it out onto his head. We don’t know who she is. She isn’t named or described in any way. And it is really important that we not confuse her with the Mary of John’s gospel or the sinful woman of Luke’s gospel. It’s important that we see her just as Mark portrays her here – an unnamed woman who is part of the company who follow Jesus. Jesus lifts her up and claims she will be remembered and celebrated where ever believers gather together.
And why is this? Because she, not the disciples, is the first believer. She is the first one to realize what his prophecies mean and so she pours out upon his head this costly ointment – preparing his body for the grave. For Mark, she is the first Christian. Even before Easter, before Jesus’ appearances to the disciples after his resurrection, this woman believed.
Not only was she the first who believed, the first of his many followers on the way who really got what he was trying to tell them. She was also the first to model the kind of leadership he was trying to teach them. She led the others in belief and also in service. We’re going to come back to the woman in a minute.
Judas went to the priests. Mark doesn’t tell us why Judas decides to betray Jesus. Historians have lots of theories and other gospels talk about Judas’ motive. But Mark doesn’t. Mark is sort of a “just the facts” gospel. It was both the first gospel written and the shortest. The stories are fairly brief and unembellished. What we know from Mark is simply that Judas, one of the Twelve, decided to betray Jesus. He went to the Temple leadership and offered to find a way for them to arrest Jesus without the crowds knowing about it, and they offered to pay him. They were, of course, delighted to have an insider willing to betray his rabbi. Judas’ action will fulfill the prophecy of betrayal and arrest.
I wouldn’t have noticed this contrast between Judas and the woman without Borg and Crossan pointing it out. I mean, I’ve always loved this woman’s story, but I’ve always focused on how it foreshadowed the crucifixion, or how we are to understand that statement “the poor will always be with you.” It never occurred to me to look at this woman alongside of Judas, one of the Twelve. But that’s what Mark intended for us to do – to look at the woman in the context of discipleship and belief and leadership. She understands what Jesus is teaching better than any of the Twelve, who still don’t understand Jesus’ prophecies or the idea that leaders must first be servants. She does. She is the perfect disciple in contrast with Judas who is the worst possible disciple.
This unnamed woman, this perfect disciple, models for us what it means to be a leader. Her faith led her to follow Jesus’ teachings far better than those of Jesus’ followers whose names we do know. At Delhaven we understand that one of the many ways we can follow Jesus is to serve the poor, to feed the hungry, to make education available for those who have little or nothing to spend on education. A number of us will be walking in the Church World Service CROP walk later today and the money we raise will help care for the poor and dispossessed around the world. Serving others is how we serve God. It is how we show our love for our brothers and sisters as we have been commanded to do.
And how special is it that this passage be the one we read on Girl Scout Sunday? We all know that Girl Scouting teaches girls to lead through service. One way that we experience their leadership is in their dedication to keeping Delhaven’s food pantry supplied so that we may serve our neighbors. Girl Scouts earn badges and other awards for so many different forms of service and caring for others that listing them all would take way too long. Former Girl Scouts lead their grateful nation in every conceivable occupation; soldiers and astronauts and teachers and religious leaders, even our Secretary of State was a Girl Scout.
Today we have celebrated five young women whose faith has led them to serve others. Each one has spend the better part of the last year working toward the religious award she received today, an award designed by her own faith tradition to help her grow in her faith through serving. (The girls will each say something about their religious award project and how it serves the community.)
Like the woman who anointed Jesus, each one of these young women knows that it is through serving others that we best serve God and our community. Each one knows that the very best leaders are those who are dedicated first to serving, like Jesus.
When we go from this place today, let us keep this unnamed woman in our hearts. Let us seek to be like her, the perfect disciple, faithful and willing to serve without waiting to be asked.