In the end this was his undoing. He just wasn’t respectable enough. He mixed with the wrong sort of people. He wasn’t one of us. There was too much God in him, and not the ‘God-fearing sort of God’ the God professionals liked to peddle. His was a very down-to-earth God: a compassionate ‘on your side’ God; a completely understanding and ‘why not start again’ God. And it drove them mad, the God professionals, the scribes and Pharisees, the ones whose job it was to tell people who God was and who God wasn’t, and what following God looked like. They had the certificates to prove it. And the breeding. And he didn’t. After all, they sneered at him – ‘Has anything good ever come out of Nazareth?’
When people started stoning a woman caught in the very act of adultery, he sat and drew in the sand and invited the one who had never sinned to cast the first stone. When the wine ran out at a wedding he called for six stone jars of water and they amazingly turned into wine. And not just any old cheap plonk, but the finest vintage. When the crowds were hungry he fed them – all of them – with one boy’s lunch. He did amazing things. The crowds loved it and followed him wherever he went. Blind people received their sight. Lepers were cleansed. Small children blessed. When he arrived late at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus he wept, but he also cried out to God and called Lazarus from the grave, and, removing the cloths from his ‘just that moment ago cold corpse’, Lazarus came forth. Nobody understood it. Nobody could control it. Even he seemed to play it down, telling a cripple who had just started walking not to tell anyone what had happened. Well, how does that work? How do you keep that a secret?
He called these actions ‘signs’, not miracles. If he spoke about them at all it was in riddles. Or stories. He made you laugh, that’s for sure. He was a good storyteller. He could talk the birds out of the trees. But the things he did, oh they were wonderful, and they were mysterious. They were signs pointing to something else, pointing to abundance and a healing that was in him, but not in a way even he could obviously or easily control. He wasn’t turning on a tap, or flicking a switch. He was a channel. And his faithfulness and obedience to be that channel meant streams of living water were always flowing
He called God ‘his father’; and it was this Father God that did these things in him and pointed him towards the same abundance that we saw in him, in all those signs, and in all those wonders.
And he ate with all the wrong sort of people. He kept very bad company. He got in with a rum lot. And he didn’t care what people said or thought. He wasn’t trying to please them, only God.
In that week, as one thing led to the next, he would withdraw to Bethany to his friends; and one day, eating in the home of Simon the Leper, his disciples with him and others laughing and jesting, a woman came in from the street carrying an alabaster jar of costly ointment, pure nard. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. She had about her an air of quiet determination and a devotion that had already passed beyond the cares of what others may say. She knelt at Jesus’ feet. She broke the seal on the jar, and gently, lovingly, poured the oil on to his head.
Everyone stared in disbelief. Was he really going to let this woman do this to him? Wouldn’t he stop her?
But that is one of the amazing things about him. He lets other people do things to him. He doesn’t prevent them. In fact, he rebukes those who get in the way, who think they are protecting his dignity by erecting all sorts of barriers and qualifications around him. ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them,’ he once said to his disciples who assumed that he would be far too busy to worry about children.
Oh, but he wanted people to come to him. What he did, and what he goes on doing, is opening his arms wide. He stretches them out in welcome to the world. So this woman, whoever she was and whatever she had done, and in spite of the prohibitions of his religion saying women, and for that matter lepers and small children, are not people to mix with, that they are unclean, he goes to them and he lets them come to him. He enjoys their company. He sees in them the very humanity he has taken to himself. He loves them.
So she pours the oil upon his head. It is warm, and its fragrance fills the air, musky and sweet. It gently trickles down his neck and on to his beard. He smiles at her, full of simple gratitude for the gift of this anointing. There is a joy between them.
But the others around the table – his disciples and all the rest – are agitated and angry. This is expensive ointment. And this is a woman of possible ill repute, and anyway, a woman. What right does she have to do this? And where did this oil come from? It must have cost a fortune. Did she steal it? And if there is money to throw around on oil, wouldn’t it be better to give it to the poor? Yes, that is the line they take. A sudden concern for others bolsters their effrontery. After all, the best way to protect your own bank balance is to offer the very best advice to others about what they should do with theirs. It is as if talking about giving is itself enough.
But what she does is just give; and she goes on giving. And what he does is receive, and he goes on receiving. It is almost as if Jesus is not listening to the puffed-up yammer of their indignation. He has screened out the good advice and the implied good intentions of the extravagantly self-righteous who actually intend to do nothing, and is, instead, focused on the one who gives and is able to receive. He is undefended. And it is the shocking beauty of this generous vulnerability that draws all those who also long to receive and are able to offer themselves.
This is what he loved about the poor. They were so generous. He called it ‘poor in spirit’, which was more (or is it less?) than the actual amount you possess, but an attitude to what you have, a sense that everything is gift, and that it comes unearned and undeserved. We enter this life with nothing. We leave with nothing, and in between it is a proper poverty of spirit that enables us to live with joyful gratitude and generosity, thankful for whatever we have and for the good God who gave it to us (as he gives everything) and, therefore, how could we not share it and go on sharing?
Even yesterday he had sat again in the Temple square opposite the Treasury as the days of this holy week numbered themselves towards the feast of Passover itself, and had watched as an elderly woman, a poor widow, made her offering. Many rich people put in large sums (large sums they could afford, that is, and in so doing looked forward to a favourable mention in dispatches and their names engraved on plaques or pews) and she put in two small copper coins. While they had given from their abundance, she, by giving from her poverty, had put in everything she had.
Now this woman with the oil. The only thing those around him could think of was its cost; not the cost to this woman who had purchased the oil and sought him out and braved their reproach and done this thing of kindness, but the money itself.
They were still rehearsing the lines of their indignation, each one more piqued than the other, when their voices reached him. All voices do eventually. So he turned to them and said, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
Another shadow crosses the day. They stare at him, dumbfounded. He is very irritating. Not only does he accept this woman’s offering. Not only does he shame them in front of her, reminding them that there will always be poor people to serve (and is he suggesting they should do it? Doesn’t he know that they would love to serve the poor if they could, it’s just that their resources are so limited?), now he says that he won’t always be around. He says that this anointing is for his burial.
Everyone looks aghast. It is good to sit and eat with him. But it is also so hard and uncomfortable. He is one of those people that as soon as you think you’ve got him worked out goes and does something to confound you.
They sit around his table and they are covered in embarrassment. They don’t really know why. Nothing is as they expect it to be. Have they come to Jerusalem for life and for victory, or for death and defeat? Will they even know what each one looks like? They know the religious authorities have it in for him. But there isn’t really any evidence. Apart from this. Their constant gripe: he eats with tax collectors and sinners. He doesn’t deny it. He revels in it. He seeks out the lost. He embraces those who must not be embraced. He makes himself unclean and then calls them – the scribes and Pharisees, the keepers of the law – dirty. That was their complaint. And he gave as good as he got. He called them blind guides who strained a gnat but swallowed a camel; whitewashed tombs that looked lovely on the outside but inside were full of bones. He called them hypocrites who did not go into God’s kingdom themselves but stopped everyone else. And when they complained about him and the company he kept, he just smiled and said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a doctor, only those who are sick.’
Sitting round the table, his head dripping with the oil of an anointing which was for death, they too felt ashamed, were painfully aware of the muddled compromises of their own hypocrisy, even though they were his friends and his guests, and they ached for the medicine that only he could bring. To look at him and the things he did was a healing; it was like looking in a mirror and seeing what humanity was supposed to be like and seeing yourself as you could be. Such a vision of a changed and redeemed humanity was wonderfully compelling. But it was also deeply challenging. He knew that some would embrace him and, weeping with lament, ask to be healed and set free. But others would harden their hearts and turn away. This was the one thing he couldn’t do: make people’s choices for them. Everyone had to make their own. They sat around the table in silence pondering which way to turn. The dice span in the air.
One of the Twelve who was there around the table was particularly indignant. He had put a lot of trust in Jesus. He had followed him since the beginning. He had seen Jesus do wonderful things. He had thrilled at his rhetoric. He had longed for his kingdom. He had believed in him. But this belief was starting to waver. Jesus was looking less like a king and more like a servant. He didn’t like this. It wasn’t right. He didn’t really know who Jesus was any more; or even what he wanted him to be; or whether this would only become apparent if the pace of events was pushed a little. His motives were desperately confused. He was angry, but he didn’t really know why.
Later that day he went to the chief priests. He thought there was probably enough evidence against Jesus for them at least to arrest him. He said that he could tell them where he was. They were very pleased and offered him money in return for his service.
From that moment, Judas looked for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
What strikes you most about this passage?
Why were the people so outraged by this woman’s actions?
Why is Jesus so accepting?
Why do you think Judas betrays Jesus?
What do you think Jesus is doing in this story?
What was its meaning then, and what might be its meaning for us today?