Sisters and Brothers,
We begin the last three chapters of the Gospel of Mark with events from the last days before Jesus crucifixion. Today’s text identifies itself as being two days before the Passover festival. So, we are three days before the crucifixion and five days before Easter morning.
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
So, the chief priests and Scribes were still worried about popular opinion about Jesus. They wanted to arrest Jesus and kill him, but they were planning to wait at least ten days, to move the events after the Passover. Not only would it seem as sacrilegious, but Jerusalem would have many visitors for the festival.
There were many reasons why different religious and political groups wanted Jesus dead. First, he was undermining the authority and reputation of the Scribes and Elders. For the Pharisees, he was someone who should align himself with them and behave according to their guidance. Most dangerously, he was not objecting when people welcomed him as the “messiah” and rightful king instead of Herod. Jesus also had the potential of angering the Romans and thereby restricting the rights of other Jews even more. Along with other reasons, Jesus was despised for being an “outsider.” Being from Nazareth, he was expected to be humble and quiet in Jerusalem. The Zealots were outsiders themselves but would have rejected Jesus for not calling people to arms against the Romans.
The officials were afraid that the arrest and killing of Jesus would lead to a riot. A riot would force the Roman soldiers in the city to intervene, and there would be bloodshed between Jews, and organized injury and killings by the Romans. The Roman legions in those days were exceptionally violent and cruel. War games between legions could end with the losing legions executed. Many of the Romans looked down on the people of lands they occupied as worthless.
For his time in Jerusalem, Jesus would spend his nights in a small town outside the city walls and beyond the hill called the Mount of Olives. The town’s name was Bethany and was home to a man called Simon the Leper. We have no word if Simon was a former leper (who had been healed) or if it was a name given for being disfigured or despised in some way. Clearly, if he had leprosy, he would not be allowed to live in town or welcome guests.
In the Gospel of John, the house in Bethany is described as being the house of Lazarus, a man whom Jesus raised from death, and the woman in that story is the sister of Lazarus named Mary.
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Jesus knows that the time of his death is very close and he received this gift as a beautiful gesture. Remember that messiah means “anointed one” and here is the anointing of Jesus. The ancient kings of Israel and Judah were anointed like this, so it further identifies Jesus as the messiah.
Rather than welcoming this act, the disciples claim that it is a huge waste of something valuable. They speak of how much money the perfume could have been sold for. They talk about distributing the money to the poor, but Jesus answers “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. “
The disciples are guilty of faulty human reasoning that still goes on today. We criticize the waste of money to stop people from doing something, claiming that the money would be better spent on the poor, but once a person stops “wasting” money this way, we waste it on something else and forget the poor. It is clear that the disciples don’t understand that Jesus is in the last days before his death. “You will not always have me,” he says.
Sometimes, people use this text out of context. They will ignore that Jesus said this to particular people at a particular time. He is not saying that we need to perpetuate poverty, or put up with it, but some people quote, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want,” as if Jesus was saying that poverty is a fact of life we all need to accept. He was saying that in those disciple’s lifetimes, they would always have the opportunity to help the poor. The fact that we still have people living in poverty while there is so much wealth in the world is an indictment of our society.
Jesus is very appreciative of this gift and says that this kind act should be remembered forever. All sorts of buildings and projects have spent fortunes in the name of Jesus, but this is the one time that we know someone did something extravagant for him in his adult life. Strangely, Jesus says that she is preparing his body for burial. There was no embalming in those days and bodies were left in tombs for many months and then the bones were taken away to be buried or put in stone boxes. What was needed was extremely strong perfume to cover the smell of death and decay.
To our experience, the smell of this perfume would have been overpowering. Since bathing wasn’t very common in those days, the perfume would have remained on Jesus until his burial. By outside observers Jesus would have seemed almost poor himself (and he was given a poor man’s execution), but he was scented the whole while with expensive perfume.
This passage of Mark ends with nefarious words:
Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
By the Gospel of Mark, we know very little of Judas Iscariot except that he was one of the twelve who had been with Jesus for a long time. Mark never tells us anything Judas has done or said to this point. He was not in the inner circle, though he is elsewhere described as the one who carried the group’s money. We don’t know why Judas betrays Jesus, but it is implied that this perfume incident motivated him. In books, plays, and movies about Jesus, Judas is depicted as greedy, judgmental, or convinced that Jesus has lost his mind. Many people assume that Judas betrayed Jesus because it was an odd part of God’s plan of redemption for all. But Mark does not give us any answers. Judas is mentioned again in the Gospel, but Mark never tells us what happened to Judas after the arrest of Jesus.
Against the plans of the chief priests and Scribes, Jesus will be arrested and executed during the festival of Passover, but there will be no riot.
Questions to Ponder: How do you feel about poverty in the world? Do you think some people deserve to live in poverty? What can we do to help end poverty? – It is not really a fair question, but what would have happened if Judas didn’t betray Jesus?