Palm Sunday Sermon: Anointing Woman

READING The Anointing Woman  

Mark 14 + Matthew 26: 6-13

SERMON “The Anointing” Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein 2002

The global Christian community enters Holy Week today, the drama of the final days of Jesus of Nazareth’s life, his last meal with his closest community of disciples, his betrayal and arrest, his sham trial, his crucifixion. Today is Palm Sunday, the day that commemorates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, the Holy City that had been occupied by Rome since 63 AD, so for about 90 years by the time this happened.

 Arriving by colt, or donkey, depending on which account you read, he is nevertheless consistently reported to have been cheered by hundreds of ardent fans and  followers. If you have ever seen “Jesus Christ Superstar” which treats Jesus like a rock star, that isn’t  inaccurate. He was a messianic celebrity to his people (the Jews living under Roman occupation) whose lives were very hard, with very few rights under the law, taxed into poverty, expendable, and murdered en masse when they dared to rise up against Rome. There was nothing unique about Jesus’ method of execution; Rome had been using this public form of torture and execution for a long time. The historical accounts are dreadful and the victims unknown and unnamed.

This is a very dramatic, crowded, busy moment in the gospel narrative. Think of protests you have been to, the noise, the clamor, the anger, the hope, the intensity.  Think of marches, people upset about injustice, coming together at a gathering spot after a trek with their families, friends and children to hear admired leaders. These are all appropriate analogies since Jesus’ message, although mystical, theological and religious, was always grounded in justice, in the demolishing of hierarchies of domination. He is beloved not just because of what he says and the vision he promotes of the kin-dom of equals, but for the miracles he has performed: he has healed the disabled, the chronically ill, he has raised the dead. And to his crowd of supporters, he has kicked the right hornet’s nests.

I was quoted this week [2022] in the Boston Globe as saying that Easter had deeper meaning for me as I learn more about systemic racism, the state-sanctioned brutality that is part of the unfortunate fabric of American society –  that has protected the privileged at the cost of a segment of society that has been enslaved, demonized and victim-blamed for centuries. There are too many parallels between  Jesus’ community’s predicament and that of colonized and enslaved peoples throughout all of history –  and although Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have different meanings for people depending on their religious, ethnic and cultural identity, he is for us an avatar of prophetic witness and radical, revolutionary love. 

He is the opposite of an emperor; he is a servant-healer, an advocate. He is the opposite of the project of empire; he is the project of empathy, which in Unitarian and Universalist theological tradition, is God’s own project, God’s own longing.

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in the experience of another being: to allow the body, mind, spirit to exist with that other being, opening oneself to to feel what they feel.  Some people come by this quality naturally, and being natural empaths can go hard for them. ( I have a form of empathy that causes me to feel physical aching when I see even images of injuries. It’s not a convenient quality: I have fainted during hospital pastoral visits, no matter how much I mentally prepare.)

Too much empathy can make one feel like a sponge for all the sorrows of the world, but little or no empathy is not a workable alternative. We see that today, we see it in savage, barbaric examples in Ukraine, what is being done to the people, animals and land there… we see it also in our own country, most recently in mind in legislative violence that dehumanizes women, and transgender youth. The world is never short of case studies in empathic absence and failure: All indecency and cruelty begin when the perpetrators of it fail or refuse to imagine the impact of their behavior on others, or on their environment, which also has its own consciousness. 

So I want to look at a moment in the gospels where God’s project of empathy was lived out not by the main character, Jesus, but by an unknown woman we know only as The Anointing Woman. 

Jesus has stopped for dinner close to Jerusalem, in Bethany on the West Bank.  His confrontation with the powers and principalities is going to come to a head very soon. But for now, dinner with his disciples at the house of Simon the Leper. 

It was the custom in those times to recline at the table and to be have the meal served by women or servants. I mention this because when Jesus presides at what we call the Last Supper, he takes on the role of servant, upending social expectations and subverting gender roles.

In the house of Simon, Jesus is in the midst of a crowded social situation, we can imagine that he and the twelve disciples are tired, as it has been a busy and highly charged time being who they are and doing what they do. Not only are the eyes of the adoring crowds upon them, so are the eyes of the political authorities. There are spies and informers around.

Out of nowhere, with no introduction, enters the Anointing Woman :one gospel account identifies her as Mary of Bethany, the three others do not give her a name. She has a jar of precious perfumed oil (today it would be essential oil) worth about a year’s wages, and she pours it out and anoints Jesus’s head – or his feet, depending on which version you read. This is a symbol of messianic recognition, as kings were so anointed at their crowning. But anointing a body with oil is also a ritual at the time of death, in preparation for burial, which was also the role of women in Jesus’ time and cultural context. That’s why the women were the first at the tomb on Easter morning.

But let’s go back to the dinner. I imagine a sense of hubbub. People talking over each other. Passing of dishes. Food, drink, people in and out. 

The woman comes into this scene and walks up to Jesus. To get the oil out of an alabaster jar, the jar has to be broken, so she can’t save any of the oil, it’s all flowing onto Jesus. One of the Scripture passages describing this encounter mentions that powerful fragrance. 

Again, depending on which version we are reading, she is either touching Jesus on his head, or she is at his feet, and in two reports, she is crying onto his feet and drying her tears with her hair. 

Tears, and oil. She does not say anything, or if she does, it was not remembered. The Anointing Woman breaks into the ( mostly male) center of activity and does this incredibly intimate, immediate thing with Jesus. 

No one really knows what it means. There is no consensus whatsoever on the identity of the anointing woman or the meaning of what she does. 

But I don’t think we need scholars and theologians to interpret what it means. We can simply watch the moment unfold in our imaginations: She enters. She is poor and yet she carries precious oil, worth a lot of denarii. She sees this man, the savior, the promised one foretold by the prophets, eating dinner in the next room. Maybe what she saw in him is the Messiah.  Or maybe what you saw was a tired man who has walked many many miles stopping to give teachings and to heal the sick in body and in heart; a man whose feet are dusty who is hungry, a man who is grateful for food.

Whatever she saw in him, whether or not she had seen him up close before, she saw him with profound empathy. And that is why I cry whenever I read this passage. Alone of all the characters who meet  Jesus along the way of the gospel journey, the Anointing Woman doesn’t ask him for anything, doesn’t ask him to heal her, doesn’t ask him questions about how to attain eternal life, doesn’t touch him clandestinely so that he can heal her of a medical condition… all of which are fine things to ask of a prophet and healer and teacher!! They are poignant requests! But she alone, she sees Jesus as the vulnerable one. She sees what is ahead for him. She recognizes that he is in danger, she knows the outcome, she enters the room like truth itself, with love, with empathy, she pours out this beautiful ointment on him. Alone in the room, both she and Jesus understand the poignancy of what she is doing.

The disciples don’t get it. They start in immediately with petty attack, why did you do that, we could sell that oil and take care of more people, what are you doing, what a waste!

She has no response. I picture her in this intimate closeness with Jesus, bringing this act of beauty and care to him that transcends words and argument. Sometimes it is not time to debate, strategize, argue and compete. The poet Jeni Coyzyn wrote, “The way towards each other is through our bodies. Words are the longest distance you can travel/so complex and hazardous you/lose your direction.”

The woman with the oil walked right to him, to the center of everything, to the center of attention, not to make a point, not to present an argument, not to get something for herself but to give, to recognize, to bring the moment from chatter to stillness, from dinner time to the inevitability of death. She infuriated everyone there who thought they knew better than her how to spend the richness of that fragranced oil but she knew exactly where it belonged: not as an item for sale, but as a blessing to be bestowed, out of her poverty a spirit of abundance. 

History has not known how to interpret her, how to identify her… or how to emulate her. We still tend to miss or distance ourselves from the inbreaking of the holy with chatter, debate, and critique. But Jesus himself is reported to have spoken in her defense, chastised the petty and critical reaction to her gesture and said, “wherever the story of my life is told in the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

I thought, therefore, that you should also know about her.

The Anointing of Christ, Julia Stankova 2009