Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Who doesn’t love having a good time? And who doesn’t love being invited to a wedding? Even if you are “just” a guest, there are some many things to do before you arrive at the ceremony or reception. Make sure you can get time off work. Get directions. Book a flight and a hotel room if you’re from out of town. Look on the registry and find a gift. And the most important thing: figure out what you’re going to WEAR!
And if you are IN the wedding as one of the wedding party, your list of preparations just got about four times longer. I’m in a wedding this summer for two good friends from college. I’ve already ordered a dress (in a blue called “horizon”) and made an appointment with alterations, but I still have to book a flight so that I will arrive in time for the rehearsal, reserve a room at the hotel, and most important of all, find a pair of shoes.
And if you’re the bride (or groom), expand that list of preparations by about twelve. Dress, shoes, jewelry, undergarments, makeup, hair, nails, veil, something borrowed, something blue, and on and on… and that’s not counting all the preparations that happened before the wedding day itself. We just want every little thing to be perfect, and this takes a lot of work and preparation, sometimes for months beforehand.
The woman who stars in our story today was not getting ready for a wedding. She was getting ready for a burial.
And while the chief priests were getting ready for the celebration of the Passover, they were also getting ready for a murder.
And Judas, one of the twelve disciples, was getting ready for a betrayal.
Welcome to Holy Week, where up is down, and down is up. Where a crowd shouts “Hosanna” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next. Where bread becomes body and wine becomes blood. Where a king is killed for not being the “right” kind of king. Where Jesus is abandoned by everyone, while at the same time drawing everyone to himself.
But here is where it starts, at the home of Simon the Leper. How typical – Jesus is always hanging out with people with one thing or another wrong with them. And now he is eating at the house of a man who is known for having a terrible disfiguring skin disease. A woman enters the room with a jar full of nard, an expensive perfume made from a plant that is native to the mountains in China. And she had a whole jar full, in a lovely alabaster container. We don’t know this woman’s background, but we are told that the jar she carried contained the equivalent of nearly a year’s worth of wages for a typical day laborer. In today’s cash, that’s some fifteen thousand dollar perfume she’s got there.
She doesn’t just crack it open a bit and dribble some on Jesus’ brow. No, she busts it open and upends the whole thing on Jesus’ head. The crowd at this gathering was understandably shocked to see this. Not “flour thrown on Kim Kardashian” shocked, but rather, “Oprah just gave her entire audience an iPad 3 and a brand-new Preus” kind of shocked.
No, these guests were more than shocked. They were indignant. I can guess that they might have felt this way for two reasons. First, this was a lot of money to have spent on a luxury item, and second, that it was used for one person when it could have helped dozens or even hundreds of people. Think of how many mosquito nets fifteen thousand dollars this could have purchased for the Malaria Initiative. Think about how many cows or chickens could be bought from Good Gifts.
And perhaps the household of Simon the Leper was particularly sensitive to the plight of the poor and needy, having experienced first-hand what it would have been like to be on the outside looking in. And they were right – this woman COULD have done all kinds wonderful things with the money from the perfume. But in their anger they all completely overlooked what she did do. She anointed Jesus.
When someone is anointed in this manner, it usually meant one of two things. When a king is crowned, he is also anointed. Messiah in Hebrew and Christ in Greek mean anointed one. So this story makes sense, right? Since a few weeks ago we heard Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah. And just a few minutes ago we heard the crowds welcome Jesus into town in a parade, shouting their excitement that the return of the reign of KING David was at hand. A reign that will right the wrongs of the Roman oppression they have suffered. But Jesus’ followers seem to forgotten that he never claimed to be that kind of king.
There is another use for this kind of anointing oil. It is used on the body after death to prepare it for burial. Jesus was not being anointed for his coming glory, as his ancestor David had been. For Jesus there was not coronation ceremony. Just a woman at a meal, and a jar of perfume, and a group of people completely missing the significance of what she had done for him.
There was no way she could have known that after this, Jesus would be betrayed and handed over by one of his own followers, denied by another, abandoned by the rest, falsely accused, tried in the middle of the night, given a convenient death sentence, denied justice, beaten, mocked, and finally killed as a common criminal, in public, as a deterrent. That day in Simon’s house was the last bit of human kindness Jesus received before the cross. This woman will be remembered forever, Jesus says. But we don’t even know her name.
Up is down. Down is up. A king is anointed for burial. A criminal walks and an innocent man dies. Jesus’ followers flee, and a former enemy will provide him with a proper burial. Peter denies and a Roman solder confesses. And through it all, some more women, whose testimony did not even count in a court of law, were witness to the most life-changing event in human history.
This is it. We’re here. This week is what the forty days of Lent have been leading up to. This is why we’ve draped ourselves out in purple, the color of royalty. We are about to enter a week where time is more than just seconds ticking by on a clock. Where an instrument of torture and intimidation becomes the means through which we are saved. Where we, too, enter into the story.
We don’t just have front row seats. Believe it or not, we are there in the story already. Some days we are in the crowd, shouting “Hosanna” one day and “Crucify him!” the next. Some days we hide in fear or even pretend we don’t know Jesus. And some days, we are like the guests as Simon’s party, one of those who sees amazing things happen and miss them completely. Some days we watch like the women, crying in despair, and other days, we ourselves roll the stone to cover the tomb.
Welcome to Holy Week. Let me show you to your seat. It’s here, at the foot of the cross.