Preached at St Luke’s, West Kilburn on Passion Sunday
When I saw that this morning’s Gospel reading was the anointing of Jesus at Bethany my heart leapt because I love this story, and the two similar stories of a woman anointing Jesus which we find in Matthew and Luke. Some people think they all describe the same incident, some think they are separate occasions and different women. Either way the three stories hold various things in common.
In each of them a woman does something surprising and unexpected, something which comes straight from the heart. She does it with a passion and a certainty that this is the right thing to be doing. In each story the thing that the woman does is shocking to other people: to Judas, to all the disciples, and in Luke’s version to the Pharisee in whose house the anointing occurs. And in each story Jesus challenges those who judge the woman, putting them straight, pointing out what they could learn from what they have witnessed if only they would wake up what is really happening.
So what could they have learnt – and therefore what can we learn – from this woman and her encounter with Jesus?
Firstly, she is astonishingly vulnerable, trusting and open towards Jesus. As she pours the oil and wipes Jesus’s feet with her hair – and in Luke’s version even wets Jesus’s feet with her tears – she holds nothing back, hides nothing of what she feels.
Are we willing to open our lives and our whole selves to God as this woman did? Do we trust God enough to bring all that we are, all that we feel, all that we worry and care about to him? Or do we edit our prayers and our conversation with God, fooling ourselves that we can hide the parts of ourselves that might shame us from the One who made us and knows what is on our hearts even before we do?
The woman’s trust is not misplaced. She finds it matched by Jesus’s unquestioning acceptance of her gesture – and therefore of her. Here is God’s total and unconditional embrace of everything that we bring to him. It’s always worth the risk of coming before God naked and it seems that Mary knew that.
She also risked – and experienced – being criticised by other people who were present. But the risk of their disapproval didn’t stop her from making this very public gesture. From bringing all that she was into the room.
Are we willing to risk bringing all that we have and all that we are when we meet together as followers of Christ? Or do we hide the parts of ourselves that we think others will judge, dislike or just not understand?
We are all made uniquely in God’s image. We all reflect that image in the world differently. There is a part of God which will never be fully expressed in this community unless you bring it, because you each have your own gift to offer. If you hold back on sharing your experiences of life, your understanding of what it means to be human and to love God, your fragilities and questions as well as your strengths, then this community – and any other community of which you are a part – misses out on something that might speak to them of God.
The woman was wholly open to Jesus and wholly able to be herself in the presence of others and Jesus was able to use what she did to teach others something about God.
In Luke’s story of anointing Jesus teaches them about love and forgiveness. In John’s story, the one we heard this morning, the lesson is about priorities. Judas objects to what the woman does because the expensive perfume she has used to anoint Jesus could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Though in reality Judas’s first priority was not the poor at all, it was himself – he was the treasurer and used to help himself to what was in the money bag.
Jesus says to Judas: The poor will always be with you but I won’t. And it’s a response which shocks us at first. Jesus’s whole life expresses God’s deepest commitment to the poor and vulnerable: so it sounds almost selfish when he says: This is fine, this perfume was meant for me.
But the point is that he has some inkling of what is soon to come. The Pharisees are plotting to arrest him. Jesus has a sense of where this is all going. So the woman has anointed him in preparation for his death. At this moment in time to use the perfume for that purpose is the right thing to do.
This lesson about priorities speaks right into the complexities of our own lives here and now: who and what should we put first in any given moment of our day? Who or what in this particular season of our life should get our fullest attention? We find those questions hard because often there are equally important demands on our time and we just don’t know where to turn first.
Perhaps the lesson of this story is that in making decisions about who to love, how to respond to the needs of the world, where to focus our attention we must always stay close to Jesus. Because it is in his presence that the dilemmas about what we should be doing with our time, our money, our lives, begin to shake down and the answers become clearer. If, like the woman we can stay close to Jesus, consciously bringing our questions and dilemmas before God, we will know, as Mary did, that our deepest passions and instincts will lead us to the right decisions. We may be surprised sometimes, as the disciples were, by what Jesus tells us our priorities should be.
One of my favourite lines in John’s account of the anointing is when he tells us: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’. When we live close to Jesus and with generosity and kindness the fragrance of our love and God’s love reaches surprisingly far. And it can be in the simplest of ways. One of the Mums I chat with in the school playground when we’re collecting our children works in a local coffee shop. Every time I go in there I am struck by the difference that woman makes to other people’s lives by the way that she serves them: her smile, her cheerfulness, her human warmth are the fragrance which fills that place.
She is Muslim and has a strong faith – and to me it seems that what she offers in such a simple but profound way is the hospitality of God. How can we offer what comes straight from our heart in a way that will be a fragrant gift to others and to God?
The final lesson we might take from this story is the importance of encouraging one another. By his words to Judas, Jesus makes it clear that Mary has done the right thing. How often do we tell one another: You have done the right thing? When someone has made a difficult choice and is struggling with the reaction of other people do we have the sensitivity and courage to say: You have done the right thing?
By our encouragement we can make all the difference to one another as we try to stay close to Jesus, to bring the whole of ourselves to him in honesty and vulnerability, to reflect his image in the world in the way that only each one of us can, to make our choices according to our God-given priorities and passions, and to fill our world with the fragrance of God’s love.