Posted by: pmarkrobb | October 9, 2011

broken, poured out, unnamed

This past week our reading led us through Jesus’ intentional walk to the cross.  My Lenten journeys over the past few years have stirred in me a particular love of the brief account of an intimate dinner Jesus attended.  Near the apex of the events of Jesus’ last week, we have cause to pause at the amazing story of an unnamed woman and her blessed initiative.

The setting is a meal at the house of Simon the leper.  It fit’s, right?  Are you surprised at all that Jesus would be enjoying a meal at the house of a former leper?  No … me either.  While Jesus is eating along with the other guests, a woman approaches him with an alabaster jar.  Before we move on, I believe it’s important to note that this is extremely unusual in the context of Jewish culture and the times.  Proper etiquette dictated that a woman only approach the table to serve the men who were eating, never to interact with them.  The jar that she brought was full of what Matthew describes as “expensive perfume” (26:7).  Mark’s gospel describes it as “expensive perfume, made from the essence of nard.” (14:3)

In my research, I found that nard comes from a flowering plant that grows in very remote regions in the Himalayas of modern-day China, India and Nepal.  Oil from nard was described as a “luxury” in ancient Egypt, so it would stand to reason that this assessment of its value is right on.  It is suggested that perfume in this quantity, and of this value would likely have been an inheritance, highly treasured, the equivalent today of a well invested and endowed retirement account.  i think it is fair to say, that this would be the prized possession of this woman, and would amount to most, if not all, of what she had of value in this world.

The woman approaches Jesus, breaks the bottle, and pours it all, including the very last drop, over Jesus’ head.  I would suggest that there is great significance in breaking the bottle.  The woman did not simply uncap the bottle and measure her pour.  She broke the bottle, making the commitment early on that it would all be spent in the anointing of Jesus.  A whole vessel would allow for one to stop and retain some for themselves.  Or even give the appearance of pouring it all out, while still keeping an amount hidden and saved.  A broken vessel is an exposed vessel; there is no hiding in a broken vessel.  And a broken vessel is a submitted vessel.  One that can no longer be used for its prior purposes, but rather given up fully to the purpose it was broken for.  This is the gift of this unnamed woman, not only of her perfume, but of herself.

Immediately on seeing this act, those who were there began to criticize her harshly.  What in the world was she doing?!  Does she not know how valuable the perfume was, and how much money could have been gained from its sale, and given to the poor?!  It is important to understand that this was a very integral part of the Passover celebration.  Much like our modern celebration of Christmas, it was customary to be very generous to the poor during Passover season.  So in their own reasoning, it makes perfect sense that they would see the horrible injustice and waste in this apparently frivolous act.  In their own reasoning, that is.

But as quickly as they began, Jesus jumped to the woman’s defense, and put the rebuke back on them.  In his divine and kingdom vision, he saw the moving of her spirit to anoint him for burial.  A broken and complete sacrifice to honor him, and prepare his body for what was to come.  He chastises the guests with the truth that they will always have the poor amongst them, to offer their help to.  But they will only have him for a very short time.

I see a stark contrast in this telling of a dinner interruption.  A contrast between kingdom purposes and those of the natural world.  In their focus on perfume and money, the guests missed the point of the kingdom act of anointing.  They are focused on the denarius.  Jesus, and this woman, have his Father’s kingdom on their hearts.

And then there is the greatest commandment.  Jesus’ answer to the teacher of the law, the day before when he questioned, “Of all the commandment, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)  In breaking the bottle and giving it up to its final purpose of anointing, the woman loved the Lord her God with everything she had.  And in response, Jesus promised that throughout the remainder of human history, “wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her..” (Matthew 26:13)

What is yours and my alabaster jar? … essence of nard? … counter-cultural act?  Our challenge is to live that completely broken, that poured out, and that unnamed … all for the purpose of the kingdom, and of loving the Lord our God will all that we have in this world.

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