When I was in the first year of secondary school, I knew that we were grown up now because our RE teacher, Mr Potter, said to us, conspiratorially, “of course, boys, you know that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute”. I have to say, I didn’t know that: it had never been mentioned in primary school. But it made me feel like an adult to have this information shared with me. By the time I was an adult, I learned that Mr Potter, RE teacher, was wrong. He wasn’t alone. He was repeating an error made in the C6th by Pope Gregory the Great. It turns out that the church hasn’t always been good in the way in which it handles the stories of women. Gregory had confused Mary Magdalene, the disciple from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, with a number of other women in the gospels. As we hear the story of the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany, let’s try to hear her story and not get distracted by any other stories from the gospels.
Mark is probably the earliest gospel: Mark (the author) invented the genre. And the earliest part of Mark’s Gospel is probably the passion narrative (chapters 14 to the end) – which existed before the gospel as we know it, either in written or spoken form. This part of the story is told in more detail than all of Jesus’s life up to this point. In fact, Mark’s Gospel is 16 chapters long and by the start of chapter 11, we are already entering Jerusalem, the beginning of the end (apparently).
Mark gives us the story of Holy Week day by day, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to the resurrection of Jesus. So, two days before the Passover, the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and have him killed. Not during the festival or there may be a riot. So, Mark tells us, it’s Wednesday of Holy Week (as we would call it). Jesus is in Bethany, at the home of ‘Simon the leper’, eating a meal, and a woman arrives with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, which she pours on Jesus’s head.
It’s perfumed oil, made from an exotic plant. At St Matthew’s a couple of years ago, in Holy Week, we thought about the stories of the passion narrative in terms of our senses – sight, sound, taste. touch… – and we used this story to think about the sense of smell. In our world, scented candles, aromatherapy oils and diffusers are common. But Mark tells us that the woman had an alabaster jar of “very costly ointment”. She broke open the jar and poured the contents on Jesus’s head. This is an extravagant gesture. The scented oil was worth more than 300 denarii. A denarius is a day’s wage for a labourer. This perfume cost getting on for a year’s wages.
What a waste! The disciples say. What a waste! We could have given that money to the poor! Jesus’s reply (“you always have the poor with you”) could sound callous. His point is not, There will always be poor people, get used to it! What he says is, you will have many opportunities to give to the poor – his assumption is that giving to the poor is a natural part of what it means to be a follower of his – but at this precise moment, what this woman has chosen to do is to make a “lavish offering of inspired devotion”. It’s spontaneous and generous and extravagant. She may not have understood what she was doing but Jesus gives an interpretation: she has anointed my body for burial. She has done what she could. At this precise moment in the story, what more could anyone have done, other than anoint his body in preparation for burial?
At this point, I could break into a sermon about giving: this woman gave a year’s wages. How much do you put in the plate on a Sunday? I want you to get out your chequebook – we don’t take cards and you won’t have enough cash on you – and prove your love for God by making an extravagant donation!
But I’ll spare you that. The story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is a story of extravagance – there were 12 baskets left over after everyone had eaten! Jesus turning water into wine is a story of extravagance – 120 gallons of wine, after everyone has been drinking for days! This woman gets it.
When we are afraid, we live in a world where resources seem limited. “There’s a limited supply of happiness. If you’re happy, that takes away from my happiness.” But it doesn’t work like that! If you can be happy for other people, you’ll discover there is an unlimited supply of happiness. (“I’m happy for you” is sometimes said through gritted teeth. But what a skill to master! You’re happy. I’m happy! There’s an unlimited supply of happiness!)
How much love is there in the world? A limited supply? If you’ve got love in your life, does that mean there’s less for me?
No. As the children’s song has it:
It’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.
For love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.
We often think of Lent as being about abstinence, being frugal. But what about an extravagant Lent? A lavish Lent? A Lent filled with extravagant, lavish love for God and for others.
The unnamed woman with the alabaster jar gets it. And, Mark tells us, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”. And it is. And her story challenges us to get it too.