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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

November 22, 2015

 Generous Life

Genesis 22:1-14; Mark 14:3-9

            One of the most important things they teach you when you go to seminary, is how rightly to interpret the scriptures.  Rule one is that you pay attention to context, to what comes before the passage you are looking at and what follows after it.  Today as we look at this unnamed woman in Mark, make note of what comes before and what follows.  Before this event at a dinner we are told that the chief priests and the scribes were conspiring among themselves as to how to arrange for Jesus’ arrest in a manner that would protect them from any blame for it.  And right after this event, we are told that Judas Iscariot decides to betray his colleague, his friend, his leader, Jesus.  So bracketed on either side by acts of betrayal and dishonesty comes this powerful moment of passion, of spontaneous love, of uncalculated giving by this woman, who in Mark’s Gospel is given no name at all.  This is an incredible passage, and in some ways it is not unlike the passage we looked at just two weeks ago of the woman described by Mark as a “poor widow,” who put “her whole life,” all that she had, two thin copper coins, into the offering plate in the Temple, and caught Jesus’ attention. 

            In this particular instance, we are not told explicitly, but we know that when people gathered in such a home to eat, as Jesus is gathered in the home of Simon the Leper, that it would have been a male-only gathering, probably Jesus’ closest followers.  When they sat to eat, they reclined, which was the way that first century Palestinians took their meals.  I had a teacher in seminary, Don Juel, who spent his whole life studying the Gospel of Mark.  He wrote a book about Mark that he called, Master of Surprise, because in his Gospel, Mark often is struck by surprising moments and ironic figures, the last in the world you expect to be the ones who get what Jesus is about and who Jesus is.  And this is a surprising moment, no matter how you tell the story.  The woman suddenly enters this dinner gathering, carrying in her hands an expensive vial of alabaster, filled with pure nard, a kind of perfume that often could be used to anoint a figure of importance, maybe even a king, for burial, and something that only a woman of means would be likely to possess.  In this particular instance, her critics say that this vial of pure nard was worth three hundred denari – all the money that a common laborer would make with a year’s wages.  So this was something quite valuable and precious to this woman.  She breaks it open and pours it over the head of Jesus in the midst of this dinner gathering. 

            I love the response of those present, because their responses are so believable.  They are surprised and upset, caught off guard by this woman’s actions, and maybe her impetuousness, her utter spontaneity makes them uncomfortable, because they react with anger.  They say, “We could have taken that money, and we could have given it to the poor.”  They disapprove of this woman’s act of love and extravagant concern for Jesus, who is about to die.  Maybe that is part of the problem, because Jesus has told His followers, likely the very people present at the dinner, no less than three times already, that He is coming to Jerusalem in order to die.  In chapter 8, verse 31, Jesus predicts His death to His closest followers.  In chapter 9, verse 31, Jesus repeats the same prediction.  And then in chapter 10, verses 33 and 34, Jesus tells them yet again that He is going to die, and none of them seem to get it.  Only this unnamed woman, who does this extravagant act of anointing Jesus for burial before He is to die, without benefit of Jesus’ instruction, gets it.  Maybe that is what upsets them so with her.  You know how it is – when someone is being outrageously generous, those of us who are more careful and measured begin to feel just a little uncomfortable in their presence. 

            Jesus says three things.  He says first of all, “Leave her alone, she has done a good service.”  The Greek words are “καλόν έργον” – “a good work.”  And that word “good” in this instance means an act of religious devotion, but it also means something lovely or something beautiful.  Other translations say, “Leave her alone; she has done a beautiful thing to me.”  Jesus sees an exquisite beauty in this woman through her actions.  Then Jesus adds, “She has done what she could.”  And maybe, nothing makes God any happier with us than when we do what we can.  God never asks us to do what it is impossible for us to do.  But don’t you think that God gives us gifts and capacities and abilities in order that we might use them to His glory?  She did what she could.  That was the beauty, the wonder of her action.  I wonder what our lives would look like, how they might be different and more joyful and more fulfilling if we did, simply did, what we could?

            Then Jesus adds, “Wherever the Gospel is told, this woman’s action will be remembered.”  Not her name!  In Mark’s Gospel, her name is most pointedly never offered.  But her act, her spontaneous, uncalculated, extravagant act of generous love is an event so important to Jesus that He said it would never be forgotten, it would always leave its mark upon the world. 

            The same is true for us, isn’t it?  We will be remembered far more for what we have done, for the difference we have made, than we ever will be for the name that we have carried through this life, because in the end of the day, life is about love, and love is ever and always about giving.

            Otto von Bismarck was a nineteenth century Prussian who probably more than any other statesperson created the modern nation of Germany.  Otto von Bismarck said once, “People never lie more than after a hunt, or during a war, or before an election.”  He also told the story late in his life of an end that came to the Franco-Prussian War, a war that ended well for Von Bismarck and for the emerging German nation.  He took out the finest cigar he owned and lit that cigar in order to enjoy his victory.  No sooner did he light the cigar, than he saw an injured soldier who bore wounds from the battle.  Von Bismarck took his cigar, handed it to the wounded soldier and watched him enjoy it to the last drag he could take.  Years later, he said, “There is no comparison – I enjoyed that cigar more than any other cigar I ever possessed.”  Because, of course, as Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

            Or as John Bunyan put it:

 

A man there was,

Though some did count him mad,

The more he cast away,

The more he had.

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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