Our passage from the Gospel of Mark occurs a few days after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In just those few days, the chief priests and scribes have become so concerned by what Jesus was doing that they were plotting his death. What had Jesus done? Well, he drove the vendors out of the Temple proclaiming that the Temple was God’s house and not a profit-center. He then went on to argue publicly with the authorities, challenging their questions and their ideas … successfully inasmuch as the crowd leaned towards Jesus. He had been telling parables that directly accused the authorities of not doing their job … of clinging to their power at the expense of the people and that in doing so they betrayed God. The authorities continued during these days to try to discredit him asking him about paying taxes and about the afterlife. But they were never able to discredit him. Jesus would continue though to discredit the authorities accusing them of greed and arrogance, and abandoning the people. So now the authorities who were priests and Pharisees and Scribes, plotted to kill Jesus.
And Jesus knew they would succeed.
But now in our passage from Mark it’s only a few days until Passover. Jesus and his followers have retreated to Bethany, a short distance from Jerusalem. He stays in Simon’s home. Here Jesus can take a break from the stress and tension of his work with the people and subsequent challenges to the authorities. Yet even in this place of apparent relaxation, Jesus makes a statement. Simon is a leper. Therefore he was unclean … and so was his house. Anyone entering his house becomes unclean. So Jesus not wanting to shun a friend, was willing to be labeled as unclean … that is unfit for the synagogue or interaction with other Jews. But, I suspect, by this time Jesus had no reason but to carry through his revolutionary life of breaking laws when they violate God’s call to compassionate relationships.
And in this environment of challenges, a greater challenge arrives: an unnamed woman comes to him…
We know nothing about this woman except what is said in this passage. In fact all the passage tells is that she had a very expensive alabaster jar with expensive nard in it and she used it to anoint Jesus in the same manner as the dead are anointed. So who was this woman? What was her relationship to Jesus? We can never really know. But from an understanding of Jesus’ life and culture we can speculate, but that’s all we can do.
She is not given a name. We could expect that if she was a wealthy upstanding woman who supported Jesus (and there were a number who did), the gospel most likely would have given her name as it does for Mary Magdalene and Salome. We can also expect that there were a number of women with Jesus at Bethany. Not just men followed Jesus, many women were following him too. In the gender segregation of that age, the women would have been expected to be serving the men in Jesus’ group. So this woman could have been just one of these women who followed along.
But unlike the other women and the men she understood what Jesus was doing and where he was heading.
But where did she get the money to purchase the expensive nard? Again we can only speculate. Without a name, we are hard pressed to believe she was wealthy enough to have some extra money lying around to spend on nard. But given that Jesus reached out to the marginalized in his world, we can expect that a lot of marginalized people were in his following. Many poor people, despise tax collectors, and shepherds followed after him. How would a woman be marginalized? A poor woman certainly who had barely enough to feed herself and her children with a husband who was an over-taxed tenant farmer. But this unnamed woman could not have been poor – at least not at this moment in her life because she could afford the nard – far to costly for a poor woman.
She couldn’t have been a tax collector or a land owner: women weren’t allowed in those infamous professions. A woman in that day and age on her own would have been marginalized. She would most likely not have had any legitimate means of income or housing. So we speculate that this woman likely was a prostitute.
Maybe she was a wayward daughter who disobeyed her father over and over again. Maybe at a very young age she was involved with a young man and disgraced her family. So she fled … instead of facing a stoning and went into the only business that could provide her with the basic necessities of survival. If she were business savvy, she could make a pretty good salary. But she would always be living a spirit-destroying life let alone the destruction of her body.
Now along comes Jesus preaching and acting and embracing the marginalized. In Jesus’ fellowship, even the prostitutes were people too and children of God. So she followed along with him, listening and becoming a part of his wider circle of followers. She began to turn from her descent into despair, hopelessness, and danger. She followed Jesus day after day. Eventually she began to worry about him. Her profession taught much about how the social system worked. She knew he was challenging that system relentlessly, vocally and very publicly. She knew deep down that he was heading for death.
And now she was in Jerusalem with him … in the capital with all of its power and wealth. She had been listening clearer than the others. This was his last week to walk with them. She needed to do something, not just to thank him, but to preserve the blessings he had showered on her. She didn’t want to be remembered for herself. She wanted to embody who he was. So she gave to him her all… she very well may have spent every denarius she had for that nard. And most likely she had sworn off her profession and was now as poor as poor can be.
But the disciples objected to her offering to Jesus: it was too real and to close to death and funerals and losses. This unnamed woman was making an in-your-face statement: Jesus was going to die – soon, in the next few days. She wanted him to be remembered. But they didn’t want to hear that. Even at this tense and late date, they still did not understand what Jesus was going to do. They still were counting on an uprising and the overthrow of the authorities. Jesus’ dying wasn’t part of their plan.
So they made an excuse. She could have sold the nard for 300 denarii … an amount of about $6000 which could have significantly helped the poor. But they even missed the significance of being poor. No, they were looking for an excuse to criticize this unnamed disreputable woman. John’s Gospel even tells us that Judas, the Betrayer is the leader of this complaint and he was a thief stealing from the meager treasuring of the disciples. He would have been thrilled if $6000 ended up in their treasury.
But the unnamed woman knew differently. She knew that Jesus was the poorest of the poor. She knew what Jesus was talking about when he said that we will have the poor with us always. He was homeless. He was unemployed. He was hunted by the authorities. He had nothing except the robe he wore and soon he would exchange that for a thorny crown. It was the poor to whom he had been ministering. It was the poor whom he defended and raised up. Where were the disciples all these three years that they have been following him and not to understand this?
But she was right there with him … no name and probably shunned as disreputable… just one more poor woman to serve men. But Jesus promised she would not be forgotten. And today we have not forgotten her. She, with her nard, reminds us that it was not the powerful or the wealthy or his friends or his family who understood why he did what he did. It was an unnamed woman of unknown repute.
Her ministering to Jesus that day was an image of Jesus’ teachings, of the hope for a better life, for a more compassionate world, for a time when the poor will no longer be poor and the wealthy will no longer be greedy.
What happened to her? Where did she go?
Again we can only speculate. We know that the twelve abandoned him, except possibly John. We also know that a number of women did not abandon him, but were with him at the cross. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were there [Mk 15:40]. But there were other women too. Maybe our unnamed woman was there too – kneeling at the cross praying to God for Jesus’ quick passing out of his misery. Maybe she had to kneel apart from the other women …
When they finally cut Jesus down from the cross before the Sabbath, she stayed with him. The others obeyed the Law and did not work on the Sabbath, but went home to pray. They would return after the Sabbath to finish their duties to the dead. But our unnamed woman she didn’t leave him. She was a nobody. No one would notice that she broke the Sabbath and stayed behind at the tomb. She held vigil for Jesus the Friday night during the Sabbath…
… and she was there to see the angels roll the stone away from the tomb’s entrance. She was there when the resurrected Christ walked out that tomb… an unnamed witness who fled not in fear as the others would. Rather she walked into the world in freedom … freedom from her brokenness and her enslavement to the broken world and free to live her life to the fullest and in the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
Think about it …
God’s grace and love be with you …