The person putting together the bulletin asked me if I wanted the shorter gospel reading (which still isn’t short) or the long gospel reading. And of course I wanted the long gospel reading, but I promise you that as a trade-off the homily will be short even though there are so many amazing things in this gospel that I could go on for days and days, starting with the very first bit when Mark tells you that Jesus is in the house of Simon the leper. Who is Simon the leper? The official answer from the commentary I used: “Simon the leper is otherwise unknown, but he was probably known to those who handed on the tradition.” So there you go.
It’s the woman with the ointment who interests me: the woman with ointment is the reason you got the long gospel reading today. As far as I’m concerned, the whole Last Supper and Crucifixion parts can wait till later in the week where they belong. For me, Palm Sunday is all about extravagance and the ways we respond to it, the ways we try to keep things under control and make ourselves feel good about ourselves, often at the expense of others, this woman being a case in point.
So here’s Jesus (at the home of Simon the leper) when a woman comes in, unnamed and so most likely unknown (see: Simon the leper), with an alabaster jar filled with a costly perfume. She approaches Jesus, breaks open the jar and pours the contents on his head. As far as I can tell, she reserves nothing, but empties the jar of perfume. The room must have been overwhelmed with the scent of it. And as I imagine the scene, everyone there: Jesus, the disciples, Simon the leper, is taken by surprise by the act. And so it is very telling how people react in that first moment.
First, there are those who were indignant, who said, “This should have been given to the poor.” Their lack of graciousness is astonishing—or would be if it weren’t part of a larger pattern. But if you read through the rest of the gospel of Mark to see how often this concern for the poor appeared among Jesus’ followers, you’ll find the answer is: not so much. The feeding of the 5,000? “Send them away to the villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” People bringing their children to Jesus? “The disciples spoke sternly to them.” You know what Mark reports the disciples were concerned about? Who was the greatest among them, and who was going to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand.
For all that we like to pick on the Pharisees, Jesus’ disciples are cut from the same cloth: doing their darndest to keep their status high and that of others low.
And Jesus calls them on it, as he always does. That whole “the poor you will always have with you” line? What I hear in that today is Jesus telling the disciples, “Why are you so all-fired concerned about the poor right now? Could it be because she’s done something beautiful—and you haven’t. Quit being such jerks.”
But why did they react so strongly and immediately? Here’s why I think that is, and this is something that is true for me as well, and perhaps for you too: it’s because when we see someone being truly extravagant, doing something truly beautiful and noble, it points out how stingy and miserly my own offerings are. So when we see the real deal, such as this woman, some woman who doesn’t even know Jesus, hasn’t been taught properly, hasn’t been part of the gang, pouring out a whole jar of costly perfume, it blows away our shabby little pretenses of our own most noble and gracious self.
We want her to be wrong somehow. And so in a desire not to be reminded of her generosity and my stinginess, it is best to shut down the extravagance, label it completely inappropriate, tell her how she ought to have done it, and keep things tidy and gray.
The commentary I read about the woman with perfume said, “[Her gift] was a glorious maximum of sacrifice which never stopped to calculate what might have been a passable minimum.” That’s the thing that the Pharisees, and the disciples, and many more of us throughout the ages have never been able to quite grasp: that the life that Jesus calls us to is a life of the glorious maximum, not the passable minimum.
The story of the woman with the ointment is the story of Holy Week in miniature: the extravagant entrance, the muttering reaction, the shameful punishment that is overcome for all time by Jesus' redemption. Her gift to us is giving us this sign of how we too might live as Jesus did, called to the glorious maximum of life and faith in whatever we might do.
I'm afraid it's not going to be easy. We talk a good game about abundance and generosity in the church, but I have seen a whole lot of beautiful gifts covered over with shame and scorn. People who are looking for the glorious maximum are told it’s unrealistic or too soon or costs too much or that we need to focus on other things. People who want to do beautiful things are worn down by the pressure of those interested only in the passable minimum.
But there is hope, and that’s what this week is about: that the glorious maximum ultimately overcomes the forces of the passable minimum, despite their every effort. And it starts with the glorious maximum of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. That’s where we start. Let’s see what meets us as we walk down this road. And let us go forth extravagantly.