Scripture: Mark 14:3-9. This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Hallowell, Maine, April 10, 2022 (Palm/Passion Sunday). I apologize that this post, and its theme, is out of order with the rest of the series.
There are not a lot of places in and through which the Gospels of the New Testament line up, offering variations on common stories. Except for the last week of Jesus’s earthly life—and even there, considerable differences exist—the Gospels of the New Testament offer little in the way of overlap. Only two of the four contain birth stories and those two stories are quite different, despite our best attempts every Christmas season to smoosh them together.
Some of the biggest and most well-known of Gospel stories are found in only one Gospel. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, appears only in Luke. Same for the Prodigal Son. The Sermon on the Mount is only in Matthew. The Transfiguration story, the story that is featured in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, appears three times—Matthew, Mark and Luke—but not in John.
And, speaking of the RCL, it’s worth considering how the stories of the Gospels are utilized in the three-year cycle that is “intended” to take Christians who follow the lectionary through most of the Bible, with 4 readings for every Sunday—usually one from the Hebrew Scriptures, a psalm, a Gospel, and an epistle.
The Feeding of the 5000, one of the rare stories that appears in all four Gospels is featured in each year of the three-year cycle. The Transfiguration, which is in three of the Gospels, appears in all three years. The Good Samaritan appears once and the Sermon on the Mount, given that it’s a very long piece, appears over the course of multiple Sundays in Year A, during the season of Epiphany.
In our focus passage for today, Mark’s version of the Anointing of Jesus by a woman, we have what may be referred to as an “Anointing Story.” Each Gospel has a story about a woman anointing Jesus, either on the head or the feet. The stories differ considerably, but each Gospel has one. Yet, unlike the Feeding of the 5000, most Christians don’t know much at all about the anointing of Jesus by a woman. That’s no surprise, really, considering how it’s treated by the RCL committee.
Matthew’s version of his Anointing Story does get a lectionary slot, all on its own. But, Mark’s doesn’t. Mark’s is part of the long Passion section in Year B of the lectionary. Luke’s version isn’t in the lectionary ever. And, John’s version gets a lectionary slot—although John’s version is very different from the others, given that John gives the anointing to Mary of Bethany. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman is unnamed.
Remember that hermeneutics of suspicion from a few weeks ago? It’s time to utilize it once again.
Why is it that this story is not treated with the respect that it deserves, given its attention by the Gospel writers? Now, I know there are difficulties with this story and chief among them is that the story is really different Gospel to Gospel. Matthew and Mark’s versions are very similar, but they differ from Luke and they all differ from John. Still, it ought to give us pause that this story is not highlighted in the lectionary, especially given the words that are on Jesus’s lips in our focus scripture for today: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
And, yet for almost all of Christendom, she has been forgotten.
As we begin the road into Holy Week, into the difficult and treacherous stories of the end of Jesus’s earthly life, we encounter this unnamed woman who, in the midst of these closest of followers of Jesus, who seems to be the only one—besides Jesus himself—who understands what’s happening, who appreciates where the path is going.
We begin this Holy Week with a remarkable example of witness. It’s not the witness of Peter or James or John or any of the other male disciples. It’s the witness of an unnamed woman.
For John, the anointing seems to fit neatly into the story that he tells of the sisters, Mary and Martha of Bethany, and their brother, Lazarus. But, for Matthew, Mark and Luke, the woman has no name and it feels especially poignant that she remain nameless for, in her courageous act of witness, she also stands in for any one of us. She could be you, or me, or someone we’ve never met or heard of. She could be anyone whose life has been changed by Jesus, someone whose life has not only been changed, but someone who’s been paying attention and knows where this story is going—even as painful as it is to contemplate. She must act.
And, so she does. She could be you. She could be me.
“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Today, we recognize the significance of this woman, of her life so remarkably and wondrously changed, and we find ourselves with an invitation—an invitation to follow her into this week, knowing full well where this story is going, yet still following, because we know that even in the turmoil, even in the struggle, even in the deep grief and sorrow, that that is the way to experiencing new life. To follow Jesus is to do our best to actually follow, to let go of our preconceived notions and desires and follow. We remember her and remember her powerful witness, praying for the grace and courage to live our own lives as witnesses of what Jesus has done for us—each of us and all of us together.