While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor. Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. Matthew 26:6-13
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Mark 14:3-9
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.” “Tell me, teacher,” he said. “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.” Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Luke 7:36-50
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” John 12:1-8
It’s Lent. I’m not a big Lent person. I know that I should be, but I’m not.
I have always struggled during Lent. To be totally honest, I had never participated in Lent until I was an adult. Lent was something that other people, specifically Catholic people, did. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical church and we did not do the stuff that those Catholic people did because those Catholic people were all wrong. Don’t ask me why they were wrong because then I’d have to start enumerating all the ridiculous things I was taught as a child that were not entirely true because they were based in distortions of Catholic theology and then we’d be here all day and all night and you’d get disgusted with me…heck, I’d get disgusted with me. Never feed anyone else’s way of believing in God through your own filter of understanding God and expect to come up with anything that makes sense. To make a long story short: I didn’t do Lent at all until I became Methodist at the age of 22, and when I did start doing Lent, I did it poorly.
I tried giving up things like chocolate or soda, but then I’d forget that I wasn’t supposed to be having those things and wouldn’t remember that I’d screwed up until I got to church on Sunday. It was not a very effective sacrifice for Lent. I tried giving up alcohol at the suggestion of a friend, but I wasn’t really into drinking at that point in my life so it wasn’t a very meaningful sacrifice. Giving up alcohol for Lent in my early 20s was about as meaningful as promising God that I wouldn’t commit securities fraud during Lent.
As I grew older, and finally as I got into seminary I started praying about what God wanted me to give up for Lent and that’s when things got strange. One year, God asked me to give up overeating. Another year God asked me to give up complaining. Several times God has asked me to stop being constantly busy. Apparently God knows me really well and is not afraid to be blunt about what needs to leave my life. I would bet money that God would actually prefer if I stopped overeating, complaining, and overworking altogether…not just during Lent.
I struggle with that overworking thing, almost more than I struggle with complaining and eating too many Thin Mints (guess what I was munching on when I wrote this?) There always seems to be so much work that needs to be done, and it isn’t meaningless work either. It’s not like I’m incredibly busy because I have so much laundry, or because the house needs cleaning, or because the grocery shopping just isn’t getting done. Those things do need to be done but they are not really what’s creating the problem for me. What keeps me working way too many hours is that there is always another class to teach, another counseling client that needs an encouraging word, another parishioner than needs a pastoral call, another elderly family member that needs contact and/or care, another friend who needs some attention and a listening ear, another child that needs comfort or wise advice, another script for another training video that needs written, another training video that needs taped, another sermon that needs written….
I got tired just typing that. And the funny thing is that I had to stop myself because I could have kept going about meetings and paperwork for my practice and reports for the conference and minutes of meetings that I need to keep and financials that need to be done… I told you that I could just keep going. I started getting tense the moment I started typing the massive list of things that must be done and before I was done typing I was angry, because it seems endless and demanding. I talk to my friends about it and they say “You can’t say yes to everything. You have to start saying NO.” And I think: To what? To whom? What part of the Kingdom do I start ignoring? What part of the Kingdom should become unimportant to me? On the contrary, I often feel like I am not doing enough…not even remotely doing enough.
When I pray about my habit of overworking, the answers I get do not indicate that any of this should fall by the wayside. All of it continues to remain important and God doesn’t seem to encourage me to push anything off my overfull plate.
Every now and then, however, God drops me a line to help me figure it all out. This is where the scripture for this post came into play. There are four passages at the beginning of this post but all of them tell the story of the woman who anointed Jesus, and each of these Gospel stories has its own way of spinning the story. In three of the stories she is a reputable woman but in one she is a prostitute. In two of the stories, she anoints his head; in the other two accounts she anoints his feet. In two of the Gospel stories, she cleans his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. In three of the accounts the woman is preparing Jesus for his burial; in one she is simply expressing her gratitude for grace and forgiveness. In three of the Gospel accounts the disciples become indignant about how the costly perfume is wasted when it could have been sold and used to care for the poor.
And THAT is when God starts speaking to me.
The disciples and I fall into the same error: thinking that if something can be done to advance the Kingdom that it should be done. Disciples should be busy doing meaningful and charitable things!
And then Jesus says “The poor will always be with you.”
That statement freaks me out for a number of reasons. First, it means that we will never fully create human equality. Someone will always be going without, and that is a terrible reality to face. Second, I’ve heard that statement used to justify Christians ignoring the needs of the poor. After all, if we can’t ever solve the problem then there’s no need to put some big effort into finding a solution. Third…depending on how you say it, it can make Jesus sound a little cynical.
Today, though, when I read the passages, I heard something a little different. I heard Jesus saying that it might be okay to lighten up because the problems in the Kingdom are going to be there for my entire life. The poor will always be with us. There will always be war and oppression. Injustice isn’t going anywhere.
That doesn’t exactly sound positive when I see it in writing, but what this scripture revealed to me is that Jesus understood what we were up against: the world isn’t the same as Heaven and until Christ comes again nothing is going to change that…so lighten up. Stop working so hard to get to a solution that isn’t coming until He comes again…but about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. (Matt 24:36)
And that is the one thing we need to remember during Lent, isn’t it? Easter is just around that corner, and that means that the solution is already in pocket. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! That means that all the problems we currently face as Christians have an identified solution that is coming…we just don’t know when. And our job between now and then is to do our best to right the wrongs, to end injustice, to bear up under the burdens of others and in doing so become a living, breathing proclamation of the Good News. Knowing that Jesus is the solution and that He is coming again doesn’t mean that we can give up, but it does mean that we can lighten up.
So go ahead and give up meat or chocolate or alcohol for Lent if that’s what you think you should do. The way you choose to remember Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for you is beautiful, holy, and fully honors God. But understand that sometimes what God would like us to give up has nothing to do with sacrifice. Giving up complaining isn’t about suffering in silence…it’s about choosing to focus on what’s working, what is good, and what is joyful. Giving up overeating isn’t about going hungry, it’s about realizing that we have enough…more than enough…and that there will be more tomorrow. And giving up overworking is about realizing that we cannot truly fix anything: solutions are God’s business. We do the footwork, and God does the rest…and while we may not seem to be getting anywhere, it would be good to remember that the solution is already in pocket and his name is Jesus, and on March 27 I’m going to spend the entire day celebrating that He lives and reigns and is coming again.
I don’t do Lent very well. But when it comes to Easter, I am all over that. Easter is my biggest hope and the greatest comfort I know.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!