Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. Some grew angry. They said to each other, “Why waste the perfume? This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay[a] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body ahead of time for burial. I tell you the truth that, wherever in the whole world the good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her.”
The Gospel According to Mark 14:3-9 – CEB
During this season of Lent I’ve been blessed to be in a small study group going through the story of Jesus’ last week according to the Gospel of Mark. It’s been a blessing for two reasons. First, I’ve been able to participate and receive, not having a solitary piece of responsibility for anything except my fidelity to the weekly reading. And second, like any good study, it’s forced me to read deeply, prayerfully think about the text, and allow the words to permeate my interpretation of the world around me.
The story of woman and her expensive nard perfume is rich with potential meaning and interpretation. One particular thread has been dangling in my mind since I encountered it a few weeks ago. I’ve been struck by the angry reaction of the disciples to this unnamed woman’s action. In particular, it’s been hard to ignore how practical and reasonable they are being!
We are rapidly approaching General Conference 2012. While every General Conference brings its own series of important issues to discuss the agenda items this time around seem particularly ambitious. Multiple restructuring plans, each with the potential to bring sweeping change to the way the denomination organizes itself, threaten to overshadow other topics. It’s not hard to imagine that proposals, like one set to fundamentally alter the system of guaranteed appointments, could be passed or defeated without the serious reflection it might normally receive.
While I am sure that we feel that all of these topics are really important, this story from Mark causes me to pause and wonder if we aren’t being too much like the disciples. You might be inclined to say, “I thought we were supposed to like the disciples” and you’d be right. But an observer of Mark’s gospel also knows that the disciples never seem to get Jesus as their own plans and ambitions get in the way. The disciples are very practical but they fail repeatedly to understand that their primary responsibility as disciples is to watch and listen.
In contrast the woman has been watching and listening. It’s unlikely that she has any insider information; the text certainly doesn’t suggest as much. But it is very clear that she has been paying attention and acts in a way that Jesus recognizes as appropriate.
As the denomination approaches General Conference, and as each of us arrives at the end of Holy Week, I wonder what role we will play in this story. Will we be the disciples with all their plans, so practical and reasonable? Or will we be the woman with her jar of nard, watching and listening as a true disciple should, before acting as her informed heart directed?
All this leaves us with some additional questions.
When Jesus isn’t physically in the room with us, how do we watch and listen? While I suspect we’ll have a better chance of meeting Jesus if we spend less time thinking about self-preservation and regaining the vitality and influence of former years, I certainly don’t know that to be true. I pray that amidst the many conversations and considerations, delegates are also able to hear and listen for the needs of younger and more diverse people, groups we struggle to reach who have such gifts to bring to forward God’s kin(g)dom for all.
Finally, what is the metaphorical jar of nard that we might offer before God; to break open and foolishly waste because we have listened to Jesus and chosen to forgo all of our very practical and reasonable planning? The woman’s perfume was worth an entire year of wages; her response was a bold, sacrificial thing.
It was a risk, not an experiment.
Are we a church that could even consider doing such a thing? And if our answer is no, are we the church that truly belongs to Jesus?
If you are like me, you’ll be an observer when General Conference rolls around but I hope you don’t feel that lets you off the hook. True change rarely trickles down — it bubbles up. Regardless of what the General Conference may or may not decide about this or that issue, our local churches and the people that fill them are the ultimate ‘deciders.’ If we choose to listen deeply, move boldly toward change, and risk the things we value most to respond as Jesus would to injustice, I suspect we can still be broken open to expose a most valuable perfume worthy of our crucified king.
May you ever be foolish and completely impractical when it comes to sharing God’s love!
Hallelujah, Christ is Risen!
Associate Director of Connectional Ministries with Young People, Communications
Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church
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