by Daniel Harrell
You see on the communion table the clay vessel our guest potter, Jon Kamrath spun for us last Sunday during worship. It was so inspiring to watch him. Potters and their clay serve throughout Scripture as a simile for our relationship as creatures to our Creator. From the early verses of Genesis through the epistles of Paul, human beings are the workmanship of God, started with stardust and formed from the ground as both a reminder of God’s prerogative and of our own humility. Humility, along with human, both derive from the word meaning ground. Whether as ground, good dirt or as clay in God’s hands—Scripture uses all three to describe us—we’re made to reflect our Creator, formed and reformed according to his perfect will.
Still, as clay, and then as dried pottery, our lives are fragile and easily broken, prone to wander and susceptible to ruin. The prophet Isaiah, from whom we read last Sunday, wondered aloud why the Lord would ever care for us crumbled shards, broken by sin and finally reduced to the dust from whence we were made. And yet, as Isaiah reminded, God does his best work out of our brokenness and humility.
The image of potter and clay are crucial to our own mindset as followers of Jesus, both as individuals and as church. We have embarked on a season of intentional re-formation, on the occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, acknowledging anew the need we continually have as God’s people to be shaped and reshaped by the Holy Spirit. Our task is never to remake or reform ourselves, we are clay in the potter’s hands. It is God who remakes and reforms and transforms that we may know and do his perfect will. Perfection in this sense is not some flawless ideal, but real fulfillment of purpose—being grounded, so to speak—a pot doing what we are crafted to do. A water jar is perfect when it carries water, an perfume jar perfect when it imparts fragrance. A church is perfect when, full of the Spirit, it empties itself out in worship of God and in service to others with the unmistakable scent of love.
In this morning’s passage from Mark’s gospel, a woman crashes a party with an alabaster vessel—a flask of perfume, smaller than what Jon crafted for us last Sunday and more the size of the either of the ones beside it, two thousand year old jars from Bethany where our story takes place. Dawn and I brought these back from Israel where we traveled with some of you a few years ago—we’re hoping to make another trip in 2019 if you’re interested. OFF
Our passage took place over dinner at the home of Simon the Leper—which must mean former Leper since no one except Jesus would have risked entering a leper’s house to eat. Jesus made time for sinners, broken pots and all kinds of dirt, basically busting every religious convention. He may have had a mouthful of food when the woman walked in with her perfume. Back then, as now, perfume pleased the senses, brought joy and expressed love. Unlike now, dinner hosts back then would customarily perfume the heads of their guests as they walked in the door as a sign of welcome and honor—much like we take our guests’ coats and offer them something to drink when they enter. But our offer would be a glass of wine, perhaps, not the entire bottle. Likewise, first century hosts would dab just a bit of perfume, not dump out a whole jar, and definitely not a whole jar of the best stuff. One whiff and everyone knew what the woman brought was not a brand she’d bought by the quart. Mark describes it as being made of pure nard, an exotic and very expensive root native to India.
Hers, to be sure, was an extravagant gesture. But as with all things extravagant—a word which means to lack restraint or unnecessarily exceed—the reaction to it was instinctively critical. Bring your wife back a small sampler of Parisian chocolate from New York that cost close to a hundred dollars, and her reflex response will be, “you shouldn’t have done that,” even though she’s glad you did. Mark tells us how the guests at Simon’s table “said to one another in anger, ‘Why was this perfume wasted like that? It could have been sold for a fortune and the money given to starving children!” They scolded the woman, but Jesus understood their scorn to be aimed at him. He told them to leave her alone, because “she has done a good service, a beautiful thing for me.” And as to their rationale, he added, “The poor you always have with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.”
Ironically, this saying is often offered as rationale for not helping the poor. We take it to mean that Jesus labels poverty a lost cause: “Hey, the Bible says ‘you’ll always have the poor with you;’ what can you do?” Actually, Jesus alludes to Deuteronomy 15 here, where God commands his people to always take care of the needy anyway. His is not a remark of resignation, but a bit of rebuke: “You will always have the poor with you. You can help them whenever you want.” In other words, if you really wanted to help the poor, you’d be doing it already.
But this wasn’t about helping the poor. It was about saving face. Mark doesn’t say, but if Simon the Leper was a leper Jesus healed, why didn’t Simon pour perfume on Jesus? It’s the least a good dinner host would have done for an honored guest even if he hadn’t cured him of a skin condition that banned him from polite society. In Luke’s gospel, Simon is a Pharisee and the woman was one who had “lived a sinful life.” Simon the Pharisee wonders to himself why Jesus can’t smell a sinner when he sees one. If Mark and Luke are describing the same scene, you may wonder how a leper could ever become a Pharisee. Then again, the church is chock full of sinners saved by grace who can end up acting like they don’t need grace anymore. And once you stop needing grace, it’s not long before you stop giving it too.
In Luke, Jesus went on to tell a parable about a certain creditor who had two debtors; one owed the creditor five hundred dollars, and the other fifty. When neither could pay, he canceled the debts of both. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the creditor more. And Simon rightly replied the one who had the bigger debt canceled. Jesus then proceeded to forgive the woman, much to the continued consternation of the Pharisees present. Nobody forgives sins but God alone. Who did Jesus think he was?
Unlike Luke, Mark makes no mention of this woman being a sinner in any special sense. She’s just a party crasher and a bottle breaker. A fragrance counter sales rep gone wild. The posh perfume runs down Jesus’ hair, over his shoulders, and drips off of his sleeves. A whole year’s salary—a sweet-smelling puddle on the floor. Who does that? Why spend all that money on something that’s just going to get washed off once Jesus takes a shower? Why give your wife ridiculously expensive chocolate that she’ll savor for a second and then digest the same way she would a handful of M&Ms?
We regard extravagant gifts to be wasteful. Americans give somewhere between 60-90 billion dollars in presents during Christmas alone—99 shopping days away by the way—despite surveys showing most people value gifts at about 50 cents on the dollar. That’s a lot of waste. Half of those surveyed admitted to re-gifting the fancier presents they received. But simply running the numbers on gift-giving discounts its deeper worth. Gift-giving expresses how you feel for someone, but receiving a gift can also be reliable for determining who the people are in your life who truly understand you. Had I bought Dawn a hundred dollar box of cigars, for example, she would have wondered what I thought of her since she doesn’t smoke cigars that often. Moreover, a hundred dollar box of cigars isn’t what you’d ever call extravagant. I learned that to my own embarrassment after Violet was born.
If receiving a gift is a reliable way of determining who truly understands you, then the woman here in Mark understood Jesus even better than she realized. “She has performed a good service for me. She has done what she could”—by which Jesus meant she did everything she could. And note he doesn’t say, “you shouldn’t have.” He accepts her extravagant gift as a display of extravagant worship. He knows who he is. But he also knows where he’s headed. “The poor you will always have with you… but you will not always have me… She has anointed my body for my burial.” OK, so that’s kinda morbid. “Thank you for the chocolates honey, I’ll enjoy them as I die?”
Jesus’ mention of his burial is sandwiched like stories often are in Mark, one inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Here the top slice of the sandwich is verses 1 and 2. The chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees (the religious establishment) are gunning for Jesus—something they’d been doing since chapter 3. They wanted him dead for acting like God Almighty and because his popularity threatened their dominance of the religious market. They looked for a stealthy way to arrest Jesus because he was too popular to pick up in public without inciting a riot.
Their desire for secrecy finds opportunity with the bottom slice of the sandwich. In verse 10, one of Jesus’ friends and disciples, Judas Iscariot, steps up with his offer of betrayal. He’d lead the religious authorities backstage away from the crush of Jesus’ fans. The chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees couldn’t believe their luck. They probably even thanked God for it. They definitely thanked Judas by paying him a finder’s fee, albeit one that amounted to the going rate you’d pay somebody to walk your dog.
The bounteous meat between these two pieces of envy and penny-pitching deceit is the woman’s lavish devotion. Jesus receives her extravagant gift as good and beautiful, but also timely. Perfume expressed love and honor to the living, but it also expressed respect for the dead. Jesus would be put to death as an outlaw, and therefore denied the grace of a fitting burial. But Mark makes sure we see that Jesus did not sustain the disgrace his opponents later assumed he had. Though executed as a criminal; the woman provides his proper funeral. This is why “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world,” her act would be remembered for what it was: an expression of extravagant waste, vindicating Jesus as Lord and Savior, the one who extravagantly wasted himself on us, for us, because he loved us.
The word to waste comes from a Latin root meaning to empty out. The same Latin root also gives us the word vast, meaning enormous or great. Thus to make empty is to make vast, which does sound a lot like the last going first and the least being the greatest in the Kingdom of God. However the Greek word translated as waste in Mark is the word meaning ruin or ravage, which is hardly sounds anything like the Kingdom of God.
The last time I preached this passage I showed you this picture. Do you remember what it is? It’s a star going dark in our own galaxy, 3,800 light years away. Talk about vast. It’s called the Butterfly Nebula, a star that was originally about 5 times the mass of our sun. This is what eventually happens to every star. Talk about waste. What look like dainty butterfly wings, when seen through the Hubble telescope, are actually roiling cauldrons of gas heated to more than 36,000 degrees, tearing across space at more than 600,000 miles per hour. That’s fast enough to travel from Earth to the Moon in 24 minutes. Talk about ruin and ravage. When this happens to our own sun one day, going dark as the Bible describes—it will effectively wipe out the entire solar system.
A look into the night sky elicits wonder at the majesty of the Lord, but without faith, a heavenward gaze only leads to despair. Critics of Christianity look to the sky to show how the emergence of human life on earth demanded enormous ruin and ravage, no discernible design or purpose, billions of years of apparent waste and futility, squandered stars and useless planets, species extermination and organism road kill. Not only is the massive dying off rampant, it’s mandatory. The emergence of life requires stardust and death, millions of generations of mutational and reproductive failure for humans to ever happen. Not only that, but the familiar struggle for survival reveals a process in which cruelty and suffering are standard fare. There has been so much dysfunction, so much excess and waste, so much ruin and ravage in the evolutionary epic that to attribute it to any superior, intelligent and benevolent Creator is practically an insult.
And Jesus knew all about insults. They would be heaped on him here as he was anointed with perfume and then as he hung on the cross, an ancient instrument of ruin and ravage. But by faith, Christians look at the cross and we see the supreme expression of sacrificial, extravagant love. In this light, we look to the sky and see all of creation as an expression of God’s sacrificial nature; a cross-shaped character permeating the whole universe. Billions of years and billions of galaxies and stars and moons, all extravagantly wasted—poured out—on us, for us.
From the immense vastness of creation materialized a minuscule scrap of dust inhabitable for human life: life that took millions of years to unfold, through untold waste and sacrifice, so that we mere mortals, humble lumps of clay, could emerge as beautiful vessels bearing the image of God.
Formed and reformed by our Creator into the likeness of Jesus, filled to overflowing with his Spirit, we can finally fulfill our purpose—poured out, extravagantly wasted for God, on others, all for the sake of love.