A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by Andrew McKearney on Wednesday in Holy Week 2023
For the first few days of Holy Week, Jesus is in Jerusalem during the day and in most of the gospel accounts, he retires to Bethany in the evening. Bethany is a village about 2 miles to the east of Jerusalem.
No explanation is ever given for this. But it may have been for reasons of security – to remain in Jerusalem when darkness fell would have been dangerous, and indeed when Jesus does stay there tomorrow night, he gets arrested under cover of darkness.
Or perhaps the village of Bethany was just much quieter than Jerusalem. Jerusalem was full of pilgrims, there for the Passover – the population of Jerusalem quadrupled during Passover – and after a day of teaching in the temple, Jesus preferred to spend the night in the quiet of Bethany.
Whether for security or quiet or for some other reason, there were people in Bethany whom Jesus knew. Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived there and it may have been with them that he spent these last nights, going up to Jerusalem during the day, and returning to Bethany in the evening.
Today in Jerusalem we heard Mark tell of the chief priests and the scribes plotting to arrest Jesus and kill him. We also heard of Judas going to see them to betray Jesus to them.
If that’s what Mark says is happening today in Jerusalem, and Mark does lay out the days of Holy Week day-by-day, sandwiched in between the plotting of the chief priests and the betrayal of Judas, Mark tells a very different story.
During a meal at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman comes in with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment – the value of the ointment is suggested to be over 300 denarii which was about a year’s wages. She breaks the jar and pours the ointment onto Jesus’ head.
This story is told in varying ways by all of our gospels:
- In Matthew and Mark the woman anoints Jesus’s head, in Luke and John, his feet
- Matthew, Mark and John all place this story in the last week of Jesus’ ministry, though as we heard on Monday, for John it’s six days before the Passover rather than Mark’s two days
- Luke alone places the story much earlier in Jesus’s ministry and describes the woman as a sinner who dries Jesus’s feet with her hair
- John gives the woman a name, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whereas for the other gospels she’s an unknown woman.
Each gospel writer tells the story in slightly different ways. So how does Mark, from who we’ve heard this morning, tell the story, and why?
As the noose tightens around Jesus, Mark wants us to notice not the big characters in the story, neither the powerful in Jerusalem, nor the crowds gathering there, not even Jesus’ disciples.
Instead, Mark wants us to notice something that happens off centre in a small village, in the home of a leper, where an unknown woman breaks an alabaster jar, pouring the contents onto Jesus’ head.
To highlight this contrast, Mark has made a sandwich: between the two events in Jerusalem where the plotters and betrayers are scheming, he’s sandwiched this event in Bethany.
In defending her dramatic gesture, Jesus says:
‘She has done what she could; she has anointed my body
beforehand for its burial.’
Reading on in Mark’s gospel we’ll hear that when the women come to anoint Jesus’ body after his death, their desire is frustrated because when they go to the tomb, Jesus’ body isn’t there. Instead, this act of love has taken place at Bethany before his burial.
And there’s one further irony that may be present for Mark in his telling of this incident, which is perhaps why, for him, Jesus’ head is anointed rather than his feet.
Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and been acclaimed by the crowds as the Messiah, the Son of David – we joined with those crowds on Palm Sunday.
When Jesus is arrested and tried, the High Priest challenges him to say whether he is the Messiah or not. And above his head on the cross that same charge will be put against him.
The word ‘Messiah’ means ‘anointed one’. But who anoints Jesus?
It’s not a chief priest in some impressive ceremony in the temple at Jerusalem, but an unknown woman expressing her love in an extravagant gesture that comes straight from her heart.
Her action at this meal table in Bethany just a few days before the Passover, brings a new dimension to some familiar words from Psalm 23:
‘You spread a table before me
in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil
and my cup shall be full.’