Moortown Baptist Church, 204 King Lane, Leeds LS17 6AA. Map Tel: (0113) 2693750 A member of the YBA. A registered charity No 1128960. Terms of use

She did what she could

1 August 2011

The Anointing at Bethany Mark 14. 3-9 Matt 26.6-13

A reflection on this text in the light of Matthew 18.10:  Do not despise one of these little ones….

The woman is a ‘little one’.   She is unnamed. She is not one of the party, she comes in from outside, and is marginal. 

The party does not bar her immediately. They do not express disgust at her mere presence. She is not despised in that way.

People react only when she acts. She is criticised for what she does. That is when she is despised. The despising is the outcome of a moral assessment of her act. The critics say, No Waste, Turn Treasure into Money, Care for the Poor.  

The moral assessment sees her action in a context of questions like: 

1 how should we treat valuable things?   (They should not be wasted.  Valuable ointment should be used sparingly, not poured out without restraint – the broken jar means nothing can be held back for another time.) 

2  how should we evaluate the claims of an individual in comparison with the many?

3  how should we balance acting in the immediate moment, Now, against any longer term perspectives? 

These are all good questions worth wrestling with.  But there is another issue, which the critics missed.   What is the effect of asking these questions in the way the party was asking them?  The effect was that the woman was troubled and not appreciated positively – that is,  she was despised. And that meant,  reflexively, that notwithstanding all their moral concern, the bystanders come out of it as despisers.  

This is the point Jesus picks up. His defence of the woman is akin to his defence of the children (Matt.19.13-15) and of other poor, despised and excluded people.  Each of these stories of Jesus has distinctive qualities, while they all belong to the same family. They are ‘Jesus stories’  – the one and the same Jesus gives appropriate attention to many different people, and thus there is variation on a theme. 

Jesus does not simply forbid them to despise the woman. He asks them why they are troubling her. 

Do they not see that she has done a good work to him? 

They have not looked precisely at what this little one has done in the moment.  In the perspective of the massive long-term problem of acting against Poverty, it is only a little action.  It is one person to another in an evening, an act which will be forgotten in a few days – if not even the next day.  Jesus – and this is characteristic of the way he worked and of the way his mind operated – focuses on the incident in itself.  He does not ask us to understand or have a theory of the broad context and the long perspective, so that we can say what is really going on in this moment, without attending to the moment to see it in itself. (Preconceptions put us in the know before we look at the facts.)  He asks, What is happening here and now?  What is distinctive about this moment?   What does it give us and what does it ask of us? 
He says, She has done a good work on me. The critics had not given any thought  to its being done to Jesus, yet that is obviously an important characteristic of the event.  She did not go round anointing lots of men randomly. She did it to Jesus.   

But where does this lead us?  How does it help us to see this as a good work?  Sometimes, it is said that the anointing was an expression of her love for Jesus, and being an expression of love it is good.  Mark and Matthew do not tell the story that way at all.  (Luke 7.36-50 tells a story of an anointing, which takes us in that direction, as does John 12.1-8). 

We may say, she anointed Jesus as an act of devotion and worship to one she recognised as Lord and Son of God.  But again the text does not suggest that.  

Jesus received what the woman did to him, as a good work.  He might have valued it as a man values the generous attention of a woman.  There is no need to deny that dimension in the story, for Jesus was genuinely and ordinarily human.  But Jesus did not tell them the action was good on that ground.  The action is not said to be good as an expression of devotion to Jesus the person.  That kind of reason would be too general – ‘the person’ is always a general abstract concept.  It has the truth and usefulness of general abstract concepts, but it cannot do everything.  This act was not good just because it was a person to person event, or that it is done with feeling.  

Jesus sees in what the woman has done something it is quite unlikely she had noticed or intended.  He says she had anointed him beforehand for his burial.  May we imagine that Jesus was in the party with a sense of his death coming nearer?  A violent death, lonely, in the hands of soldiers and strangers, comfortless, despised?  Even those in the party who were friends of Jesus, who honoured him as Teacher and Lord, did not see him as a man getting close to such a death. They did not want to think that – and so they did not respond to him as he really was.

The woman was like the people who crucified Jesus, insofar as she did not know what she was doing. 

The woman does good in the way she knows and that, it turns out, unsurprisingly,  is open to ethical questioning.  She is a little one – and little ones do little deeds. An aspect of littleness is the questionability.  This is the woman Jesus defends: She has done what she could, literally, she has done what she had.  She has acted up to, but also within,  her limits.  She has spent what she held in her hands, and in the light of whatever limited  understanding she had.  We know nothing about her except what she was and what she put into that moment, that action, that vulnerability to being misunderstood by the party – and by Jesus. But he did not misunderstand, and yet he did not merely endorse whatever understanding and feeling she had. He did not explain and defend her motives or attempt to justify her by her psychology, as we do in our contemporary therapies.  Instead, she, with all the party, is confronted with novelty: she hears an appreciation and judgment which sees more in the action than she or her critics knew.  

Jesus does not only disclose that she had anointed him beforehand for his burial, as she took the opportunity of the moment when it was given her, rather than wait for the right but impossible time for anointing the dead.   That is a sad and sombre goodness.  But he sees something more cheerful. What she did has become part of the story of the good news which is to be proclaimed in the whole world. So she is remembered, but not as a person who has become a great one by winning some sort of competition  – we still do not know her name.  It is rather that her action, – a little vulnerable act, typical of the unnumbered actions which make up created human existence,  acts which have their moments and are swept away by the ever rolling stream of time, – was noticed by Jesus in the moment, noticed and noted so that wherever the good news is proclaimed, her deed is recounted and she is thus remembered. Rescued from oblivion. 

We may ask: When we now proclaim the good news of God in Jesus, as the kingdom of God comes upon us, do we ever tell her story?  Or is she,  after all, despised and left out?  Do we have definitions of Gospel which squeeze her back into the margin – and Jesus with her?  Do we tell of Jesus who notices the little ones and the little things,– and who sees more in what they do than they see themselves? Do we in our necessary critical assessment of what is done in the world, near and far, have the eye of Jesus, who finds the good when it is hidden in little questionable actions done by little questionable people?
Are we like the woman, who did what she could – and was not intimidated by her littleness? Or do we think we are great bystanders?  

If we do what we can, we may hope that our little action may be judged by God and have a meaning and value beyond what we could build into it, or imagine. That is a key point about this woman. She not only did what good she could but she left open the interpretation and evaluation of what she did to Jesus who brought to the assessment something she and her critics overlooked. This story illumines for us what the judgment of God is like, how it operates in life, and why we should place ourselves within its scope. The judgment of God is where we find ourselves more truly and fully known than we thought, and not all negatively – and we find God as the One who appreciates the good as well as shining inescapable light on the bad.  God in judgment says: Good. This affirmative judgment is not given so that we can think we are big when we are still little, but so that we can be protected from being troubled, being harrassed as we get on with doing the little we can. God in Jesus does not flatter, telling us our mediocrity is really great, so that we can think more of ourselves than we should. God in Jesus judges so that little ones are not troubled, but are free to do what we can – that is, we are not made to stumble in the path of life given to us  (Matthew 18.6).

Previous post:

Next post: