24From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, 25but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
27He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 28But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” 30So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”
3While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
6But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
I’ve been struggling this week with how to preach these passages. They’re very different, and in a way, the only thing that joins them is that they are stories of women in the New Testament. They’re stories of women who spent time with Jesus.
The story Susan read is always a hard one for me. I love Jesus, and one of the things that’s always attracted me is his welcome, his concern for people on the margins, his preference for the poor, vulnerable and excluded. But in this story he calls the gentile woman and her daughter dogs. He shows the strong tendency of some Jewish men of his time to feel that everyone who wasn’t religiously “pure” was a lesser kind of person. It’s funny because he just finished condemning the Pharisees for their obsession with religious laws, and now he’s acting like a Pharisee.
It’s tempting to smooth it over. Some people believe Jesus is testing the woman to see if she’s faithful enough. I guess that’s a more comfortable way to read it, but I don’t really buy it. Luke doesn’t include this story at all, and I don’t blame Luke for leaving it out; each writer has their own version of the story to tell. Each version of the story of Jesus gives us a different angle on Jesus, and that’s a blessing.
So when we read Mark, we are stuck with this story. And in some ways, the story fits just fine. The truth is, Jesus left heaven, left the glory of being divine, behind to join the human condition. When Jesus chose to take on human flesh he could have been born in a palace, but he chose instead to be born in a stable to a working class family. And Jesus could have chosen to be born the son of a philosopher or a rabbi, but he chose to be a carpenter’s son.
Jesus chose to be human, really, actually human. He chose to be limited, to be imperfect, to be vulnerable. Often we have the idea of Jesus as a perfect man, and there’s truth to that. He is a great example of faithfulness to God in a human life. But it is human faithfulness. In his human life, Jesus was limited by his circumstances, by his upbringing, by his culture, his time period, his family, his experience. In his wisdom and in his miracles, he often seems more than human, but maybe it shouldn’t surprise us if his limits show through from time to time.
Maybe he was having a bad day and didn’t want another conversation. God chose the people of Israel to be especially close to God, so it makes sense for Jesus to put his own people first. And maybe Jesus feels like he has so many people to heal, so many lives to change, so many outcasts to welcome within the people of Israel, that the time is going to run out before he finishes. The practical, budgeting side of Jesus knows that there are only so many hours he has to spend, so he needs to spend them well.
If Jesus was really human, he must have felt overwhelmed sometimes by the scope of his mission, by the human need that surrounded him and constantly pressed against him. Maybe this was one of those times.
But the woman in the first story is a mother. Maybe she could have lived with Jesus saying “no,” if she was seeking healing for herself, but it’s a different story when we’re talking about her daughter. When it comes to her daughter, she is not going to leave without trying everything. And here’s the lesson for the life of faith, perseverance is part of it, but not the only part. Our culture is all about getting what we deserve, but that’s not the main message of the Bible.
When you read the Psalms, which is the song book and prayer book of the Bible, one thing you notice is that most of the time when the writer asks God for something he or she doesn’t ask based on what they deserve. There are a few psalms where the writer says, “God, be good to me because of my righteousness,” but that’s the minority. When the Psalms ask for God’s kindness the two reasons they give most often are God’s love, or the need of the person asking. It’s much more common for the psalmist to say, “Grant my request, Lord, because I’m desperately in need,” than for the psalmist to say, “Grant my request, Lord, because I’ve earned it.”
I don’t know if the woman in this story had ever read the psalms, but it fits. When Jesus says it’s not right to give the children’s food to dogs, she doesn’t argue or protest. She says, “Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.” It’s not about what she and her child deserve, it’s about what they need and about what Jesus can give.
Something about her words, maybe her humility, maybe her reliance on God, maybe her persistence and assertiveness, catches Jesus’ attention. Her words force him to reconsider, and he heals the daughter. And maybe beyond this story, beyond the margins of Mark and beyond the words of the narrator, maybe Jesus reconsiders more than this woman’s request. Maybe he rethinks some of his assumptions; maybe Jesus learns something from this woman.
By the time we get to the second passage, the story of a woman anointing Jesus with perfume before his death something is different. This passage always surprises me a bit too. The disciples are concerned that such precious oil has been wasted instead of being sold and given to the poor. Their concern makes sense too. Jesus talks so often about giving to the poor and caring for those in need. His whole ministry he has put his needs last to minister to others. It seems totally out of step with his approach to life to spend a year’s pay of perfume on him. I imagine the disciples think they have learned something about stewardship and ministry priorities from Jesus, so they speak up and share their concerns.
Jesus is full of surprises. This time he has nothing to say about budgeting scarce resources; he has nothing to say about wasting bread. He knows his time is short; there is basically nothing left to budget. He knows that all the teaching and healing and welcome that he hasn’t gotten to yet will have to wait for his disciples to pick up the mission. The time for strategic plans is finished; all that is left is extravagant generosity, first by the woman in this passage and then by Jesus at the cross.
I’m often tempted to pass over this passage quickly because, like the disciples, I think it’s a strange choice to pour out all that perfume at once. I don’t quite know what to do with it, so I usually think of it as a side note. But Jesus doesn’t let us think of it like that. He says, “Wherever the good news is proclaimed, what this woman has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Jesus seems to think this is a pretty important moment, which means we’d better pause here a moment and see what it has to teach us.
Two lessons jump out at me this morning, and maybe you see something I’m missing. The first is a reminder to recognize and worship Jesus. Our tradition at Laurelton and in the Presbyterian Church in general is good at recognizing Jesus’ wisdom and challenge. We’re good at learning from Jesus’ example and teachings. Honoring him, praising him, pouring out our hearts to give him glory, pure worship of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our savior, doesn’t come as naturally to us, at least not to me.
If I had been with the disciples at that dinner I would have been a lot more likely to question the practicality of pouring out perfume than to offer my best in extravagant worship of Jesus. I lean towards seeing worship as a chance to learn and teach from scripture. I love the singing, I love the joy of the music and the poetry of the words, but it’s still mostly in my head. I could do better at opening space in my soul just to marvel, just to stand in awe of God’s love, to worship with my heart in gratitude, to pour out my prayers not just for the practical joys and concerns we share, but for the pure, amazing grace of Christ’s love for us. I need to be reminded to worship, and maybe you do too.
The second lesson that jumps out at me is that there is a time for extravagance as well as a time for careful budgeting. We all know the need to keep a close eye on our finances; we know how to keep track of what comes in and what goes out. We know how to make hard choices when there’s not enough money to do everything we want to do. We know that in our own lives, and many of us know that from experience on session here, or just from reading the budget year after year, as we will in a few minutes. The practical nuts and bolts of ministry make sense, and they’re important.
But there’s also a time for extravagance; there’s a time to spend more than we should on something important or beautiful or holy. There’s a time to pour out what we have, to offer more than we can afford, to respond to a calling we don’t completely understand.
These two women have a lot to teach us, and we’ll taste those lessons again at a moment at Christ’s communion table. We learn that the crumbs from God’s table are enough to nourish us, dogs and children alike. We learn that as we eat together, we are all beloved children after all. We learn to pause without counting the minutes or the cost and simply worship. We see and remember the extravagance of poured out perfume, poured out wine, poured out blood and poured out mercy. We remember these two women without names, we remember their lessons and their dedication. We remember our Lord, and we seek to be made new in love.
Thanks be to God.