Rev. Dave Kovalow-St. John ✞ Psalm 27:1-9, Matthew 26:6-13
If you’ve ever tried to get a hotel room in Indianapolis during race week, you may understand why Jesus and the disciples did not find lodging in Jerusalem during Passover – it was wall-to-wall people with NO social distancing. Plus, the situation was infinitely complicated by the fact that Jesus knew some of the Holy City’s religious leaders wanted him arrested and killed. Their problem was: they could only do it when the crowds of commoners who adored him weren’t looking.
That’s why Jesus and the disciples left Jerusalem each night. In the story we just heard, he’s gone to Bethany, a walk of about two miles east, where they find shelter in the home of “Simon the Leper.”
Now this Simon should not be confused with Simon Peter the Disciple, nor with Simon the Pharisee who had a home up north in Galilee. That was where a woman (who may have been the prostitute Jesus saved from being stoned) barged in and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, dried them with her hair and anointed them – just his feet, mind you – with some perfume. THAT Simon was aghast when the celebrity rabbi he’d invited into his home didn’t seem to care that a woman – especially this kind of woman! – was touching him. Social distancing in those days meant anyone remotely holy would insist on being five miles away from (quote) “sinner.”
Jesus basically told that Simon to shut-up and respect this woman’s display of love, and to the woman he said, “Your sins are forgiven, …go in peace” (Luke 7:48, 50b). It was a different, though similar, incident that took place about a year before today’s passage. The Simon we’re talking about now is different. He is surely rich since he owns a home big enough for Jesus and his crew. And from his nickname – Simon “the Leper” – it’s obvious he once had leprosy, though he must be done with the 14-day waiting period (or whatever was required) to prove he was now disease free. If he still had the disease he would have been banned from any contact with uninfected people, no matter how much money he had.
Last week, I heard a Chinese comedian say he’s never felt more powerful than during our COVID-19 outbreak. He was in an airport and cleared two rows just by pretending to cough. Leprosy was like that only worse. Leviticus 13:45-46 says lepers have to isolate themselves and yell “Unclean” so people know to stay away. Rabbis set the minimum distance for this isolation at about 100 paces. It was a horrible disease and a horrible existence, and I wonder if Simon was one of the 10 lepers Jesus heals in Luke 17. Maybe he was one of the nine who did not return to say thanks. If so, it could be he felt guilty about that, which resulted in the invitation to come enjoy a nice meal and a safe place to sleep.
Whatever Simon’s story, though, right now we’re more concerned with this surprising incident that undoubtedly stopped whatever conversation he and Jesus were having. A woman breaks into the room and dumps a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head. I doubt many of you listening to this have ever taken a large bottle of cologne, unscrewed the sprayer, and dumped the whole thing on yourself. I thought of trying it as an experiment, but then realized: that’s crazy!
Jesus and anyone within ten feet must have gone through a coughing spell immediately after she pulled this stunt. If I’d been there, it would have been hard not to say, “Miss, what are you thinking?!” In truth, she probably WASN’T thinking. Most commentators even go so far as to say this woman may not have been the brightest candle on the minora. The fact that Jesus sticks up for her doesn’t mean that what she did wasn’t recklessly extravagant and socially inappropriate. I mean, imagine how strong the smell must have been! This perfume was potent enough to counteract the smell of rotting flesh, which is what it means to “prepare [a body] for burial” (v. 12).
Also, I don’t think we’re meant to see this woman as possessing some kind of supernatural clairvoyance about Jesus’ fate. At this point in the Gospel, nobody but Jesus and the people plotting it saw his cross on the horizon.
However, Jesus’ response does give dignity to her clumsy but genuine (even brave) act of love. And when Jesus tells his disciples and the others listening, “The poor you will always have with you” (v. 11), he is simultaneously affirming the legitimacy of their concern for the poor and repudiating their criticism of this woman’s misguided but loving act.
It’s GOOD to take care of the poor, of course. But if it turns me into a self-righteous scoffer who looks down on the poor for not spending what little money they have in the way I think they should, …well, then Jesus is making it clear: I am not on his side.
James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 say that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” I think that’s a little of what’s going on here. Well, that’s enough from me for now. I’d like us to hear from one of the people in the background of our picture; specifically, this woman we’ve circled in red. She’s going to tell us a little of her story, and then give us her perspective on what’s going on here. The “water to wine” miracle you’ll hear her refer to is from John, chapter two; and the teaching about divorce is in Matthew 19. This woman’s name, as I’ve imagined her, is …Sarah.
SARAH (Kathy Light): This is the third time I’ve run into Jesus. The first was at the wedding of my cousin, in Cana, a village almost 70 miles north of Jerusalem. I was responsible for helping serve wine at the three day party we threw for the entire village. And I remember the horrible feeling I had when a cart arrived, supposedly with two large casks of wine.
But there was only one cask, not two.
The driver — who was also to be our wine steward — explained that several Roman soldiers had stopped him. They confiscated a cask on the pretense it was “payment” for their maintaining and guarding the road. He’d gone along with it, of course. They would have crucified him if he resisted. But that’s why the wine ran out long before the party was over, leaving our guests with nothing but water to drink.
Now, the region west of Galilee is arid, but we had lots of water because whenever it rains we store the runoff in huge 30-gallon jars. Six of those jars had been half-emptied to wash the feet of our guests. And when the wine ran out, Jesus told us servers to refill all six jars. We grumbled, but did as he said, …and he somehow turned 180 gallons of water into wine so amazing our steward said it was the best he’d ever tasted! We bottled the leftovers (almost 100 gallons) and sold it.
In less than a year, my cousin used that money to bail out her new husband. He’d been jailed and was soon to be flogged for refusing to carry the backpack of a Roman soldier. I’ve often wondered if Jesus made so much wine because he knew the profit would be needed.
The next time I saw him, Jesus was teaching and healing people on the banks of the Jordan River. I went to see him with my husband, Boaz. I was 14 when my parents arranged for me to marry. Father told me my fiancée’s name and I was thrilled because Scripture says that – back in the days of the Judges – Boaz was a wonderful man who loved his wife, Ruth; and her mother, Naomi. But as I got to know MY Boaz, it was clear he was not cut from the same cloth. If my cooking wasn’t good enough, or our children misbehaved, or I displeased him in any way, Boaz would threaten to divorce me.
He could do it just by signing a piece of paper, and in our day, a divorced woman is damaged goods with no rights, and (usually) no money or future.
However, when we went to hear Jesus, he said divorce for such petty reasons was a sin against God. And hearing that …changed my husband somehow. This last year, there have been no threats, and even a little…love.
All that is a long way of saying: I understand how this woman could have been moved to barge into Simon’s house and perform such a strange, yet courageous, act of gratitude. She’s obviously a little simple, no man wants to be practically drowned in expensive perfume (especially perfume usually reserved for covering the smell of death before a body’s buried)! But I love how Jesus is not only accepting her gift, he’s telling the rest of us how it’s “deeply meaningful” and “a sign of the woman’s sincere faith.” He’s surely making some of that up: there’s no “meaning” in anointing a healthy, mid-thirties man for burial.
But the love and respect he’s showing her? Oh, THAT is incredibly meaningful; in fact, I would call it … “amazing grace.”
Dave: Would you pray with me: Lord thank you for accepting our often-awkward gratitude. We would ask you to help us see financially or mentally or physically distressed people with YOUR eyes; to see them as your beloved children and members of our family. We thank you for your love that carries us through times both good and bad, but a love that also pushes us to be more caring than we sometimes want to be. And we especially thank you for Jesus whose sacrifice shows that your love is deeper than we can possible imagine. It is in his name that we pray.
Well, with that, it’s time to prepare for communion with a hymn that BOTH of the women we’ve heard about today would join us in singing, “My Jesus, I Love Thee.”