“One Lovely Thing”
April 1, 2012
My sister-in-law is a nurse. She’s a very good nurse. She’s competent, efficient, calming and compassionate. The qualities and characteristics that make her a good nurse also make her a good friend. A woman she worked with was talking one day about how homesick she was for her mother’s yeast rolls. They were this woman’s comfort food, reminding her of the love and care from her childhood in her mother’s house.
My sister-in-law heard this, went home that afternoon, gathered up all the ingredients and made yeast rolls for her fellow worker. Mary Jo, that’s my sister-in-law, is also a really good cook. I don’t know if she and the woman she worked with were the best of friends. In fact, I doubt they were. But that’s just the kind of thing Mary Jo does. She will suddenly surprise you with a lovely thing.
The action of the woman in our second passage from Mark’s gospel was also a lovely thing. Mark, in typical fashion, doesn’t tell us much about this woman. She never speaks and the only words that are spoken to her are ones of anger and scolding. Although some have concluded that she is Mary of Bethany, Mark leaves her unnamed. This anonymous woman walks up to Jesus as he reclines during the meal, breaks open a jar of fragrant oil and anoints his head.
This jar was not just an everyday perfume bottle, but a jar crafted of alabaster; a costly, dense white mineral. And the perfumed ointment of nard comes from a plant found only in India. This all tells us that this was an expensive jar filled with a rare and precious oil.
Some of the others at the table were shocked by the woman’s action. It was wasteful! This one bottle of oil could have been sold for more than a common laborer made in a year. The profits from it could have filled many hungry stomachs. Yet she broke the bottle and poured the oil out on Jesus instead.
It’s interesting that none of them seemed to have considered the woman’s other alternative: she could have just as easily used the oil or the profits from it for herself. Not only does Mark not tell us what her name was, he also doesn’t share her particular circumstances.
Perhaps the woman was a widow, and this was a long-cherished wedding gift. Maybe she was wealthy once, and this alabaster jar was all that was left of her fallen fortune.
Whatever our woman’s situation might have been, the other men there saw only extravagance in her giving, and they scolded and rebuked her for her trouble. But Jesus understood her actions differently, and it is through his words that her action is interpreted for us. By anointing him with oil, this silent, unnamed woman performed a good service for Jesus. She prepared his body for death.
A good service. The word for this in Greek is kalos. It can mean something that is “morally right” or “good” or it can be understood as “beautiful,” “aesthetically pleasing.” This woman’s deed encompassed and fulfilled both definitions.
It was customary at that time to anoint a body with fragrant oil before burial. However criminals were excluded from this tradition. Soon, Jesus himself would be sentenced to a criminal’s death: death on a cross.
One of our basic beliefs as Christians, certainly as reformed Christians, is that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. It is tempting sometimes to see Jesus only as divine, and forget his humanity. But he was human. And being human, there must have been times when Jesus, just like us, needed compassion and care.
The minister also required ministry.
In anointing Jesus this woman did more than just make a nice gesture, she ministered to him in his time of need.
She did a good service for him, not only because what she did was morally right, but because it was a beautiful, lovely thing. Without thought for herself, without calculation, acting only with compassion and love, she did for Jesus all that she could.
One lovely thing.
Many years ago before my mom retired, she worked and was good friends with a woman named Mary Lee. One Thanksgiving, Mary Lee, her husband and kids were driving through a rural part of North Carolina, on their way to spend the holiday with family.
They had left the main highway and were driving along a back road when their car broke down. They hadn’t passed another car or star or house for miles. This was WAY before the day of mobile technology, and standing there on the side of this desolate country road, it seemed as though this Thanksgiving was ruined.
About this time a rusty, beat-up pick-up truck came barreling down the road. It was a father and his teenage son, and they stopped to see if Mary Lee and her family needed help. As far as appearances go, these two looked like pretty rough folks. But the situation seemed desperate, and she and her husband needed whatever help they could get.
It turned out the nearest telephone was at their house, and the man offered to take Mary Lee’s husband home to call family and find out about getting a tow truck. Having no other choice, he accepted the offer, and the three of them rode off together.
They were gone for what seemed like hours, although it probably wasn’t that long, but Mary Lee was getting frantic. Finally she heard the sound of the truck coming down the road. But as the vehicle pulled into view, she saw that another car was following behind. In that car was the man’s wife and the rest of his family.
And with them they brought plate after steaming plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberries, rolls, pumpkin pies. Any Thanksgiving fixin you can think of. They brought silverware, napkins, drinks. This family, acting solely out of compassion and love, brought Thanksgiving to complete strangers stranded on the side of the road.
Mary Lee, with tears streaming down her face, was literally speechless at this one lovely thing done for them in the midst of such a gone-wrong day.
One lovely thing.
Mary Lee and her family weren’t poor. They just had car trouble. Somewhere in North Carolina a Thanksgiving meal was waiting for them. And they probably would have gotten their car fixed and found a place to eat sometime, somewhere, had this family not come to their rescue. But in their time of immediate need, a family ministered to them. They did for Mary Lee and her family a faithful, lovely thing out of compassion and love. Just like this silent, anonymous woman who anointed Jesus’ head with oil.
Throughout Lent, we’ve been making our way to Jerusalem. And now, today, Palm Sunday, we stand at the gates of the city. We sing hosannas and wave palms, commemorating this day when Jesus entered into Jerusalem on the back of a colt. His procession is called triumphant, but it is a triumph that leads him inevitably to the cross.
With each step that Jesus takes we too journey closer to Golgotha. So even as we shout our praises and throw our palms on the ground before him, the cross casts its shadow across our path.
For 40 days now we’ve been making preparations for his death in different ways. But now as we enter into Holy Week, as we stand on the threshold between death and new life, one last preparation is called for. That preparation is one lovely thing. Whether rescuing strangers on the side of the road, sharing someone’s tears in a time of grief, or offering friendship to a lonely person, it is doing this one lovely thing that prepares us for the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I believe there is no better preparation that we can make. There seems to be no more fitting response to the love shown us than to offer back that love to someone else. Because today and throughout this week we remember that through a humble man hanging on a rough wooden cross God does for us the loveliest thing of all. Amen.