By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
“Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.”
—John Le Carre (David John Moore Cornwall)1931-present, British Spy Novelist
It was Tuesday of the week of Passover in Jerusalem, probably in the year 30 CE. That past Sunday Jesus had overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and seized the Temple grounds—an outrageous act. Since then he had been preaching every day at the Temple, drawing huge crowds. Jesus’ enemies, mainly the Jerusalem religious leadership, were caught between a rock and hard place. They had to stop him. In fact, many agreed, though not all, that they had to kill him. The Gospel of John tells us why they thought this was important:
So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11: 47-50).
And so, Mark tells us in our Gospel today, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”
“By stealth”—that was the key. The problem was, Jesus was too popular. They didn’t dare arrest him in public for fear of the crowds. So they needed a spy—an insider—someone who knew Jesus’ routines and could help them intercept him in a private setting where no one would see. But where would they find this spy? Where would they find this betrayer?
The chief priests and scribes were not the only ones upset with and confused by Jesus. So were his disciples. It appears that none of them really had a clue what Jesus was up to. Why was he talking about dying in Jerusalem? If he was afraid people would kill him in Jerusalem, what in the world was he doing there? What’s all this business of “I will be handed over to the Gentiles and crucified?” Why did he ride into town unarmed? Why isn’t he leading a pious rebellion? It appears that at least some of them thought that the Messiah was supposed to lead an armed insurrection against Rome and the Jewish Temple elite.
Jesus had not been very patient with them about their misgivings and misunderstandings. He’d grown tired of their complaining. But the disciples were disgruntled, confused, and a bit bitter. They were beginning to wonder if they’d bet on the wrong horse. And soon all of that would come to a head.
Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem preaching on the Temple steps, where huge crowds would come to listen and to seek healing. In the evening, he and his disciples would walk back to the home where they were staying in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. One particular night he was dining at a friend’s house in Bethany and a woman, perhaps a woman Jesus didn’t even know, came into the house with an expensive cut crystal jar filled with nard, a rare perfume. She poured it over his head.
It was a shocking, disconcerting moment. The disciples present were outraged and berated her for her foolishness: “You could have sold this for almost a year’s wages and given it to the poor!” They exclaim angrily. But Jesus comes to the woman’s defense. “You will always have the poor among you, and you can always help them,” he says pointedly, “but you will not always have me. She’s done what she could: she’s anointed my body beforehand for burial.”
And there he’s hit on the problem. Jesus understands that his main reason for coming to Jerusalem is to die. Think about that very carefully. If you were the disciple of someone whom you thought to be the hope of the world, how would you feel if that person told you that his plan, his expectation—that God’s plan—was for him to die rather than do all the things you thought he was supposed to do? You might think he was crazy. You might think he was misled. You certainly would think, what will happen to me? And that’s where the disciples’ heads are: What will happen to me if Jesus dies?
But this woman!—This wonderful, mysterious woman! She isn’t thinking about herself and what will happen to her. She’s thinking about Jesus and what will happen to him. And she’s not so distracted by self-concern that she can’t listen to Jesus, because clearly she has listened to him. In fact, Mark wants us to understand something amazing about this woman, and to honor it forever. Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it the most clearly:
She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’ three prophecies of his death and resurrection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion. Since (not if) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you [for death] beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward. She is, for [the Gospel writer] Mark, the first believer. She is, for us, the first Christian.
The disciples, caught up as they are in their own preconceived notions of who Jesus ought to be, tied in knots because they can’t separate their own self-interest from Jesus’ destiny, getting their priorities confused with Jesus’ priorities, may actually be too close to Jesus to really see him. But this woman, this unnamed woman, is not confused by her own priorities and not so caught up in thinking about herself. And because of that, she can hear what Jesus is saying and see what he is doing. In a lot of ways, she believes the same thing that the High Priest Caiaphas does: That it is better for us to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. But she doesn’t believe it with the cynical realism of the lifelong power broker. She believes it with the unabashed optimism of a woman of faith: Jesus’ death will save the nation. Jesus’ death will save us all.
Jesus’ disciples are terrified because Jesus has warned them of the cross of crucifixion that awaits him. And they are also terrified of its implication: that a cross awaits them as well. As Jesus had told them—and us—many times before, “If anyone wants to come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If Jesus has to make a sacrifice, then certainly Jesus’ followers have to make a sacrifice.
But this same cross that terrifies Jesus’ disciples is the very cross that gives this unnamed first Christian her hope. She believes that Jesus’ death is for all of humanity and his resurrection will save the world. Her expensive ointment is the only embalming Jesus will receive: remember that Jesus’ women disciples were on the way to the grave to embalm Jesus when they found the tomb empty and received the news that he was risen from the dead. But this ointment is also the oil that was used in the ancient world to anoint a king or a queen. She is proclaiming that Jesus’ death is what confirms him as the true Sovereign of the Kingdom of Heaven.
So this woman believes in Jesus’ death and resurrection even before they happen. Talk about a person with great faith! As Jesus says later, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe” (John 20: 29).
To this day we who follow Jesus struggle between the anxiety and doubt of the disciples and the faith and the hope of the woman who anoints him. The death of Jesus, Paul reminds us, is foolishness to the wise and a stumbling block to the pious. The wise think, to sort of quote George Patton, that no one ever won a war by dying for his country, but by making the other guy die for his country. But self-sacrifice and service to others at cost to one’s self, even making sacrifices for the sake of your enemies, are the unique and truly difficult hallmarks of the Christian life. Those of us who believe know this is true, but we tippy-toe around its implications for our lives. We try to avoid the hard part of being a Christian, and in doing so risk also avoiding the most important part.
On the other hand, we join with the mysterious anointing woman in celebrating the wonder and sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us and rose for us, and whose death and resurrection are the salvation of the world and the source of our own personal hope. When we find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we know that Jesus is with us, because he’s been down that road and knows firsthand what it’s like. We know that his resurrection promises us eternal life. We love Jesus because he has loved us so much. And maybe this is real reason we aren’t told the anointing woman’s name: Because she is you and she is me. Just like her, we worship and love and honor the crucified and risen Christ.
But as we will see, love is a two-edged sword. The disciples loved Jesus, too. And, as a character in a John LeCarre novel once observed, “Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.” The unnamed anointing woman and her faithfulness is a foil for the disciples’ lack of faith, but especially one disciple in particular: Judas Iscariot.
We don’t know what finally motivates him to go to Jesus’ enemies and betray him. But we do know that “betrayal can only happen if you love.” Jesus loved Judas and all his disciples so obviously Judas is betraying him. But we need to note that his disciples were feeling betrayed by Jesus—that perhaps they’d put their love in the wrong place and were soon to pay the price for it. In which case, Judas is just acting on what all the disciples are feeling.
But remember: just as the anointing woman is you and me, so is Judas you and me. We too, have felt that sense that God has betrayed us and disappointed us. That God wasn’t there for my friend who died, or for me when the bottom fell out of the market, or for my kid struggling with addiction, or for my marriage when it fell apart. We love and trust Jesus, and so we feel those betrayals more deeply than the people who don’t believe. And that sense of betrayal can lead us to do stupid and dangerous things, to act out our bitterness through rejecting the values of our faith or taking terrible risks or simply turning inward into ourselves, becoming selfish and self-involved.
These bitter betrayals are human and understandable, but they take their toll, making us more distrustful, more negative about the world and about people in general, eating away at our souls. When that sense of betrayal comes, it’s time to remember the anointing woman and her faith. She believed without having to see it. We don’t always know the answers to the problems of life, but we know that Jesus suffered those problems the same as we do, including death itself, yet overcame them all. After every death, there is resurrection. After every Good Friday, there is an Easter day. Even in the midst of suffering and hardship, there is hope. And just when it seems that God is dead, God turns out to be more alive than ever. That’s what the anointing woman believes.
Remember the anointing woman, because her faith is our faith.