Sermon for Palm Sunday, March 28th, 2021
It was two days before the Passover and Jesus was having dinner with some of his friends and followers in Bethany which is a village just outside of Jerusalem. And while he was there a woman came in. The gospel doesn’t give her a name. She goes up to Jesus sitting at the table and takes a jar of ointment, nard, which is a very strong perfume, and she breaks open the jar and pours some of it on Jesus’s head. She anoints him. This is an anointing.
Think about when anointing happens in the life of the church. We anoint people when they are baptized. The bishop anoints you when you are confirmed. When you are ordained as a priest your hands are anointed. If you ever happen to inherit the crown, you will be anointed at your coronation as king or queen. When you are sick you may be anointed for healing. Every year during Holy Week the church blesses fresh holy oil for use throughout the year in its ministry; we make sacred chrism and oil of the sick.
Here is a bit of trivia which you may not know: we also have oil of exorcism. We call it the oil of catechumens, but it is really oil of exorcism and it is used to do exactly what you think: to drive out demons and to defend the anointee against evil and the devil. It is rarely used anymore, but one of these days, I swear I’m going to pour it into the hand sanitizer here just so I can make sure that everyone has gotten a squirt of it. It couldn’t hurt.
We also, of course, anoint people right before death. In all of these cases to be anointed is to be blessed. Even in death, if someone is anointing your body it is a sign of care and kindness. Whenever you are anointed by the church, that is a symbol of God’s love to you. To have someone anoint you, literally rub oil into your skin, is to be blessed by that person and reminded that God’s grace touches us body and soul. God works through physical elements too.
When this woman comes into the house in Bethany and anoints Jesus, she is showing him a great kindness. It is an act of love and compassion. And people are offended by it. Offended.
These supposed friends and followers of Jesus are offended by this woman’s act of kindness. Watch what happens here because this is important: you have a group of people that have been watching Jesus be loving and compassionate throughout his ministry. They have seen him heal the sick. They have heard Jesus in his teachings advocate for the poor and the dispossessed. They have listened to Jesus talk about caring for the “least of these” among us. And what did these followers of Jesus do with these glorious, compassionate teachings? They decided to use them as another reason to hate someone. Yeah, watch what happens here, these people use Jesus’s concern for the poor as a weapon against this woman who is trying to do something nice to show her love to Jesus. She performs an act of love and compassion and they are offended by it. They are angry. Angry! That is their response to this woman. Anger. Why are they so angry?
It wasn’t their ointment. She didn’t steal it. We don’t know much about this woman; we don’t know her financial position, but if what the disciples said about the ointment was true, then we can assume at least that this act of anointing Jesus was a sacrifice for her. This act of kindness actually cost her something. Love and kindness comes at a great price sometimes doesn’t it? It’s too bad that offense comes so cheaply.
The episode with the woman and the alabaster jar just screams out at me this year, because I think it says so much about human nature. Jesus’s followers, Jesus’s followers, find a way to be offended by an act of love and kindness. Think about that for a moment. The woman wanted to show Jesus love, and she is basically accused of stealing food from the poor.
Now could she have sold the ointment and given the money to the poor? Yes, I’m sure she could have. And I’m willing to bet that our Lord would have approved of such generosity. “Blessed are the merciful” our Lord said in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus approved of mercy, love, and kindness. If the woman had decided to make a donation to a charity in Jesus’s name, I have no doubt that he would have smiled on it. But just because one thing is good, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another thing is bad. Jesus can see that the woman is motivated by love and kindness and that is more important to him than how she chooses to show that love and kindness.
What is motivating the other people in the room? The scriptures don’t say that the disciples had a debate or an ethical discussion about the best way to use resources for the benefit of all. There is no dispassionate reflection here on how to best love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbors as ourselves. No, the scriptures say that people are angry. They are angry and offended and their first response is to scold the woman.
Where is this anger and offense coming from? Is it a genuine love and concern for the poor? I don’t think so, and apparently neither does Jesus. He very famously says, “the poor you have always with you.” He’s not dismissing the needs of the poor at all, but he is saying to them that every single day from now until the end of time you will have the opportunity to show someone love and kindness and mercy. The question is not “do you care about the “poor”?” in theory or in principle. The question is, “can you show love and kindness to another human being, regardless of their circumstances, when they are right in front of you?” The disciples could choose to recognize this woman’s act of love and kindness for what it is, they could choose to respect her love for Jesus, even if they thought the money for the ointment could have been put to better use, they could choose to show her love and kindness as someone who was clearly seeking God. Instead, they chose to be angry and offended.
Why do we make that choice? This little scene in the dining room at that house in Bethany has been replayed over and over again throughout history. The location may change, the names of the characters may change, the costumes and hairstyles may change, but the dynamic is the same: we are looking for ways to be offended. In Jesus’s day it was in the dining room, today it is on the internet, but it doesn’t matter, it is the same thing going on. Human nature hasn’t changed. We are addicted to being offended. It is like crack to us and we are always looking for that next hit. Something about being offended makes us feel superior to the person giving the offense. Something about being offended focuses our attention on the supposed wrongdoings of others, so that we don’t have to take too close a look at our own lives, and our own sins. If I can find a way to be offended by you, then I guess I don’t have to show you love and kindness, do I? That’s convenient. So here’s what I will do, I will just look for reasons to be offended. I will monitor your every word and your every action. I will watch you like a hawk waiting for the moment when you slip, or better yet I will set you up. We want to be offended so badly, we want that self-righteous rush coursing through our veins so much, that we will try and be offensive, just so we can get someone to offend us in return. That is the level of our addiction.
Now you may be thinking, this is Palm Sunday, the longest gospel reading we get all year, the story of our Lord’s passion, and he’s still talking about the first 9 verses. When are you going to get to the actual passion story itself? But, you see, I am already there. This IS the story of the passion. Love was right in front of us, and we chose to be offended by it.
Jesus, our great high priest, burst into this world, walked right into our everyday lives to anoint us. “Thou anointest my head with oil,” Psalm 23 says. Jesus came to anoint us, to mark us as his own. It is the anointing of God that strengthens us and defends us from the enemy. It is God’s anointing that heals us, and God’s anointing that prepares us for death. Jesus came to anoint us as a demonstration of the love and compassion and mercy that God has for us. And we were offended. We responded to God’s love with anger and offense. That is how desperately addicted we are as human beings: we looked for reasons to be offended, and if we couldn’t find any, we made them up.
Why was Jesus crucified? Because he offended us. He confronted us with our addiction to anger and offense and we didn’t like that. We became angry and offended. We set traps for him, and when that didn’t work, we just made things up. We had the choice between love and offense, the crowd had the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. We know the choice that was made.
Every year on Good Friday, during the veneration of the cross, the choir sings a very traditional text called the reproaches. We can’t do it this year, because for obvious reasons we can’t do the veneration of the cross, but normally we do. The reproaches are meant to be words from God to his people. The verses retell al the glorious things that God has done for us, but in the refrain God says: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”
How have I offended you? These words aren’t just meant for the mob in Jerusalem. They are meant for all of us. We did this because we were offended. We have a problem. The cross confronts us with our addiction.
The cross also shows us another way. The only person in the universe that actually has the right and the righteousness to be truly offended is God, and God chose to show love. The answer to our addiction is the cross. Show love. Don’t go around saying and doing offensive things and just telling people not to be offended; if we truly love others, we won’t do that. The answer is to show love. Show love, not to hypothetical groups of people, not to ideas or institutions, but to the person who is right in front of you. Show love to the person that is right in front of you, whoever that person is, no matter what they have done to offend you. That is the example that we have been given. That is how we were saved.