Podcast: “In Memory of Her”
Pr. David Fleener
Sermon: April 5, 2020—Palm Sunday NL2
In 1983, New Testament scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza wrote a groundbreaking book, In Memory of Her, that highlights the marginalization of women in the early church, despite Jesus and Paul’s radical inclusion of women in their ministries. The story that best illustrates how women were marginalized is our reading today. A woman anoints Jesus’s head with nard, an extraordinarily costly ointment. Through the objections and cries of protest, Jesus proclaims, “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed…what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
The irony, of course, is that this woman’s name is lost. To be sure, John’s Gospel identifies her with Mary, sister of Lazarus, but that is not the case in Matthew, Mark, or Luke. She is unnamed. Anonymous. And rarely have I heard, let alone preached, a sermon on her. It seems that Jesus’ words have not been fulfilled.
But in another way, they have been fulfilled. This unnamed woman, along with the other women who were part of Jesus’ earthly ministry, haunt the gospel. They aren’t flashy, like Peter with his alternating braggadocio and cowardice in the Gospel. Nor are they like Paul, with a wild conversion story. What they are is consistent. They are faithful. They are present—especially after the disciples desert Jesus.
And this woman understands who Jesus is.
The question of who Jesus is permeates the Gospel of Mark. From the beginning, the reader is let in on the secret: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” However, very few others know. Whenever Jesus encounters unclean spirits, he orders them to be silent. For half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus takes great pains to keep his identity under wraps, ordering those he heals to be silent about him (though this fails). His opponents certainly don’t know who he is. And the disciples—those who should have put two and two together—don’t get it until chapter 8. Even then, they continue to woefully misunderstand what being God’s Messiah means. They think it means power and greatness according to our human understanding of those terms. That’s why they grow more and more anxious and afraid as they approach Jerusalem. Jesus keeps attacking those false notions of greatness with a promise that he’ll suffer, die, and be raised. Three times he does this! And each time, his disciples desperately try to change the subject to something else—either on greatness or power or even trying to correct Jesus (which Peter hilariously tries to do).
Of course, they do finally understand—otherwise we wouldn’t have a gospel, would we? But this woman doesn’t need to wait until Jesus is raised on Easter morning. She knows who he is now, and performs an extravagant act of love befitting who Jesus is.
Anointing serves two purposes. First, remember who was anointed in the Bible. Kings and priests. They were anointed as a sign that God had chosen them to exercise that particular office. The dead were also anointed, as Jesus points out. This woman understands the paradox at the heart of the gospel. Jesus is indeed Messiah and Lord. He is, therefore, worthy (in the words of Revelation) of all “blessing and power and glory and might”. However, this Messiah’s destiny runs through the cross and the grave. This is a Messiah who, as Jesus tells his disciples earlier, will “give his life a ransom for many”. This is a Messiah who will have to die so that we can live.
As with the widow who dropped her last two coins in the Temple treasury, Jesus does not challenge her agency, but embraces her action—as an act of love shown to the Divine, and as a judgment on human standards.
The objections here are likely hollow. It’s the old rhetorical “whatabout” that’s plagued reasonable discussion since the dawn of civilization. The unnamed objectors are just another example of human resistance to Jesus’ mission. To be sure, Jesus has no objections to showing kindness to the poor. In fact, such kindness is a moral imperative in the Bible, along with kindness to “the widow and orphan”. But Jesus gets at the bigger issue—the absolute refusal to see who Jesus is and what this woman is doing for him.
And indeed, without the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we cannot make sense of Jesus or his mission. Jesus, to unaided reason, looks like another would-be failed messiah. Or worse, as merely a good moral teacher who got killed for being too nice. The woman does away with all such human assumptions and reasoning and standards with a jar of nard. She shows us who Jesus really is—the Lord and Messiah of creation who dies to redeem a hardened and broken humanity.
On this Passion Sunday, that’s what the Spirit calls us to remember. Jesus isn’t just a teacher. He’s not someone who got killed for being too nice. And he certainly isn’t a Messiah according to our standards. Jesus is our Messiah and Lord and God according to divine standards alone. And it is because he is Messiah in his way that he can also redeem us by his death. It is because he is our Lord by right that he can give up his life to give us life. It is because he is our God that he can grant us grace in the first place!
The Spirit open our eyes and break our hearts of stone to see Jesus for who he really is, as this woman saw him. May we always remember what she has done, and more importantly, who she is. Though she is unnamed, she is remembered by God. And wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed, at this pulpit and at every pulpit, she is honored. She is remembered.
Let us pray.
Lord Christ, those persons the world deemed marginal were those who were most faithful to you during your earthly ministry. Help us to be faithful to you as she was. Enlighten our hearts and minds to understand that you came to us, not as a conqueror, but as a servant Messiah, laying down your life for many. Amen.
© 2020, David M. Fleener. Permission granted to copy and adapt original material herein for non-commercial purposes with appropriate credit given.