While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
Call me a pedant but I am careful to promise anyone “I will never forget you” (as I fear that eventually I will be unable to remember anyone!) In today’s reading, however, Jesus responds to those angered by the woman’s extravagance by saying, in effect, that what she has done will never be forgotten. Her response was deemed to be so significant that it merited serving as a memorial to her. And it is worth noting that in Mark’s Gospel we are not her name. Hers is an act of sacrificial and extravagant generosity without recognition nor dependent on any expectation of receiving anything in return.
Her generosity provoked anger – masked as concern for waste – but generosity is not essentially about the monetary value but of attitude. I suspect they were embarrassed too – both by the intimacy of the act itself and that it highlighted their own meanness. In “A New Kind of Christian”, Brian McLaren writes, “If we can’t discipline ourselves to learn the joys of generous living, I think we’re an embarrassment to the Gospel”. It’s a challenging thought: rather than being embarrassed by generosity there is an embarrassment to the Gospel when it is absent.
We do well, therefore, to reflect on the extent to which our churches and their annual accounts display a generosity that is less focused on “us” and “our place” and more on people in places beyond our walls. Generous living. And in our own personal resources – time as well as money – how willing are we to be extravagant in our generosity and without insisting that we are named and thanked? For ultimately, Jesus suggests, it is our acts that will be remembered more than our names. And, most crucially, ours is a God whose love for us is extravagantly generous.
Forgive us, God of generosity, when we succumb to the temptation to be mean-spirited and tight-fisted and when we despise those who shame us by the breadth and depth of their kindness. Loosen our grip on what we own and our fixation on reward and make us willing learners of the joys of generous living so that we may not be an embarrassment to the gospel of your cross-shaped grace. Amen.
The Rev’d Geoffrey Clarke, Moderator, East Midlands Synod and member of St Andrew’s with Castle Gate, Nottingham