In memory of her

Who shows us what it means to be a follower of Jesus?  It's somebody you've never heard of - but that's how she is remembered.

Full Text: 

In memory of her

February 22, 2015 – Matthew 26:1-16


            One of the nice things for me about getting older is that I feel less constrained to do what is expected – and that includes my expectations of myself.  For years, I would never have thought of using anything but the normal lectionary – the established set of readings for Sundays.  In recent years, however, I have departed more and more from that tradition.  The biggest move for me away from the Revised Common Lectionary has been to the Narrative Lectionary, which we have used for the last four years.  But, in addition, this year, I even departed from the Narrative Lectionary by preaching on the Sermon on the Mount last fall.  And, although I’ve been using the Narrative Lectionary since Advent, today I make another departure.

            Today I am beginning a series of sermons on the story of Jesus’ final hours – his rejection, his trial, his suffering and his death.  I’ll be focusing on one section of this story – The Passion – each week until Palm Sunday.  On that Sunday, in what has become a tradition, we will read the whole passion story together.  So, these next five sermons will be preparation for that day.

            By entering more deeply into his passion and seeking to follow him there, we ask, “What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?”  And this first section of chapter 26 is a good place to begin. 


At the center of this story is a woman.  We do not know her name.  We do not know where she comes from.  We don’t know what happens to her because we hear nothing more of her.  She appears at the house of Simon the Leper where Jesus is having dinner – the last supper before the Last Supper.  Like the magi, she carries a gift – an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment.  And, like the magi, she offers the entire gift.  In an extravagant act of devotion, she pours the contents on Jesus’ head. 

The disciples are aghast.  “Why this waste?”  They protest that a better use for this ointment could have been made.  In other circumstances, their point would be well taken – but not here.  Here they do not understand what is happening with Jesus.  They do not understand what he is going to do.  Or, rather, they do not want to understand and they do not know how to act in the face of what is going to happen.

            The woman, however, does.  She knows that Jesus is going to die.  She doesn’t avoid it.  She doesn’t deny it.  She doesn’t try to talk him out of it.  Instead, without thought of reward or reputation, this woman does what she can to be faithful.  She does what she can to prepare him for his death.  And, in an ironic twist, Jesus says that wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.  Yet we do not even know her name.  She remains faceless and selfless – a true disciple.

            Bracketing this story, we hear of the opponents of Jesus.  On one end, there is the confused conspiring of the chief priests and the elders.  They want to silence Jesus, but they don’t want to make too much noise.  They want to get rid of Jesus, but they want to keep it quiet.  They are afraid of how the people will react.  They act out of fear.

            On the other end, there is one of Jesus’ own disciples.  In contrast to the woman, we know his name.  It is Judas.  Likewise, in contrast to the woman, he is not a giver.  He is a taker.  His actions are not those of devotion and respect.  They are actions of greed.  “What will you give me?”


            The actions of Judas are actions that, in a negative way, recall Jesus’ own teaching.  In the Sermon on the Mount, he tells the crowds:  “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consume nor thieves break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

            They are actions as well that recall the scripture in Exodus: “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave owner thirty pieces of silver.”  The life of a slave is worth 30 pieces of silver.  In this way, Matthew is not only showing us how the betrayal of Jesus is the fulfillment of scripture.  He is saying that Jesus is a slave, who has come not to be served, but to serve, to give his life, a ransom for many.  (20:28)

            We did not know why Judas betrays Jesus.  We do not know what his personal motivations are.  Is it only greed?  Is there something more?  We will have more time to consider Judas and his actions over the coming weeks.  This is not the last we hear of Judas.

            But what about us?  Where are we in this story?  Sometimes we are the woman, faithfully honoring Jesus and the path that is set before him.  Sometimes we are the chief priests and elders of the people.  We react out of fear and self-protection.  Sometimes we are Judas.  We respond out of greed and a desire for gain.  Most of the time, we are like the disciples – caught somewhere in the middle.  We want to be a disciple, but we are afraid and self-protective and we desire gain for ourselves.


            If this unnamed woman provides us an example of being a follower of Jesus, what might it mean for us? 

            As a pastor, I regularly am with people who are encountering death.  Even more, when I am at the hospital, serving as a night chaplain, I encounter death. I encounter people in grief.  And I encounter people who have died. 

            One of the things I do is that when I am in a room where someone has just died, I take it as an opportunity to remind myself that, one day, that will be me.  My body that today is so healthy and strong and full of life will one day be empty and dull and lifeless.

            And I do this even if there isn’t family around.  Sometimes the family has already come and gone.  Sometimes the family is unable to come because of weather or other circumstances.  Then, I stand in the room alone and be with the body.

            I also pray for that person.  I pray that God will guard and protect that person.  I pray that God will receive that person with mercy and compassion.  And I pray that God will guide that person to whatever is next.  I do this to myself, without any knowledge of the attitudes or beliefs of that person is, because, regardless of what they are, I believe it is a sacred moment for that person.

            Now I understand that you probably don’t have those opportunities.  I also understand that you also might not want those opportunities even if they were available.  “Maybe you can do that, pastor, but frankly death scares me to death!”

            But my guess is that there are other things that don’t scare you to death.  Or even if they do scare you, you are willing, in spite of your fear, to be with someone who is also experiencing them.

            Maybe you can offer something tangible to that person, like the unnamed woman did to Jesus.  Or maybe you can offer your caring presence – even if you have no gift, even if you have no words.  You can offer to be with that person in whatever they are going through. 

We can do this in the confidence that, when we are caring for others – even “the least of these” – it is as though we are caring for Jesus.  And we can do it in the confidence that, when we do it – when we risk ourselves for the sake of others – Jesus is with us.

            This, I believe, is at the heart of the message in Matthew’s gospel. It is in his teaching.  It is in his healing and feeding miracles.  I see it most clearly in the storms on the sea.  In the first Jesus is asleep in the boat.  The disciples yell, “Don’t you care if we perish?”  In the second Jesus comes to them out on the water, but they don’t see him.  They only see a ghost.

            When we are in trouble, when we face challenges, when we face overwhelming odds, it may seem like God is asleep or that Jesus is just some ghost.  But neither is true.  Jesus has promised to be us – always.

            And so he is.