The Anointing at Bethany and the Internet Age

As the Church settles into the second decade of the 21st Century, it is proving to be anything but a settled time. The Church is roiled by one instant, all consuming issue after another (remember when Rob Bell was just as controversial as World Vision?). Mega-church pastors and bloggers take to the internet to mobilize their followers. Within minutes of a public announcement by a church, ministry or individual, the internet explodes (it seems almost literally) with instant and confident pronouncements of praise or denunciation (followed by counter-denunciation as more and more people are bid “farewell” to).

And, is anything gained? Is the cause of Christ moved forward? Does the world feel more loved and drawn to Jesus as a result?

As the Christians of the world move through Holy Week, I would like to posit that the Anointing at Bethany, particularly as told in Matthew and Mark, might offer some helpful insight for us in these troubled times.

Wherever the Good News is proclaimed…

Mark 14 tells us, “While he was at Bethany, at the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment” (all references from the NRSV), and that this woman proceeds to break open the jar, dumping its context upon Jesus. Jesus’ followers are, as we know indignant at this, feeling that this was a wastefully extravagant act on the woman’s part and she should have used the money more wisely by using it to care for the poor. Jesus disagrees.

He says to the disgruntled crowd, “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 for 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.”

The Gospel of John names this woman as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, but neither Matthew nor Mark name her at all. In these Gospels, she is anonymous. Isn’t that strange? Jesus has just said that she will be remembered forever, and yet, here, we do not know her name? To be immortalized forever, wouldn’t having your name out there be part of the deal?

But, that’s not exactly what Jesus said, that she would be remembered. What he actually said was that what she had done would be remembered. What seems to matter here is the action this woman takes, and not her specific identity. To readers of Matthew and Mark, this woman IS this action.

The disciples are told to leave her alone, because she had done what she could. Could she have done differently? Yes. Are the disciples correct that this jar of nard could have been used to purchase food for the poor? Indeed, they are. That would have been another, and valid means to show devotion to Jesus. But, that was not what she chose to do, and Jesus thinks she has done something good and praiseworthy and they should leave her be.

I have been wondering, however about a world in which World Vision makes an announcement, and within less than two hours, several Christian Big Voices  (with various views of WV’s stance) have made pronouncements and thousands upon thousands (more likely millions) have decided what they think of what World Vision did before they eat their next meal. This happens on the left and the right. Mark Driscoll buying a day on top of the NYT bestseller list or Rob Bell’s views on hell. Within less than a day of something happening, the Big Voices have weighed in and the rest of us have something new to dig in our heels about and argue over.

Was what the woman did with her resources the only, or even the most practically advisable, thing that could be done? It doesn’t seem so. And yet, it was what she did, motivated by her love for Jesus. In her context, in her heart, it was the way to live out love. And, Jesus tells her critics to leave her alone, and that they could do something different with their money and that, too, would be fine and good.

What if we learned from this? I believe this nameless woman, who acts in love, could teach us a few things:

  1. Think small The woman did one thing, with great love. Maybe it is not advisable, nor even possible to adjudicate every issue facing the Church in the West in sweeping ways on the internet. Rather than waging war about what all Christians everywhere need to do about gay folks, I propose we sink ourselves into a local worshipping community and do good, hard, tangible work in that particular place to figure out what it means to be Jesus to the gay individuals that come into contact with that worshipping body. (Or, to do the same with any other complex, divisive issue).
  2. Act anonymously and locally. Related to the first point, I propose that we should not advertise our positions so much. Perhaps Christendom can figure out a way forward on who goes to hell and who doesn’t without me making sure all my followers (the tiny handful that they are) know my tweeted position on the matter. If asked my opinion, perhaps I could reply, “That’s a great, and complicated question. I’m working on it with the local church in which I worship. If you’d like to know where I stand, come join us there.”
  3. Give grace. Jesus tells his followers to leave the woman alone, because she has done what she could. Can I trust that other Christians of good conscience and good will are doing the best they can to follow Jesus and discern how the Holy Spirit is leading them? Even if they do something I would have not done, or land on a position I wouldn’t have taken? Can I trust that the Holy Spirit is guiding us, individually, as congregations as the body of Christ on earth?

With that, I’m closing my laptop, getting off the internet and out the door into my town.

May we be remembered for our actions of love, not our multitude of words and volume of twitter followers.

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