Go back and read the first two verses again. The outrage! Here’s this layman, going around healing people, making blind people see, delivering them from demons, and delivering sermons that people actually want to listen to. The priests and wardens call together some members of the Parish Council, invite the Bishop ’cos they know he’ll be on side, and plan how to murder this public nuisance. But they’ll wait till after Easter, because they know people won’t want their long weekend interrupted. Talk about institutional wickedness!
Then Jesus goes to dine at the house of Simon the Leper. Really? Is this Mark’s idea of a joke? Can you imagine the disciples?
“Hey, didja hear? We’re goin’ out to dinner tonight. The Master’s just told me.”
“Great! Where are we goin’?”
“Yeah, that’s a bit of a problem, actually. He’s asked Simon the Leper if we can all go to his house.”
“You’re joking, right? Nobody goes to Simon the Leper’s house. I mean, that’s why they call him Si…”
“Yeah, that’s what I said, too, but the Master just gave me one of his looks. You know?”
I’ve been walking around all day smiling to myself since I read this passage, earlier today. It’s like telling your mother-in-law you’re taking your wife off to have dinner with Nigel the Cad, François the traitor, Boris the poisoner, Tony the Concreter, or Afzaal the Explosives Expert. Not to mention Polly the Pro…, well, you know.
How typical of Jesus! Just when the hatchet gang are getting their act together at last, looking for evidence of anti-social behaviour, he goes to dinner at Simon the Leper’s. And in the middle of dinner, Polly turns up! Well, of course she would.
That’s that thing about Jesus. If you hang around him long enough, you’ll meet some very bad people. Looking down the attendance list will be like reading Whispering Wendy the Gossip Columnist’s diary. (I wonder why my church’s attendance roll isn’t like that? They’re all such respectable people.)
Although it’s Holy Week, with some very serious stuff happening, this is a very light-hearted little interlude Mark gives us here. The church (temple) is the most dangerous place to be. The religious leaders are sharpening their knives, rolling their matzo, and having secret meetings with only one item on the agenda: Jesus Christ! (Yeah, and that’s probably how they said it, too!)
The safest place to be is sharing a slap-up supper with Simon the Leper, and having a perfume party with the likes of Polly. No wonder the disciples were scandalised. But that wasn’t even the end of it, yet. Not by half!
Polly takes her most expensive bottle of perfume – the one that came from that very rich client. She breaks open the seal and pours the entire bottle over him. The whole lot! And she shakes it to get out the very last drop.
Jesus just sits there, perfume dripping from his hair down onto his tunic, and a big smile on his face.
He takes Polly by the hand. Speaks her name out loud. And she bursts into tears and falls at his feet weeping. Her sobs murder the silence in the room.
I know how she felt. I’ve often wanted to do just exactly the same thing. He’s so, so… well, … good, and I’m… not… … He makes me cry, too, sometimes.
That was the last straw for Judas, and some of the others weren’t too pleased either. Remember that John tells us in his Gospel that Judas “was a thief. As keeper of the money-bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6)
Judas knew what that perfume was worth – at least $40,000. That could keep a poor family going for at least a year! (“And I’m one of the deserving poor, after all”, he thought.) Along with some of the others, he gave that woman a piece of his mind. Yes, Sir, they let her know in no uncertain terms that she had no right interrupting their dinner (and while they were eating dessert!) with this waste of good perfume that could have been used much better by laundering it into solid Roman silver.
But Jesus just gave them more of those looks that he did so well. He spoke softly to them, but sternly, while holding Polly’s hand, “Back off!” he said. “This woman doesn’t deserve your sniping words. She’s suffered enough from men who only see her worth in terms of value for money. We’ve been surrounded by ugliness today in the city, but this woman has become an oasis of beauty for me. (Polly blushed deep crimson and dropped her head at this remark.) I’ve told you bumbling lot several times I’m going to die, and you still don’t get it. I hadn’t even told her, but she’s anticipated my death and burial, and chosen to embalm me with this perfume.”
The disciples who’d been angry wished they hadn’t spoken. Those who hadn’t, sat up a bit taller, like kids in class who knew the right answer first. Then Jesus continued, “You’re going to be preaching the Gospel about me in years to come. And so will others, for thousands of years. And they’ll tell this story, about this woman, as part of that Gospel. And when they do, people will weep. They’ll weep for your hardness of heart, for the sadness of women in the hands of angry men, and for the glorious forgiveness of sin that she has experienced tonight.”
It was quiet then. Just the little snuffles from Polly, as she bent low at Jesus’ feet, the shuffles of Judas’s sandals as he snuck out the back door, and the whispering of Simon’s servants as they wondered whether to clear the dessert plates or not.
Over at the temple, the conniving priests had an unexpected visitor. Money changed hands. As so often happens, when money, sex and power get mixed together, the result is that good people get hurt and kingdoms tumble.
Back in Simon the Leper’s house, everyone continued eating and drinking. Conversation was a bit strained at first, but gradually resumed. Polly was offered a place at the table by Simon, with some nervous words of welcome and a shy smile. After all, he wasn’t used to having people around, especially women. She accepted, but didn’t eat much. After a while, Simon came and sat next to her.
Jesus just sat, thoughtful, twiddling the stem of a wine glass in his fingers and breaking a piece of bread in his other hand into crumbs, almost as though he was trying to decide what to do next.