PALM SUNDAY (B) March 28, 2021
Processional Gospel Mark 11: 1-10 or John 12: 12-16
Isaiah 50: 4-7; Philippians 2: 6-11; Mark 14:1- 15:47

by Jude Siciliano, OP

We have been focusing on Mark’s gospel these past Sundays since the liturgical year began in Advent. Today we have the evangelist’s account of Jesus’ passion and death. Betrayal is a strong theme in Mark’s narrative. We first hear of the plot by the chief priests and scribes to kill Jesus. Then Judas joins the betrayal; so will Peter. Peter, James and John will be with Jesus during his agony in the garden, yet they fail to stay awake and Jesus says to “Simon” (notice the return to his former name, before Jesus called him to be a disciple and changed his name to Peter), “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” After his arrest all Jesus’ disciples will abandon him.

Mark’s passion narrative begins with a woman’s effusive, extravagant act of loving care for Jesus. I think we tend to skip over this story, as if it were merely a scene-setter, to “get to the important part.” But each part of the gospel is important and the result of deliberate choice by the gospel writer. What the woman did for Jesus gives us insight into the whole passion narrative that is to follow.

Previously Mark told of the anonymous widow in the Temple who gave generously from “all that she had to live on.” Mark says she gave “two small copper coins.” That may not have been a lot in worldly terms but it was, as Jesus points out to his disciples, “all that she had to live on.” She gave a small monetary offering, but for the widow it was an offering of her life to God. It may have seemed small to those watching, but as Jesus points out it was an extravagant gift – a gift of her whole life to God.

Today’s gospel opens with the story of another anonymous woman who, in comparison to the widow, has much to offer Jesus. The woman approaches Jesus while he is eating in the house of Simon the leper. Seeming insignificant details in gospel stories are not, as it turns out, so insignificant. For example, Jesus is at a meal with his disciples and, as we shall see, the meal has Eucharistic tones. He is not just eating with them, he is at the home and table of a leper. It is unusual for Mark to name the host with whom Jesus eats, but he does name Simon and underlines his condition, he is a leper. Mark does not tell us if he is a cured leper, or still has the disease. But alluding to Simon’s leprosy fits with Jesus’ teaching that the sick and not the well are in need of the physician (2:17). Religious people, especially, would have avoided lepers, not only for fear of contagion, but also not to be rendered ritually unclean by contact with then. But Simon is at table with Jesus, showing that Jesus continues to be present to those the world would exclude. Hear the Eucharistic overtones? Who is welcome and gets to eat at the table of the Lord?

The woman who enters the meal is another outsider. She comes to Jesus at the table. We do not know her name and she does not seem to be related to anyone there. Unlike the widow in the Temple story, who gave everything she had to live on, this woman seems to be a person of means. She has the resources to buy an expensive, perfumed oil to anoint Jesus. This unknown woman, while not a guest, is not criticized for her intrusion, but for “this waste of perfumed oil.” Some have demeaned her as a prostitute, or a disreputable woman. Mark does not say that. She is an unnamed woman who does something very significant, which Jesus says will be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed. There is something happening that is more than a simple pouring of oil on a dinner guest’s head – something that will be remembered for ages.

The woman does not speak in the story, but her gestures are eloquent. She performs a familiar rite in the world in which Jesus lived. Anointing with oil signified a person was being appointed for a special role. Kings were often anointed as part of their coronation ceremony. Sometimes prophets were too. “Messiah” in Hebrew means, “the anointed one.” (“Christ” comes from the Greek ‘christos” which translates “Messiah.”)

Thus, because of the biblical imagery, the woman’s anointing of Christ could be an announcement that Jesus is the Messiah and is being anointed for a special task. As a woman she may have been considered insignificant in their world, but she has the honorable task of anointing the Messiah. Jesus adds to the interpretation of what the others are witnessing. He tells them, “She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.” Jesus’ crucified body will not be anointed when he is taken down from the cross and wrapped in a cloth by Joseph of Arimathea. After the Sabbath women will go to the tomb with perfumed oils to anoint his body. At the tomb the women will find Jesus’ body gone. But the anonymous woman at the dinner party has already anointed him.

Some at the table, seeing the woman pour expensive oil over Jesus’ head, make what sounds like, a reasonable objection. The oil was worth a lot, “300 day’s wages” and could have been sold and given to the poor. Jesus responds, the poor will always be with them – and us too. Such care of the needy will always be the duty of disciples. But someone right before us, who is in need, should also be ministered to. Charitable works of mercy are done in public by the community of disciples. But small, private acts of loving concern will also be needed. There is no little irony in Mark’s noting that immediately after this account, Judas betrayed Jesus for money. Was he also one of the disciples who objected to the woman’s extravagant use of oil to anoint Jesus?

The woman had shown courage and determination. She is an outsider who intrudes on a male gathering. You can hear that in the irritated voices of those who protest what she did. She gives Jesus comfort at a difficult moment. One of the twelve is about to betray him and he will be handed over to the Roman tyrants for torture and execution. She had also anointed him as king, which will be the outcome of his death and resurrection. She has shown herself to be a true follower of Jesus. While his closest disciples fail to understand what is happening: that she has anointing Jesus for his suffering and death. Her act of self-denial is likened to Jesus’ own self-denial in his suffering and death

Jesus confirms the significance of the woman’s actions saying that what she has done will be told in a memory “wherever the gospel is proclaimed.” He appreciates her action and calls it a “good work.” I like another translation which names it a “beautiful work” (14:6). The woman is indeed a true disciple in service to the Lord. Would that our works might also fit Jesus’ description as “beautiful works.”

A cautionary comment:

As Holy Week begins we need to be careful not to portray all Jews in Jesus’ time responsible for his death and rejecting God’s Son. Our history has not been good on this issue of anti-Semitism – it still isn’t. Jesus’ death was the responsibility of some elite Jewish men, who had power in the capital of Jerusalem and alliances with Rome. These were the ones who manipulated the crowds who called for Jesus’ execution. We want to be careful not to generalize and fall into ethnic stereotyping. The Jews are not “Christ killers.”