It was over a decade ago that I sat in the fourth balcony of an ornate opera house in London with tears falling down my checks as I watched the legendary musical Les Miserables. It was the third time I had heard the story, the third time that I had been haunted by this tale of the French Revolution, the third time I had had to grapple with the deep theological themes at work in the lyrics. The third time I had allowed it to work it’s magic on my spirit.
The story, for those of you who are not familiar with the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo, centers around a man named Jean Valjean who has been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He is convicted of the crime and forced to serve nineteen years in a grueling chain gang. Because he is unable to begin a new life with the stain of his “crime” on his record, he breaks parole. He disobeys the rules which govern the land. A prominent man in town, Javert, the parole officer and constable, a man familiar with the law and a man wanting to follow the rules, searches for Valjean, eager to do his job. Valjean eventually, because of his changed identity becomes mayor of a nearby village. His government is characterized by kindness and justice. He rescues the child of a factory worker who has been killed. He raises the child as his own. His loyalty to his adopted daughter, Cosette, is tender and true. He follows the call of his God, a God of love and grace.
And Javert, the constable, loyally searches for the parole-breaker. He follows the call of his God, a God of justice and righteousness who wants laws upheld, who wants every “t” crossed and every “I” dotted. While it is easy for some to point fingers at the constable Javert and to exclaim passionately that God’s love is more powerful than the legalistic rules of a government in the midst of revolution, I find myself wondering if there might be more to the story than this.
Listen to the words of Javert from the musical, “There out in the darkness/ A fugitive running/ Fallen from grace/ God be my witness/ I never shall yield/ till we come face to face/ …Mine is the way of the Lord/ And those who follow the paths of the righteous/ Shall have their reward/…God is the sentinel/ silent and sure/ keeping watch in the night/…Lord let me find him/ That I may see him/ Safe behind bars.”
Both men in this story struggle to do what they deem morally right. Both men want to please God. Valjean take risks, impulsively resisting arrest and yet rescuing and freeing those imprisoned in their own lives in various ways. Javert stays the course, compulsively follwing the rules of his job and his life. Two men. Two different ways of being loyal. Two different ways of interpreting what God they believe God asks of them. Neither is wrong.
In the gospel of Mark, we find a story with similar tensions. On one hand, we have the disciples, who appear, at least in this story, diligent and earnest in their concern over the teachings of Christ. They yearn for the God of justice. The trust the God of justice. On the other hand, we have the unnamed woman, who in an impulsive moment of love pours a jar of expensive nard and anoints Jesus with a spontaneous act of great sensuousness and reverence. She trusts the God of love. Two followers of Jesus. Two different ways of being loyal. Neither is wrong.
Jesus was traveling in Bethany two days before the last supper. This pericope, in fact, is set right before the writer of the Gospel tells of Judas’ scheming with the high priests to have Jesus silenced. And so, the writer of the Gospel of Mark is preparing us for Jesus’ death. Jesus was sitting at a table in the house of a leper. He was perhaps finishing his meal, with his disciples close by. And the gospel recounts, “as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.” The gospel doesn’t tell us whether she is a guest at the home, or whether she has a previous relationship with Jesus. We are not even sure of the woman’s name. What we know is what she did. The woman took the jar and poured the oil slowly and sacredly on the head of Jesus. In the Middle East, where the weather is scaldingly hot and dry to be soothed with oil is a luxury beyond measure, a loxury this woman wanted to extend to her teacher and friend.
The woman in the story took a risk. Did she think about the implications of what she was doing? Did she imagine the uproar and the upbraiding that she would receive for her act of love? Did she wonder how Jesus would accept her gift? I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the woman would have carefully and compulsively analyzed the repercussions of her act. Would she have gone ahead anyway?
As I picture this unnamed woman in my mind’s eye, I see a woman of passion, a woman perhaps stirred by the heat of the moment, a woman who could think of no more fitting way to demonstrate her love for this prophet than to provide him some small measure of relief. And the fact that the woman did this in front of others is stunningly brave as well. She seemed to instinctively trust that Jesus would understand her gift. She trusted that she would be accepted and understood completely. I wonder if I would have the courage to seek Jesus out in this same way. Could I walk before the followers of Jesus, men well-traveled and articulate? Would I be too intimidated? Would you? This unnamed woman seems brave beyond mention.
As she broke the jar and poured the oil there was surely murmuring and muttering around the room. And some sort of chaos must have ensued. The scriptures say, “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.’” A point well-made indeed. Wasn’t Jesus preaching the upside-down kindom? That the first should be last and that the responsibility of his followers was to minister to the outcasts? Did Jesus not call his followers to serve a God of justice? A God who wanted money and resources equitably distributed?
I can almost imagine myself sitting at that table quibbling and muttering with the disciples myself. Those compulsive disciples who wanted clarity on the rules, who wanted Jesus to verity who’s right and who’s wrong. Perhaps their words to the woman were said lovingly, as they patted her on the shoulder and whispered discreetly, “Ma’am, we’re afraid you’ve misunderstood. We know you want to support Jesus. We welcome your support, but how about finding a more appropriate way.” Perhaps they scolded out of concern, maybe they even wanted to protect her, assuming Jesus would be angry. We can surmise, of course. We can postulate, but we will never know for sure what happened in that room over two thousand years ago.
Two different factions. Two different ways of viewing the teachings of the Christ. Neither is wrong.
I see myself often as being in two opposing camps in this story. These words have become personal for me. For there is a part of me, earthy and passionate who resonates with this woman. It is this part of me who runs in the rain with no thought of being soaked to the skin. It is this part of me, who, craving freshly baked bread, starts baking at eight o’clock in the evening knowing full-well that with the rising of the yeast it will not be done until the wee hours of the morning. It is this part of me who weeps sometimes when I watch my step-daughters dance, and who takes long baths by the light of candles, and who pauses in awe while noticing that her lilies have bloomed. This impulsive woman with the alabaster jar who lives within me. She teaches me to experience the creation of God. She connects me to the root of the root and the heart of the heart.
And with my other foot, I am firmly planted in the land of the disciples, for they have a voice as well. I understand their conventional practicality and yearning for the disciplined way to adhere to the social teachings of Christ. I understand their need for a God of justice who makes complete sense at all times. I have learned, especially as I continue to age, that there is nothing wrong with the heady, compulsive part of myself that searches the scriptures for truths. It is this part of me that budgets money to be given to charity and makes sure that my elderly neighbors have their prescriptions on time. It is this part of me that googles Biblical interpretations as I attempt to exegete the gospels. It is this part of me who appreciates the way committees can make things happen and understands the importance of some forms of bureaucracy so that hungry bellies can receive food, and hurricane victims can receive FEMA trailers. The concern that the disciples raise is often my own when I ask, “Why should we have a community beautification project if people in the community have no food or work?” The disciples questioning lives within me. They connect me to the wisdom inherent to critical thinking and logical questioning and thoughtful investing.
Two ways of being. Two different interpretations of life. Neither is wrong.
The New Testament is filled with parables which offer hints at “right living.” Jesus is full of tidbits of advice for those seeking the kindom of God. We have the sermon on the mount as our guide. We all have tattooed on our brains the saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kindom of God. One would think these rules for living were rigid and secure. But then a story like this bursts into our world and we are reminded that the importance seems to lie more firmly in the spirit of what we do. The unnamed woman here was not “politically correct” and yet she was understood and she was praised.
After the oil was poured, and the muttering of the disciples had quieted. Jesus spoke. His words were these, “Leave 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 it’s 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.”
And here the story ends. We are left wondering what happened to the woman, or how the disciples responded.
Surely Jesus was not saying that we should not continue our outreach to those less fortunate than we. Surely Jesus was not admonishing the disciples for their concern for the poor. Rather, I believe Jesus was addressing the narrow and rigid rules that the disciples were using as a yardstick to judge the woman. Perhaps if there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it is that there is more than one way to express ourselves as followers of Christ. There is the way of deep passion and personal relation and there is the way of community outreach and social action. Two ways. Two approaches. Neither is wrong.
Within all of us there lies the Javert and the Valjean, the disciples and the unnamed woman, the two interiors of our own lives. As a church, we have too often ignored the extravagant deed of this woman, too often ignored the spontaneous sensous gifts of the mystics. Jesus’ promise is that wherever the gospel is told, she will be remembered for the conventional way of the disciples is not enough. There is more to embrace. And we are called to fulfill the promise of remembrance.
It is not too late to honor the unnamed woman in our own souls. By balancing the impulsive with the compulsive, the passion with the logic, the grace with the justice, we find that true path to discipleship. May we learn to integrate the two ways within ourselves, for neither is wrong, and in embracing the whole we find that it is absolutely right. Amen.