A Long Eyesight
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, March14th, 2021
“It was two days before the festival of Passover.” In one short phrase, Mark ushers us into the madness. What follows happens in rapid fire fashion and no one remains unscarred. Behind closed doors in Jerusalem, religious leaders plot to kill Jesus. This, though, is nothing new. We have known of their plans since early in the Gospel when after Jesus heals a man on the sabbath, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (3:6).
Now, just two days before the highest holiday in the Jewish year, the plot thickens as Judas appears on the scene with betrayal on his mind. Mark writes: “When they [the religious leaders in Jerusalem] heard what Judas had come for, they were greatly pleased and promised to give him money. So, he began to look for an opportunity to betray him” (14:11).
Sandwiched neatly between the conspiracy by the chief priests and scribes to kill Jesus and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Mark shifts the focus. He moves beyond the crowded holiday streets of Jerusalem at Passover to the sleepy village of Bethany, just a few miles away. Here, tucked away from the chaos of the city, Jesus reclines for delicious food and drink at the home of Simon, who, by the way, happens to be a leper. Once again, we find Jesus in an undesirable home and surrounded by some of the most suspect people.
During the dinner party, an unannounced, unnamed woman enters a male-only affair and pours an expensive jar of oil on the head of Jesus. What follows her audacious act is the precursor for generations of church debates. The script is always the same: “Oh my God, Jesus, what has this woman done?! We could have built ten Habitat houses for the cost of what she just poured on your head.” Then, the indignant male disciples would proceed to berate the woman: “Stupid woman, how dare you waste such a valuable asset?!” A few more enlightened, but no less patriarchal, males at the dinner party would mostly likely take her aside and offer to give her a course in money management.
To be fair to this all boys’ club, they have a point. The disciples left their livelihoods to follow Jesus. They have watched suffering and hungry people come to Jesus for help and they simply cannot condone the excess of this woman and they want Jesus to set her straight. We do too.
To their and our astonishment, Jesus does just the opposite. He praises her act and then utters words that I wish he had never said. Typically, when we hear these words today, we hear only a small part of what Jesus actually said and almost always, we hear them out of context. What we hear is: “The poor will always be with you.” Sadly, people use these out of context words from Jesus as a biblical safety shield that allows them to engage in some of the most unbiblical and outrageous behaviors.
For instance, whenever people of good faith insist that we fight a war on poverty, some people take these words from Jesus and ask: “Why waste your time on such a hopeless effort? Even Jesus said: The poor will always be with you.” They use Jesus’ own words to spend no time fighting poverty. Instead, they avoid poverty like the plague, driving around neighborhoods where poverty dances in the street, defending their callous disregard of the poor as something Jesus himself understood and even endorsed.
Well, not so fast. What Jesus actually says is altogether different. As the disciples scold the woman for her financial excess, Jesus tells them to back off. He says, “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.” Jesus is not condoning poverty or suggesting that we do. No, he is praising an unfettered act of costly generosity and self-giving love.
Jesus then pays this unnamed intruder woman perhaps the highest compliment he ever pays anyone. He says, “She has done what she could.” She could not stop the steam engine of violence about to haul Jesus to Golgotha. She could not persuade a Roman governor to give her a private audience so she could defend Jesus against false charges. As a woman, she could not even sit at the table of a male leper. What she could do is to anoint the body of Jesus for burial. And, she does.
“She has done what she could,” says Jesus. Jesus could have easily said the same about the widow who gives away her last resources to the Temple treasury. He could have said the same for his mother who upon hearing the angel’s news said, “Let it be so.” “She has done what she could” is the badge of honor of Sarah who entertained angels unawares and Ruth who refused to desert Naomi and Hannah who dedicated her only son, Samuel, to the work of the Lord.
Throughout the Gospel of Mark, the male disciples consistently do less than what they could. Peter could have crowed like a proud rooster of his allegiance to Jesus, but instead the rooster crowed as he wept in shame. James and John could have watched out for their fellow disciples but instead, they take Jesus aside and beg him to watch out for them. Pilate could have stood firm against a bloodthirsty crowd, but instead his spine dissolved as he washed his hands of all of it.
While the powerful are plotting to kill Jesus, a woman whose name we will never know, prepares him for his burial. Why? He is alive and well and feasting at Simon’s dinner party. Why? Because this woman knows that death is coming. She can smell it in the air. So, she gives Jesus an extravagant gift, but not nearly as extravagant a gift as he is about to give to the world. Though we will never know her name, Mark has made sure that we will never forget this woman’s act of courageous faith and extravagant love.
Have you ever heard of Fannye Booker? I had not until the Rev. Will Campbell introduced her to me. Will writes: “I don’t think much of the way greatness is gauged and history is taught. It seems to center around a few of the rich and famous. Those we call the ‘little people’ seem not to exist.
“Mrs. Fannye Booker. Ever hear that name? Well, she was a ninety-year-old black lady in Mississippi. She never played football, but she ran a little camp school for rural black children during the Depression, when the state wouldn’t educate them. They brought butter, eggs, peas, and cornmeal as tuition. She was never President, but while running a quilting bee she taught black people how to register to vote. She was never a CEO, but she gave hope to hundreds of poor children.”
A close friend of Mrs. Booker described her as a person with “a long eyesight.” That “long eyesight” is hard to miss in her last will and testament. “I leave my family the following items,” writes Mrs. Booker. “I leave you HOPE. I have achieved many things during an era when it should not have been possible. Thomas family members strive forward to obtain your dreams. I leave you the CHALLENGE of developing confidence in one another. We must band together--for a house divided cannot stand, but one built on togetherness can stand the test of time. I leave you a THIRST for education. Though many of you have made great accomplishments in the academic area, my request is that you strive for more and more. Finally, I leave you LOVE, you should always remember that love builds and hate tears down--so remove hate from your heart."
I wish I had known Mrs. Fannye Booker, that remarkable black woman from Mississippi. I wish I had known that anonymous woman who shook up a male-only dinner party in Bethany and doused Jesus with burial oils. I am thankful, though, that in my lifetime I have known more than a few people with “a long eyesight.” They have inspired me by their fierce determination to live faithful and generous lives even when confronted by the proud, powerful, and prudent offering a thousand reasons why they should not do what they are about to do or offering detailed instructions on how to do it differently or offering dire warnings for why it will never work. Those with “a long eyesight” listen respectfully and then get on doing what God has called them to do.
I have no doubt that you too know people like the unnamed woman at Simon’s dinner party and Mrs. Booker, people who will never make anyone’s list of Who’s Who, except for God’s, people who give generously, even extravagantly, because that is what grateful people do, people who break the rules when the rules are unjust, people who persist in this life because you cannot live in faith and not.
In honor of all those people with “a long eyesight” that you know, I invite you to finish this sermon. Name each one of those now. Name them aloud. Commend their courage and faith and love to God. And, then join me in praying that God may give each one of us “a long eyesight.”