April 10, 2022

Lent in Plain Sight, VII: Oil

Passage: Matthew 21:1–11; 26:6–13

So the sight Matilda reminded you that this is Palm Sunday today, Christine told us beautifully the story of Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. You heard that the crowds laid down their coats, cut branches off the trees and laid them in the road, so that Jesus riding on a beast that looked a lot like Matilda could come in triumphantly. The people said “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosannah in the highest.”

The second gospel lesson comes from Matthew. The story happens the Wednesday before Holy Week, two days before Jesus died. This Lent at Kenilworth Union Church we are preaching a sermon series called “Lent in Plain Sight” when we are looking at following a Lenten devotional looking at common objects in our lives: dust, bread, coins, shoes, thorns, cross, and today oil.

Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then we think of oil in our own time and place, we instantly think of crude, which fuels everything from jet planes to automobiles, to furnaces, to the oil tankers themselves, but actually oil by definition is any viscous, unctuous, combustible liquid.

All oils are hydrophobic, which is Greek for ‘afraid of water,’ and is just a fancy way of saying that oil and water don’t mix. Oil and water are like Chris Rock and Will Smith; they don’t mix.

Oil has been integral to the human story since we learned to ignite moss soaked in animal fat for illumination 70,000 years ago. Oil lamps have been ubiquitous since 4,500 years before Jesus.

Oil is central to the American story too. Moby Dick is all about oil; John D. Rockefeller is all about oil—Standard Oil. “Bubblin’ crude. Oil, that is. Black Gold. Texas Tea.”

When the Bible talks about oil, of course, it means olive oil. Someone pointed out that three crops made life possible in ancient Palestine—grape, wheat, and olive.[1]

Olive oil was used in cooking, of course, but also in medicine as a salve for a wound or a rash. When a king was crowned, he was christened with oil. That’s why Jesus of Nazareth is called The Christ, Greek for ‘The Anointed One.’ ‘Christ’ is related to ‘chrism’ and means ‘oil.’

Olive oil was central to the cosmetics industry, a base for mascara and rouge, and the foundation of perfume. Did you know there was an expansive, thriving cosmetics industry in first-century Palestine?

Matthew tells us that on Wednesday of Holy Week, two days before Jesus dies, he is having dinner at a friend’s house in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, when an anonymous woman crashes the party and dumps an entire alabaster flask of expensive perfume all over his hair and beard.

Matthew doesn’t tell us what exactly she dumped on his head, but Mark tells us that it was an ointment of oil and nard, an herb from the Himalayas which has an intense, warm, musky fragrance. In the Hebrew Bible, The Song of Songs says that nard is an aphrodisiac.[2] Go figure.

Matthew tells us that this ointment was ‘very costly,’ but gets no more specific. Mark, on the other hand, tells us that this perfume was worth 300 denarii, or at least $30,000 by today’s valuation, maybe $40,000.

Wow! You can see the point of the disciples’ horrified question: “Why this waste; we could have fed 5,000 poor people with this money!”  Waste is exactly what it looks like.

And now you see the connection between crude oil and olive oil—all oils are very expensive. A barrel of Brent crude is going for about $100 just now, which means that at the corner Shell station by my house a gallon of gasoline is $4.69, and it will cost you $80–$100 to fill up your SUV. This anonymous woman dumped $30,000 on Jesus’ head.

But we all know that love is expensive, right? Matthew’s story is about saying goodbye before it’s too late.

Look, nobody else in the Passion story understands what’s going on. Nobody understands what he means and why he came. Nobody else understands what’s going to happen in two days—two days!

The disciples don’t get it; they think it’s a waste. The Pharisees definitely don’t get it. Judas Iscariot really, really gets him wrong. Pontius Pilate is right about him but too craven to do the right thing. The Roman soldiers are completely clueless.

Only this woman understands who he is, what’s going to happen, and why he has come. He has come for her, he has come for them, he has come for all of us.

And so she pays him the requisite tribute before it is too late. When the disciples call her act of love a waste, he scolds them by saying, "Leave her alone. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. She has prepared my body for burial.”

This story is about saying goodbye before it’s too late. So many people have got us to where we are. We couldn’t have done it without them. From the beginning, they have loved us and known us and seen us and understood why we’re here, and in some cases they have worked, and sacrificed, and burned the midnight oil to make sure we got what we needed in order to thrive, including a college education.

But we never tell them. William Barclay says, “Life is the history of lost opportunities to do the lovely thing.”[3] Might you take the opportunity to do the lovely thing before it’s too late? Might you pay tribute to somebody who made you what you are?

The other day after the U.S. Senate confirmed Ketanji Brown Jackson as the newest Justice to the Supreme Court, The New York Times interviewed several accomplished young women who might succeed her one day, including Christina Coleburn, a student at Harvard Law.

She says, “We’re our ancestors wildest dreams.” I love the way she puts it. She is, she says, her grandmother’s wildest dream. Maybe her grandmother was a domestic somewhere. Her granddaughter is her wildest dream.

Christina says, “To consider how their work made our lives possible; sometimes we just take it for granted.”[4] You’re somebody’s wildest dream; don’t take their work for granted. Pay them the requisite tribute before it’s too late.

I’ve got time for one last thing, but I don’t know if I should tell you this story. It’s too small next to Matthew’s story. Oh, well, whatever. I’ll let you sort it out.

Drew Dudley tells this story. When he was a young man, Drew attended a small college called Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. On his last day at the University, a fellow student came up to him. She said, “You don’t remember me. I haven’t spoken to you for four years.

“But we met four years ago, on my first day of college. I was terrified. I didn’t think I belonged. My parents were standing with me in the registration line, and I was about ready to tell them that this was all a mistake and we needed to go home.

“Just then, you walked out of the Student Union wearing the stupidest hat I have ever seen. It was awesome. You were promoting ‘Students Fighting Cystic Fibrosis,’ or something. You had a bucket of lollipops, and you were handing them out to all the students standing in the registration line.

“And when you got to me, all of a sudden, you just stopped. And you stared. It was creepy.

“And then you looked at the guy standing next to me, and you reached into your bucket and handed him a lollipop. And you said, ‘You need to give this lollipop to the beautiful woman standing next to you.’

“He was mortified. I have never seen anyone get so embarrassed so fast in my entire life. He turned 50 shades of red. He wouldn’t even look at me. He just stood there and handed me a lollipop like this. And I felt so bad for this dude that I took the lollipop.

“And just as I did that, you got this stern look on your face, and you looked at my Mom and Dad, and you said, ‘Look at that. Look at that!  First day away from home and she’s already taking candy from strangers.’

“And for 20 feet around, everybody just lost it. Everybody just howled. And I know this is cheesy, but I just wanted to tell you that when everybody started laughing, I felt at home, and I decided to stay. And it was the right decision.

“That was four years ago. We haven’t spoken since. And I heard that you were leaving, and I just wanted you to know that you have been an incredibly important person in my life, and I’m going to miss you.”

And this young woman walks away from Drew Dudley, and when she gets about six feet away, she turns and smiles at Drew, and she says “And oh, Drew, by the way, you should know this. That guy with the lollipop? Four years later, I’m still dating him.”[5]

That’s a tiny, tiny story when you set it next to the story of the anonymous woman who paid Jesus tribute on the Wednesday of the first Holy Week, but that young woman from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick said goodbye before it was too late. She told Drew Dudley what he meant to her.

And Jesus said, “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.”

We don’t even remember her name. But we remember what she did. And we remember how she loved. And we will not forget until he comes again.

[1]Victor H. Matthews, in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katherine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon, 2009), vol. 4, 322.

[2]Matthews, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, op. cit., 4, 222.

[3]William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew in The Daily Study Bible Series (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1975, first ed. 1957) vol. 2, p. 330.

[4]Adapted from Linda Qiu, photographs by Lelanie Foster, “‘We Belong in These Spaces’: Jackson’s Successors Reflect on Her Nomination,” The New York Times, April 8, 2022.

[5]Drew Dudley, “Have You Changed Someone’s Life Without Realizing It?” Ted Radio Hour, January 17, 2014. http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=261094881.

*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.