Philippians 3:14; John 12:1-8
I became fascinated this week with the word “anoint.” The English word “anoint” combines the meaning of two Hebrew words, “cukh” and “mashach”.
The word “cukh” refers to the use of oil by anyone, as a cosmetic, to protect the skin from sun and sand and to add fragrance. In arid cultures such as the Middle East, anointing the head, or providing a dish of rose water for refreshing the face, or washing the feet, were considered common courtesy and hospitality. Anointing oil was also used for healing purposes, as we remember from the story of the Good Samaritan.
The word “mashach” is more familiar, meaning the anointed one, such as a priest or prophet or king. We hear and read it as messiah. Aaron and his sons were anointed to set them apart as priests. Saul and David and other men were anointed as kings. Elijah anointed Elisha as the prophet to succeed him. Cyrus the Persian is called anointed / messiah because he defeated the Babylonians and sent the Israelites back to Jerusalem.
Jesus is called messiah, anointed one, several times in scripture. Sometimes, he is “A” messiah, and other times, he is “THE” messiah. In Luke 4, Jesus quotes Isaiah 61: the Lord has anointed me to bring good news. In Acts 10, Peter tells Cornelius that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power. When Jesus washes the feet of the disciples in John 13, he is in a way anointing their feet with water for ministry in his name.
There are references in Second Corinthians and Hebrews to believers being anointed in Christ, meaning that people have the Holy Spirit within them. That means that we, too, are anointed with Christ’s Holy Spirit.
So, now that we understand a little of the scriptural meaning of being anointed, we can turn to the Gospel text where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet.
This story immediately follows the raising of Lazarus from death. Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, both confronted Jesus about his apparent “letting Lazarus die.” Now, Mary is so grateful, she gives the richest gift she can. Perhaps she thinks, after walking hundreds or even thousands of miles in his mission, Jesus’ feet are sore, cracked. A foot rub and a soothing balm sure would feel good. So she gets the jar of nard and begins to pour it on Jesus’ feet. She rubs it into all the cracks and crevices.
Many people have accused Mary of being a prostitute because her hair is not covered. But she is at home among family and close friends, so covering her hair was not necessary. Because her hair is uncovered, she can use it to absorb the extra nard, making her own hair feel better.
Judas complains about the waste – the oil could have been sold for a lot of money. He says this in a way that reminds us of many politicians: his words say he is concerned with the poor, but his intent is to put some of that money in his own pocket.
Jesus scolds him: “What she has done is good. She has anointed me for burial. Today, because I will not be with you much longer, this anointing Mary has done is more important than feeding the poor, whom you can feed any day, all year long.”
This anointing is surprising because, if it is for his burial, Jesus is still very much alive. It is surprising because, if it is to anoint him as king, he is a very different kind of king.
And it is surprising because this anointing has been done by a woman. Jesus allows Mary to touch him. She is not his wife or cousin or child. She is not a prostitute. She is a friend. Never before in the known history of the Jewish people has an anointing, a messiah anointing, been done by a woman. The anointing of a king has always been done by a male priest, a high priest even.
Jesus allows and praises this action by Mary showing he accepts her as equal. As Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, man and woman.” All who believe in Jesus are equal, one with another.
This anointing of Jesus is the messiah kind of anointing. The early church continued this type of anointing but made it available to all believers. New Christians were bathed, baptized, and then slathered/ anointed with oil and clothed in new white garments to begin their new lives.
Many of you, five, fifteen, or fifty or more years ago were anointed with oil as the pastor made the sign of the cross on your forehead at your baptism. You/we have been anointed with Christ’s Holy Spirit, and called to ministry in his name.
I believe in using anointing oil liberally. We use it for baptisms, during the order for healing as we will later today, and on Holy / Maundy Thursday as we receive God’s forgiveness. The anointing oil is a sign of our call to follow Jesus, pressing on, as Paul says, toward the goal of following Jesus. It is good to remember the oil is a sign of God’s powerful presence in our lives.
Lutherans don’t do much with the concept of the anointing of the Holy Spirit as the Pentecostals understand it. Yet we do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or do we?
Do we come to church expecting the Spirit to show up?
Do we expect to be healed by God, or is the anointing for healing we experience today just a reminder to hope and pray for healing?
Do we trust in Jesus to lead us in ministry, putting words in our mouths, faith in our listeners’ ears?
Do we trust Jesus to be with us as we follow him in giving our lives to God for divine purposes?
Do we trust in Jesus to guide us as a congregation into the future?
Let’s remember that we have been anointed by God and filled with the Holy Spirit. We are called to follow Jesus, not to the cross, but to bring good news to all people. The anointing we have received is not for our burial, but to dare us to be Jesus’ hands and feet and mouth and love in this world, this community.
Please pray with me. Lord, as Mary anointed Jesus for what was to come, so you anoint us for your purposes. Help us remember that your anointing has power in our lives, and lead us to trust you, wherever you lead us. In your holy name, amen.