This is Friday of the fifth week of Lent. The reading is Matthew 26:1-13, Jesus anointed for his burial. (If you want to listen, scroll to the bottom of that page for the audio links.)
Wright invites us to the meal at the little house in Bethany (which means ‘house of the poor’) “After what Jesus did in Jerusalem the other day, they’re all wondering what’s coming next. Is he going to make another move? Is he going to give the signal for a serious uprising? He has secret contacts all over the place; are they getting swords and clubs ready for action?”
“The meal that evening is in full swing, when suddenly one of the women comes in. Normally women didn’t join the men; it wasn’t the done thing. So that’s a shock for a start. But then — you shrink back in embarrassment — she’s bringing a jar full of ointment, and she begins to pour it out, all over Jesus’ head! You smell the delicious aroma, above the various smells of the meal, and you watch the mixture of delight and dismay on everyone’s faces. What a wonderful smell; but what on earth is she up to?”
“Then some of Jesus’ followers, perhaps expressing complex social discomfort as much as real concern, start complaining. You can see their point. Here we are in a place set aside to look after the poor, and you go pouring out a month’s wages just like that? What can you be thinking about? There is a pause. The woman looks down, ashamed at being told off and yet still pleased to have done what she did. Everyone waits. There’s only one person who can settle this. Jesus speaks. ‘What’s your problem?’ he asks. ‘This was a good thing she’s done. As for the poor, there will be plenty of time to look after them; but you haven’t got long to look after me. You know what she’s done? She has prepared my body for burial!’
A horrified gasp goes round the room, but Jesus goes on: ‘Let me tell you this! Wherever the good news is announced, right around the world, what she has done will be told. That will be her memorial.’ Now the emotions are truly mixed. The woman is both thrilled at Jesus’ affirmation and distraught at the mention of burial. People look this way and that. Does he actually mean it? I know he’s been talking about the Son of Man being crucified, but we all assume — or we hope — that that’s just a way of talking about a time of great struggle and suffering. If he is actually going to die, what good news will there be to tell around the world? How does that make any sense?