Ash Wednesday (Mark 14:1-9)

Passion Reading: Mark 14:1–9

1It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

If you were to get ashes in your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to see clearly. Similarly, what sin has done to us is damage our vision of what is good in God’s sight. We look at what is good and distort its purpose, or we look upon what is beautiful and misjudge its value. As Isaiah says, we are those who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Isa. 5:20).

Jesus says in the Gospel, “When you give to the needy” (Matthew 6:2). He assumes that Christians will do this and that giving to the needy must be a good thing to do. Jesus also says in the Passion Reading, “You always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them” (Mark 14:7). But sinners misjudge the purpose of such good deeds.

Jesus criticized the hypocrites “in the synagogues and in the streets” for conspicuously giving to the needy in order to “be praised by others” (Matthew 6:2). Likewise, they prayed long-winded prayers and made a show of fasting in order to “be seen by others” (Matthew 6:5, 16). In being praised and seen by others, they received the rewards they were seeking: to be thought of as good people by others. This is an entirely self-serving and evil approach to good works, because it only uses God’s Name for selfish gain.

On the other hand, those who come to the Father through faith in His Son view good works as opportunities to serve the neighbor and please God [2 Corinthians 5:9]. In fact, these works pleasing in God’s sight aren’t even done seeking a reward. Jesus never says that rewards are why Christians do what they do. He promises that the Father will reward the almsgiving, prayer, and fasting of His children, but reward is not their motivation.

But our old Adam misjudges this point. Sin’s deep delusion is that our work must have a commensurate reward. That is the worst misjudgment we can make, and it’s the tragic error of all man-made attempts at religion. Thanks be to God that His Word, echoed in the liturgy and hymns, makes it painfully clear our utter wretchedness and desperate need for the forgiveness of our sins. What we need of first importance is the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. And St. Mark takes us to Him in our Passion Reading when he begins, “It was now two days before the Passover. . .” (Mark 14:1).

The Passover and Passion were just a couple of days away. Jesus knew this and had repeatedly told His disciples that His death was drawing near. But unlike Jesus, the guests at Simon the Leper’s house didn’t have their mind on the cross when an uninvited woman came in. She cracked open an expensive jar of pure nard, which was a luxury item, and anointed Jesus. It was no small thing, because her act, no matter how out of place it seemed to the guests, proclaimed that Jesus was the anointed offering, a pleasing aroma about to be presented to God.

Then there’s the value of the nard itself. If it really could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, that would have been nearly a year’s wages for a day laborer. Before the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the disciples estimated that two hundred denarii worth of bread would fill the crowd’s bellies (Mark 6:37). Just imagine how many people you could feed with three hundred denarii! That’s what the guests at Simon’s dinner were saying among themselves, outraged at the woman’s wastefulness, indignant that so many would go hungry because of her impulsiveness. “What’s wrong with you, woman? Are you out of your mind? You should have sold that perfume and given the money to the poor!” But they had misjudging eyes. It’s worth noting that John’s Gospel, chapter 12, comments that Judas raised this objection, “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6)

Jesus, however, sees clearly and He comes to the woman’s defense and tells her critics to back off. Jesus recognizes her action as a beautiful work, as preparation for the most beautiful, noble, good deed in human history: His own suffering, death, and burial.

As Jesus Himself says, it’s good to give to the needy, to do good to the poor. But when the incarnate Son of God is sitting at your dinner table preparing to suffer and die for the sin of the world, then be hastily entombed without proper anointing at His burial, then even three hundred denarii worth of ointment is no waste, but is rightly devoted to His service. What the dinner guests could not see was the sheer uniqueness, the tremendous weight, of the moment they were witnessing. For God’s Anointed One was soon to give His body and shed His blood, to give His life as a ransom for the world, to be the once-for-all Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This moment was not business as usual. As the generous provider for all Creation, it’s certain that God the Father gave what was necessary to feed the poor of Bethany and Jerusalem on that day, even as He was about to pour out the priceless blood of His Son as a saving balm for sinners. St. Paul echoes the anointed Jesus, “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). The smell of Christ’s holy life and atoning work turned away the wrath of God against us, with our misjudgment and evil thoughts and selfish plans, once and for all.

In Holy Baptism, you have been washed in the blood of the Lamb and anointed with the Holy Spirit to sanctify you and make you pleasing to the Father. The beautiful robe of Christ’s righteousness has become yours, so that you need no longer fear eternal damnation in hell. The power of sin, death, and Satan has been shattered like that broken alabaster flask, and you have been liberated from the realm of darkness to live forever in the Kingdom of Life, and for the rest of your earthly lives to love God with all your heart and to love your neighbor as yourself.

There was another time Jesus was anointed by a woman, earlier in His ministry, at the house of a different Simon, a Pharisee (Luke 7:36–50). St. Luke reports that that woman was known around town as a sinner, and she anointed and wiped the feet of Jesus with her hair. Jesus concludes the story by saying that her loving action toward Him was evidence that she had been forgiven much, for the one who has been forgiven much, loves much.

Why doesn’t Mark give us this woman’s name? Because at that moment, she was not the point; Jesus and His saving work were. Her anonymity also teaches us how to approach good works. Our good works are marred with our own vanity when we make them about us. Beautiful works do not come as a result of human cleverness or guilt-tripping. They cannot be forced from the outside, or quantified so that they match a certain expectation. What happens when sinners do this, is they turn the Christian faith into a human enterprise, the result of our planning and our doing. The measure of success is in the eyes of men, and the rewards are not in heaven. They’re right here on earth where we can see how much or how little we’ve “gotten done.”

This is the pitfall of dictating acts of devotion, too. It’s hard to get away from the idea that you’re supposed to “give up something for Lent.” Where this tradition started may have been commendable, but what it’s become is a practice of righteousness before men and a pointless burden. Whether it’s fasting, praying, or giving alms, it needs to all be about Jesus. Whatever is about you needs to decrease until it’s nothing. That’s what the Lord means when He says, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:13) Squeeze out all that is you, all that is full of uncleanness, malice, and evil; so that you can be filled with Christ’s righteousness, His holiness, His life.

The works which Jesus calls beautiful are those that magnify Him. Those proclaimed in the Gospel, are the ones which were spontaneous, borne out of a heart that knows God’s grace in Christ, and responds to it. “She has done what she could,” Jesus says. That is, she simply lived out her vocation, and on that day, she was called to do the beautiful work of anointing Jesus before His burial. She did not do it to be praised or seen by others, nor was she seeking a reward, but she had eyes only on Jesus. And now, even though as a sinner she was not worthy of anything from the Father, she has gone on to receive her eternal reward, all for the sake of the Jesus whom she anointed.

You also are called to do what you can in your vocations, in whatever situation the Lord puts you each day. You are set free from the enslaving misjudgment that you should do good works either to be praised by men or to ward off guilty feelings. In Christ, you are free to care for the poor; free to bring to God your sins, your cares and that of others, and your praises; free to offer your acts of devotion in secret—not to bring glory to yourself, but because of the glory that God has made known to you in His Son. Repent and believe the Gospel, which declares your sins are forgiven by the Passover Lamb. Then you are truly freed for good works offered to Him, to give glory to Your Savior and Your God. Amen.