Reflections on Mark: How Jesus Answers Our Shame

During a recent conversation with a friend she and I were catching up what had been going on in our lives. I love this friend, and know she loves me. As we talked I shared how I was feeling stretched, feeling like I was not enough in my work or my life, fearing that I was missing out or not included, worried that saying 'no' would make me feel left out rather than giving me needed space or rest. I was being honest and vulnerable — and as I exposed those parts of me, I felt a feeling of shame creeping up. "That was way too much," it whispered. "You are too much. You cry to easily. What a burden."

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This fall, the women’s Bible Study has been examining the book of Mark — it’s fast-paced and filled with action. As we are nearing the end of the book Jesus is focused on the Cross; even the action of the book slows down and zooms in on the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus has entered Jerusalem as the Passover festivals are beginning and is only a few days away from his death. Among these advents, we find the story of Jesus’ anointing in chapter 14:3-9.

And 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. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And 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.’

This scene is a familiar one to many of us, but looking at this story I have seen new layers of understanding about Jesus’ love and ministry and about the woman who comes to anoint him. Jesus is in a man’s home (Simon who used to be a leper) reclining at table with his disciples and others. In comes an unnamed woman bringing a flask of costly perfume — this is a lavish, extravagant gift since the cost of this perfume would be close to a year’s wages. Mark’s account does not give many details about this woman, but we can clearly see that she knows who Jesus is. She believes. She risks. She trusts.

After this beautiful display of love towards Jesus, some who witnessed it became indignant and scolded her. This woman has shown vulnerability and faith — she has demonstrated that she knows Jesus is the true Messiah and that he ought to receive her desperate devotion — and what do people do? Encourage her? Thank her? No. They shame her. Her fears that this was a risky move are proving correct as she is scolded and shamed by those who don’t understand what she does about Jesus and his mission. She might have wondered if she was too much, if her act was too much for Jesus. 

But what does Jesus do? He tells them to “Leave her alone.” In the midst of shame, Jesus intervenes. He does not dismiss her but he defends her and speaks words of significance to the woman (and to all women!). He tells that what she has done is beautiful, not shame worthy, and he affirms her belief and the costly display of her gratitude. This woman will be remembered for this act of faith. 

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It is often easy to listen to the voices that shame me. I can be quick to believe that I am unworthy, that showing my real self was a mistake, that I am unlovable, or that I am simply not enough. Just as this woman was shamed and scolded, shame is close at hand for many of us. But Jesus is not a god who shames; he is a god who saves. We can risk and be vulnerable with God and others because Jesus does not dismiss us but defends us. Jesus has the voice of love and authority that tells us who we truly are — those who believe and do beautiful things.