This is not the traditional scripture reading for Palm Sunday. In Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus, it comes after Jesus and his disciples arrival to acclamation in Jerusalem. It also (obviously) occurs before Jesus is arrested, tortured, and crucified.
A woman shows up as Jesus is dining at Simon’s house. She anoints Jesus with perfume. Others in the dinner party grow angry, accusing her of wasting the gift on Jesus.
“Why waste the perfume? 5 This perfume could have been sold for almost a year’s pay[a] and the money given to the poor.” (Mark 14:4-5 CEB)
Jesus chastises them: Leave her alone!
You always have the poor with you; and whenever you want, you can do something good for them. But you won’t always have me. (Mark 14:7 CEB)
This familiar verse is often used as an excuse for us to leave the poor to fend for themselves. To use it that way, of course, is to turn Jesus’ teachings on their head. It is to read the Bible in such a way so as to make it say what we want it to say.
So what’s happening here? Two things are happening in this excerpt from the Gospel of Mark.
First, this is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death. The oil she pours on the head of Jesus is typically poured on the bodies of those who have died. In an era before modern embalming bodies began to smell soon after death.
The woman, unlike the disciples “get” what is about to happen. She realizes that Jesus will die on the cross. Her recognition serves to highlight the ignorance of those closest to Jesus. Despite Jesus telling the disciples over and over again what is to come, they’ve repeatedly missed the point.
Second, Jesus is reminding the complainers that they are responsible for caring for the poor. Jesus is quoting scripture. He is quoting Deuteronomy in which God is describing the promised land. The promised land will have no poor if IF the people follow God’s command to care for the poor.
So, to use this passage as an excuse not to care for the poor in the twenty-first century is to fail to heed scripture and Jesus’ interpretation of scripture.
There is enough love for the woman in the story to perfume Jesus’ body and for the dinner guests — and us — to care for those in poverty.