In college a buddy and I were standing in line to order dinner when a deaf woman approached us, hands out. Clumsily, I tried to tell her I didn’t have cash.
Meanwhile, my friend did something unexpected. He began using sign language.
I had no clue what was being said. But I understood what happened next. They finished their conversation and hugged. The woman walked away, smiling.
“What was that?” I said.
“The sign language?”
“Oh, that. I’ve noticed that woman hanging around. She looks lonely. I thought I’d do something about it.”
“So you learned sign language?”
“Trying to,” he said. “I’m not fluent, just doing what I can.”
Who does that?
A few weeks later, my landlord stopped by my house. The same buddy was with me. My landlord spoke English but was more comfortable in Spanish.
My buddy did it again.
Without warning, he started speaking Spanish.
At this point I figured he was a spy.
Afterward, he confessed he’d been learning Spanish so he could talk to the underprivileged kids in our neighborhood, most of whom spoke only Spanish.
I was confused. Why was he going to all this trouble for strangers?
It was beyond generous.
The Gospel tells of a woman who reminds me of my old friend. A woman who did what she could. A woman who gave so generously it caused confusion and even anger to those around her.
Near the end of his life, Jesus and his disciples had dinner at the home of a leper.
A woman appears. Anonymous and silent, she walks in with an alabaster jar filled with nard, an expensive perfume. She shatters the jar and pours the entirety of the perfume onto the head of Jesus.
Close your eyes and imagine it.
Jesus sitting at the table. He is exhausted from three-years of ministry. He has travelled incessantly, been rejected in his hometown, silenced demons, and brought the dead back to life. His back aches. His feet are calloused. His heart burdened by all he has seen.
This woman blesses him. She spreads the nard into his hair. Her fingers massage his scalp. Her hands work his neck and shoulders.
She is focused. She takes her time.
His breathing slows. His eyes close. He allows the only woman in the room to grant him a respite from his troubles.
The peace is broken.
“Don’t waste the ointment!” the disciples say. “The nard could be sold for a tremendous amount of money, money that could be given to the poor! How dare you?”
The woman says nothing. She sees only Jesus.
But the disciples have a point. This perfume had the value of a full year’s wage.
The median income in the United States is $51,000. Imagine someone walking into a dinner party and uncorking a $51,000 bottle of wine and offering it to one person at the table? That’d raise eyebrows, especially if the guest drank one glass and poured the rest onto the floor.
I was once in the home of a fabulously wealthy man. He went to great lengths to show me his possessions. And I have to admit, it was fun.
By the end of the tour, however, I was conflicted. I couldn’t help but wonder how else his wealth might have been used. How many children can be fed for the price of a Lamborghini?
I don’t know. The United Nations reports that 1 in every 8 humans on earth goes to bed hungry. That’s 870 million people a day who don’t have enough to eat.
This is what the disciples are thinking. The perfume could be sold and used to bless the lives of others. Instead, it’s poured on the head of Jesus and left dripping onto the floor.
Like my buddy learning foreign languages for the benefit of strangers, this woman strikes me as excessive. What should we make of her?
“Let her alone,” Jesus says. “Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
What is it about this that’s beautiful to Jesus?
She sees him. She notices his pain. She does something about it.
But the disciples, blinded by their good intentions, miss it.
I wonder how many people I miss?
I was jogging a few years ago when I tripped and fell. It was the bad kind. The kind where you go all the way down and say things unholy while you do.
As I lay on the ground, bloodied, in pain, and embarrassed by the onlookers, a teenager appeared above me. I had seen him across the street seconds before the fall.
“Are you all right?” he asked. He offered me his hand and helped me to my feet. “Do you need a lift home?”
He could have pretended not to see me. It would have been easy. But he didn’t. He crossed the street. He drew close to me.
It seems like a small thing. But it’s not.
He saw me fall and he did what he could.
The disciples weren’t wrong. Their instincts were good. Nobody expects the woman to shatter a $51,000 bottle of perfume over the head of Jesus.
But she did.
And Jesus liked it.
Likewise, no one expected the Son of God to lay down His life for us, but he did.
My old college buddy did what he could. He still does.
This woman in the Gospel did what she could.
But I worry about me.
What about you?
I like to imagine that as Jesus hung on the cross, his mind escaped to the memory of this woman’s hands on his head. I like to believe her blessing eased his suffering, if only for a second.
There are people in need all around us, but do we see them? Will we do what we can?
I don’t know. But I can’t think of anything I’d rather hear Jesus say about my life than what he said about that woman.
She did what she could.
And it was beautiful.