A long time ago, on the first Sunday in Lent, when the gospel reading went from baptism to temptation to kingdom of God in the blink of an eye, we saw how Mark frames a story.
Mark teaches us that temptation is bracketed by good news—not just in those few verses, but throughout the gospel and also in our lives.
Today Mark is at it again, but now the pattern is reversed.
The good news of Jesus is collapsed into a short scene bracketed by human treachery.
Human beings, who like to play God, are going to frame Jesus.
Today's bad news begins with God's personal handlers looking for a way to nab Jesus away from the mesmerized crowds and ends with Judas agreeing to work it from the inside.
The Jesus story happens in human history.
It is surrounded by secrecy, betrayal, blood money, power play, deceit, cruelty, violence.
It takes place in the bleeding world we know and lament: the world of war and prejudice and pandemic and mass shootings and perversions of justice and abuses of power.
The kingdom of God arrives as good seed in a garden of thorns, a pearl cast among swine.
Jesus rides into Jerusalem in peace, with palm branches waving hope and joy, but he will be dead by the weekend, a corpse caked in blood and spit and shame.
Jesus comes to show us that our stories are framed in God's life-giving grace, and we frame his in pain and death.
Against that bleak backdrop, it shines all the brighter.
Mindful of the frame, look closely at the picture.
The scene in Bethany is the gospel in miniature.
Jesus is eating at the house of a leper named Simon.
He is sharing a table with an untouchable who has a home and a name.
He is identifying with a person the chief priests would avoid in order to stay clean for God.
Soon the offense is doubled: he is touched, publicly and intimately, by an anonymous woman.
She lavishes expensive attention upon him—a year's salary worth of massage oil from an
alabaster jar she broke open with the same casual carelessness that will soon break him.
Immediately there is conflict.
Self-righteous men gang up to scold a woman with social theory.
The poor get used again, this time as a pawn in an argument to restore comfort to powerful men.
Good religion gets used as a smokescreen to keep order, just like sabbath and cleanliness rules have been invoked time and time again to discredit Jesus' acts of healing, which restore the wrong people, which threatens the system by shifting power.
Jesus cuts through the crap with piercing truth: you always have the poor with you; and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.
Every day is an opportunity to give a year of your salary to needy people.
It's a great idea; I invited a wealthy Bible scholar to try it a few chapters back.
And if you don't always have the poor with you, why not?
Who are you hanging out with?
Don't you believe you're good enough to share the company of God's favorites?
Or do you try to avoid facing the poor like you are now avoiding facing the potent faith of this woman?
Why do you reject her the same way you rejected those children who are closer to the kingdom of God than you are?
While you men are standing around theorizing and critiquing, she has bypassed you into the place of real power.
She is anointing the messiah.
She is serving the Son of Man who came to be just like her, who came not to be served,
but to serve, and to give his life, a ransom for many.
That wasted life, by the way, is worth a lot more than the wasted alabaster and nard combined.
She gets it: she has anointed the Anointed One's body for its burial, which I have already mentioned is coming to the rest of you three separate times without you giving so much as a greeting card.
Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.