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.
Now whenever we sit at table with him, whenever we eat and drink together with the poor and the lepers and the other rejects of religion and society and do this in remembrance of him, he remembers her.
He remembers the woman who gave so much.
He remembers the woman whose name no one else remembers.
He remembers the woman who served a man facing death alone.
He charges us to remember the woman who looks for all the world like the Son of Man:
breaking things the world considers precious, wasting goodness on the wrong people, serving generously, loving lavishly, and catching hell for it.
The good news of the kingdom is God breaking open a jar worth more than we are and pouring out Jesus, God's own heart in human flesh and blood, wasting him on us.
God anoints us for our burial beforehand, preparing us for the inevitable outcome of being born into this world that is framed by ugliness and death.
Within that framework that we cannot escape—we are captive to sin and cannot free
ourselves—there is God with us, the anointed one who shares table and tragedy with us.
He teaches us to touch the untouchable: lepers, women, the poor, the rejected, the avoided, the dismissed, the misunderstood and maligned and marginalized.
He shows us how to share life inside the grip of death, so that we are ready when he breaks it
open like that shattered alabaster jar.
Those trying to play God will lose to the real one.
The critics will not stifle the woman, whose story will reach the whole world.
Neither will the grave confine him, nor religion confine God, nor the jar confine the ointment.
Grace spills out of every container we build for it, no matter how elaborate or strong or
sensible or secure we make it.
Yes, Jesus gets framed, but God busts open every one of our frames: the jar, the social theory, the good theology, the bad behavior, the bread, the sky, the curtain in the temple, the sealed tomb, the horizons of hope, the edges of possibility.
And like the woman in Bethany, God releases the extravagant beauty buried within us.