Even the rich woman

1

A Dramatized Version of a Bible Story

No one hated rich people more than Judas. Seriously, he hated them. Judas said the problems our people were having could be traced back to all sorts of abuses by the establishment and the powerful people who were in charge of things. He hated the professional priests and their rich supporters. He hated their nice houses, fancy clothes, and high-dollar religious festivals. Before he met Jesus, Judas lived out in the desert with the Essene zealots. He told us he left them because bullshit politics were ruining the movement. I don’t exactly remember the details, but it was something like that.

Anyway, I always thought it was strange that Jesus put Judas in charge of the money. But then, Jesus did a lot of things that didn’t make sense to me. I remember that Judas used to count the money a lot and fret over it. He didn’t want any to be wasted. Sometimes Jesus would take some money out of the bag to throw a party or something, and Judas’ would look very irritated. He couldn’t say anything because it was Jesus doing it, but you could tell he didn’t like it. Judas told us that if we lived simply and saved every shekel, one day we would be able to do some wonderful things for the poor and downtrodden. He had a big heart for things like that. He was always talking about the poor. That’s probably why he joined up with Jesus in the first place. Jesus seemed to care about regular people and not just the ones with money. We loved that about him.

Oh, I’m Thaddaeus, by the way. In case you were wondering. I was one of the twelve, but I’m not that well known or anything. I personally think it’s because no one wants to name their son Thaddaeus, but what do I know? I never was one for saying all that much, but I see things. I notice the way people’s faces show what they feel inside. That’s something I do pretty well, and Jesus knew it. He and I used to talk about that late at night after everyone else had gone to bed. About how people really felt and how you could see it if you looked closely.

So yeah, I was telling you about Judas because I remember the last night he was with us. I remember what happened right before he went to the High Priest and said he would betray Jesus. I never believed that part about the thirty pieces of silver, by the way, and I still don’t. I know they gave him a bag of coins, but there was no way Judas would ever betray a friend for money. No way. There was something else going on, and I think I know what it was. I saw something in Judas’ face that night. And in the face of Jesus too.

I remember it all started when we were invited to the home of Simon the Leper for dinner. He wasn’t actually a leper, of course, though Jesus was pretty famous for not being afraid of lepers. He even touched them sometimes. Seriously, he did. Simon only used to be a leper. He got healed some time back. He was an ex-leper, I guess. But people around there still called him “Simon the Leper” because once something like that happens to you, no one ever forgets it.

We were right in the middle of dinner, as I recall, when this rich woman showed up at the door. You could tell she was very rich because of her clothes and all that. Also I remember that it seemed like she didn’t really belong there. Like her rich husband wouldn’t approve or something. She had that look that rich women get when they are somewhere they normally wouldn’t be. When she appeared in the doorway, all the conversation died, and everyone sat there watching her. She was carrying one of those real expensive alabaster jars of burial ointment. You know, the ones that rich people have. This was SERIOUSLY expensive stuff. Pure nard, okay? Get the picture? You know what I’m talkin’ about.

The whole thing was just weird. Here’s this woman, without her husband, carrying this unbelievable bottle of perfume. And everyone was staring at her, wondering what she was going to do. I noticed Judas was watching her real close. Like I said, he normally hated people like her, but she did have that expensive flask. I’m pretty sure Judas thought she was going to make a donation or something because he got the money bag out and started smiling. I know what he was thinking. If we could sell that nard, then maybe we would finally have enough money to start making a real difference in the world. We could help a lot of poor people. But you’re not going to believe what happened next. You couldn’t guess in a million years. The woman walked over to Jesus and broke the neck of the bottle on the edge of the table. Everyone jumped because it was pretty loud. Then she poured it all on the top of Jesus’ head and started rubbing it into his hair and whispering stuff in his ear.

I know. Unbelievable.

It kinda seemed like a long time that everyone just stared at them without saying anything, but I think it was just a second or two. Then Judas said, “Oh shit!” He and a couple of the guys jumped up and ran over to where Jesus and the woman were. Judas said, “What the hell have you done, you stupid bitch!”

Jesus got everyone calmed down and back to their places around the table, but for a minute there, it was quite a scene. Judas put his face in his hands and shook his head back and forth, saying, “That woman just poured twenty-thousand dollars onto his head. Do you know how many people we could have fed with that money?”

Then he jumped to his feet and yelled at her again.

“You know you just killed a bunch of kids, right? You DO know that. Little children. Children who might have lived will now die. Because of you. That’s right, dead children. I hope you sleep well tonight. You probably will because people like you don’t give a damn about anyone or anything but themselves.”

Man, he was so angry. I’m serious, Judas really loved the idea of poor people and of helping them. Like I said, he had a big heart in that way, and I think it was just too much for him to see an opportunity like this wasted. I don’t agree with him yelling those things, but you would understand if you knew Judas. He took this stuff very seriously. Judas took a lot of things very seriously. Sometimes I think that was his problem. See, a guy like Judas who cares about a lot of things – well, it just takes a lot of energy to care that much. And then, you know, you start having a lot of stuff you have to set right in the world. It just takes a lot out of you, that’s all I’m saying. Judas didn’t have any time to sit back and watch people. Like I said before, that’s what I do.

And I saw something that night that Judas missed. I saw something amazing in the face of Jesus.

When the woman poured that perfume on Jesus’ head, I saw him cringe. He squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lower lip. It was over in a moment, but it was enough to tell me all I needed to know. This wasn’t something he wanted to happen. What I mean is, if you had asked him, “Hey Jesus, what do you want us to do with this bottle of expensive perfume?” I don’t think he would have said, “Why don’t you dump it on my head?” Jesus didn’t go in for that sort of thing, as a general rule. He wasn’t a showy kind of guy, and he never did anything that made me think he was looking for fame and fortune. That anointing with oil stuff is for kings and people with fancy titles. That wasn’t Jesus.

If she had asked him, he might have said the same thing as Judas. Sell the stuff and give the money to the poor. That’s actually a pretty good idea. That’s the sort of thing I would expect Jesus to say. But she didn’t ask his opinion. Rich people can be like that, no disrespect intended. They don’t ask; they just do their thing. She was a rich woman, and she thought anointing his head with outrageously expensive perfume was a good thing to do. And you know what? Maybe it WAS a good thing to do. After all these years, I don’t even know.

Well anyway, when Judas and the other guys started yelling at her, the poor woman burst into tears and tried to hide behind Jesus. He listened to them yell for a few seconds, then his chin dropped, and he stared at the floor. He shook his head back and forth real slow, like he was realizing there was no good way out of this. I thought he looked rather tired and worn out, myself. Which worried me a little.

Jesus got everyone quiet, even Judas. Then he began to talk. The amazing thing was, he took the woman’s side. He looked right at Judas and said that the poor had been waiting a long time, and they would still be waiting when Judas finally got his money together, and made his plans, and did whatever else he felt he had to do before he could start helping people. He said that what she did was a nice thing, even the right thing. He also said that it was a beautiful gesture and that it was getting him ready for his burial. We had no idea what he was talking about, of course. Then he said that no one would ever forget what she had done for him, which turned out to be true, by the way. After that he didn’t say anything else.

While Jesus was talking, the woman stopped crying, but she still wouldn’t look up. She was kneeling on the floor behind Jesus with her head down and the empty bottle with its jagged, broken neck lying beside her. Jesus helped her to her feet and walked her to the door. They said some things to each other that no one else heard, then she left.

When he came back, everyone was staring at him. At that moment, I think he could have made everything okay with Judas if he had just said something. He could have twirled his finger in a circle by his temple to show that she was crazy and said, “Too bad we didn’t catch her before she broke that bottle. She meant well, but what a waste.” But he didn’t say anything about the woman or what had happened. He just said, “Let’s finish our dinner.” And that was that. His hair was glistening with oil, and the smell of it filled the room, but he was eating and acting like nothing important had happened.

To tell you the truth, everyone was okay with it except Judas. But Judas could be that way sometimes. You have to understand that we loved Jesus so much and were so used to him surprising us, that we just trusted him, you know? When you really trust someone like Jesus, you have to be okay with not understanding some things. You don’t understand what he does sometimes, but you know there must be a reason for it. He was a rabbi. What can I say? Strange lessons and making it so you have to trust them is kind of a rabbi thing.

But Judas couldn’t let go of it. He kept his head down during the rest of the meal. He got so quiet; I thought it was scarier than when he was yelling. Jesus looked at him once or twice, but never said anything. Then Judas stood up suddenly, tossed the bag of money down on the table, and walked out.

That was the last time any of us ever saw him. Later we found out that he went straight to the High Priest and asked what they would give him to betray Jesus. But like I said, I don’t think it was about the money. Judas had issues with money, sure, but money was not what he cared about most.

Judas cared about ideas and principles. He used to say, “What’s right is right.” He believed that life divided itself easily into rights and wrongs, and a thing that was wrong could never be right. He believed that. And he believed in Jesus. Or at least he did until that night. Judas thought Jesus was a man of the people, but when he saw that woman anointing Jesus like he was some kind of king or something…well, I think he felt that Jesus betrayed him.

Which is really ironic, if you think about it.

So he went out and told the High Priest and the others how they could get their hands on Jesus. And that led to the arrest and all the other stuff that I’m sure you know about. I don’t think I can talk about any of that, though. I just can’t. Too painful.

The rest of us didn’t understand what had really happened with Jesus and the woman until a couple of years later. Thomas was the first one to figure it out. We were talking about how it was still funny to us that Jesus took that rich woman’s side and how he seemed okay with her wasting all that money. Thomas said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about that night, and I remember something that Jesus said. It was back in Galilee, by the sea. He said that he would never sacrifice even one small person on the high altar of principle. And he said we would begin to know God when we understood that people were more important than ideas and principles. You know, it was like that other thing he always said, that the Sabbath was made for people and not the other way around.”

When Thomas said that, it was like a light coming on. We all got it. It took years, but we got it.

On the night the woman anointed Jesus, those of us who were outraged were technically right, but morally wrong, if you can wrap your mind around that idea. Yes, it would have been great to have sold the ointment and used the money to help poor people. That would have been great. Judas was willing to sacrifice a woman on the altar of that noble principle. Jesus wouldn’t do that. To him no idea, not even an important idea like helping the poor, was as important as one person.

A lot of people are saying that Jesus bore the sins of the whole world when he died on the cross, and I have come to believe that. I can’t exactly explain what that means, but it seems like one of those deep truths that exist beyond our explanations. It’s not hard for me to think of Jesus carrying our sins on his shoulders because I saw him do it all the time. On that night, long ago, I saw him take the one woman’s gift on his shoulders and redeem it, making it a holy thing. He took Judas’ anger too. He took it away from her and onto himself. He did that even for the rich woman.

Anyway, this is the way we used to do it back in the early days, back before Matthew and Peter’s boy, young Mark, wrote some of the stories down. We told the stories of Jesus. And everywhere we went, we always told this one. It’s a pretty good story, isn’t it? It’s also an important story. It’s important to remember that Jesus was always carrying our burdens on his shoulders.

He was always redeeming us.

rlp

Matthew and Mark both record the story of the anointing at Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper. Mark says the ointment was worth more than 300 denarii, which was about 300 days wages for a working man. I put that at about $20,000.

Very rich people kept ointment like this for their burial. Her gesture of devotion was an extravagance that bordered on the absurd. I think it is likely that the disciples expected Jesus to support them in their indignant protests. Jesus never cared much for material things. They were probably surprised to see him take her side.

Matthew and Mark also record that Judas left this meal and went straight to the High Priest to betray Jesus. The two events seem connected.

I am indebted to Frederick Dale Bruner, my favorite biblical commentator, for the idea behind this essay. It was Bruner who said that Jesus would not sacrifice even one small woman on the high altar of principle. He also said that the disciples were right in one way and wrong in another.

Bruner’s two-volume work on Matthew is the only commentary that regularly brings me to tears.
Matthew, A Commentary, Volume 2 – The Churchbook
by Frederick Dale Bruner
Matthew 26:6-16 Mark 14:3-11

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  • phil2bin

    I see in this a kind of parable applicable to current times. There is majority, and perhaps even general, agreement that the poor and unfortunate must be supported in some fashion. Increasingly, though, it is becoming impossible to agree as a society on what the mission is and, more to the point, how to pay for it. So the vaunted “social safety net” tatters and contracts. Many dodge the idea of a comprehensive civic responsibility by positing that private philanthropy is better able to compensate.

    But as we see from your parable, private and ngo philanthropy, including religious philanthropy, is idiosyncratic and fraught with either hidden or unforeseen agenda. The Gates Foundation may be sincere in its goals and generous with its treasure, but it can err in the larger sense if it narrowly pursues a mission to make Jesus’ hair smell good. But, like the rich woman, it’s their money to apply as they see fit within the purview of an exempt org. That doesn’t keep people from debate or even vitriol about the result.