Today, as we celebrate the gifts of women, the Scripture focuses on one woman in Matthew’s story of the life of Jesus. Perhaps what we notice first is that this woman, who has brought oil to anoint Jesus’ head, is nameless. Which of course, made me curious: how many women in the Bible remain unnamed?
The internet is a wonderful tool – you can find almost any information you want on it, if you can think of the right way to ask the question. I did a search, “Nameless women in the Bible,” and found my way to the Bible Gateway site where there was a list. I copied and pasted the list into my file for this sermon. In Arial font, size 12, and with many women lumped together into groups like “Enoch’s daughters,” and “the four hundred virgins of Jabesh-Gilead,” the list was more than two pages long.
Women in history are often not named. We can talk about historical context, patriarchal society, or editorial expediency, but the truth is that the Bible is not the only document, ancient or modern, which simply does not find it important that women be named, even when they are the active center of the story.
In Matthew’s version of the anointing of Jesus before his approaching death, the woman who brought expensive perfume to dress his head is known only for her action, and not for her person.
Person is not unimportant to the author. In the first line of this passage, he names Jesus’ host as Simon, the leper. We know from this that Simon is an unclean person, one with whom Jesus should not be associating, for leprosy or any of the myriad skin diseases called ‘leprosy’ in that time would have made the man and his home verboten to any observant Jew.
The woman’s action is described simply – she enters the home of a known leper, carrying a jar of expensive oil, which she uses to anoint Jesus’ hair. She does not speak with words, she speaks with action. Her action is as much extravagance as it is a sign of respect. Perfume was terribly expensive in that day, a luxury most often reserved for royalty. The woman’s action raises immediate questions: who is she (unanswered), where did she get the oil (unanswered but suggested by other authors to be the product of sinful deeds), why did she bring it to Jesus (we have only his interpretation of this, that she is anointing him for his burial), why was her story, of all those told about Jesus, the one that would be remembered forever?
Nameless, she is given honor by Jesus which clearly puts her above the fame of the disciples, who not only don’t understand what she is doing, but don’t approve, either. She alone has ‘got it right,’ by recognizing in Jesus the One sent by God who is worthy of the best, the most precious, the finest she has to offer.
Two weeks ago, Heather loaned me the book, I Am Malala. It is the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, a girl from Pakistan who became an international advocate for education (particularly of education for girls), and who was shot by a Talibani assassin, but survived. The book is charming in its innocence. At a very early age, Malala was drawn into the violent undercurrents of her homeland as she got up each day to gather her books and head to school.
Imagine. Your child, your daughter. You have to wake her up every morning, more than once – she’s a deep sleeper. But she loves school! So she rises, gets dressed, eats the breakfast you’ve set out for her. Packs her bookbag, carefully protecting the papers she finished the night before between her textbooks. Goes out with her younger brother to walk the short distance to school.
During the day, she takes an exam. She’s so competitive, she and her two best friends are always trying to see who will “win first place.” The day goes on as normal as it can be in a place where the rules are made by people who attack education by calling girls ‘whores’ when they enter the front door of their school, or take a class with boys.
School ends, your daughter climbs on the bus to come home. She and her friends are happy, comparing notes on their tests, on the answers they studied so hard to prepare. The bus stops, the girls look up to see what is going on. A young man leaps into the bus and calls out your daughter’s name – and when she looks at him, he shoots her, not sparing the other girls in his violence.
Girls and women all over the world experience violence. In this, Malala was not, nor is not, alone. More than one-third of women – 35% - have experienced physical or sexual violence. Women in the United States, where we pride ourselves on equality and safety, are molested or assaulted at the rate of one in five – one in four if we believe that many women never report their abuse.
And yet these women get up every day, and go about their lives, doing their jobs, caring for their families, leading corporations, inventing, healing, teaching, speaking.
You likely know Malala’s story, that she was taken to England, where she recovered from her terrible injuries. On her 16th birthday, she spoke before the United Nations. She is the youngest person ever to have won a Nobel Peace Prize. She continues to speak all over the world on behalf of education for girls and boys, and to call for peace in the beloved homeland she may never be able to return to. Her courage is an example for all of us to uphold what is right and true, to stand for others as well as ourselves.
The woman who anointed Jesus is an example of women’s courage in the face of great hardships. Though she does not use words, she speaks loudly, clearly. In three ways, she speaks to us of faith and how to live it:
First, she is unafraid to go. She enters the house of a leper, an unclean man. She knows that this will make her unclean, too, and that she will have to deal with the consequences of her choice. The rules of the institution do not stop her. The stares and disapproval of others do not stop her.
She is fearless because she knows what she is doing. Her purpose is to recognize God’s own son, the Messiah, the Anointed One, by affirming who he is. She identifies him even as God identified him at his baptism, as Peter identified him – “My lord and my God!” – and as he was identified at his transfiguration.
In the midst of his inner circle, the disciples, she identifies him through an act of humility and compassion. She serves him by giving of the very best she has to offer, preparing him for what lies ahead with gentleness and love.
And yet, she is not named. The 19th Century American poet, Rupert Hughes, wrote:
So in the thick-set chronicles of fame,
there hover deathless feats of souls unknown;
they linger as the fragrant smoke-wreaths blown
from liberal sacrifices.
Gone face and name!
The deeds like homeless ghosts, live on alone.
Who are the women, the people in your life who set this example for you? Not just in the past, but in living, today? Do we have examples like this in our families, in our community, in our nation? Do we lift them up for others, so that we are all enriched by their strength, their courage? Do we remember their deeds and teach them so our children will know what strength and courage look like?
Fearless woman, living out their purpose through acts of humility and compassion make us all consider how we ourselves might serve. Will our deeds live on alone whether or not our names are remembered?