A broken jar. Expensive perfume ‘wasted’. Rebuked and criticised. Affirmed. A messenger who will be remembered.
Women’s acts of ministry, doing things in women’s ways, are often the subject of criticism or even ridicule. They are diminished and demeaned as being a waste. Women’s ways and voices are too often mocked and criticised, seen as unimportant in the ‘real work’ of sharing the life and love of Jesus with those who follow Islam.
As we celebrte International Women’s day this March 8, my attention has been drawn to the words of Jesus after a woman poured her love out on him. She broke a jar of expensive perfume and poured it over his head, only to be criticised and abused for her wastefulness. That was not how Jesus saw it.
She has done a beautiful thing. A woman doing things as a woman in a woman’s way had done a beautiful thing.
Entering the room of men who were eating with Jesus she crossed boundaries, broke barriers and poured her love out on Jesus. Jesus did not box her in with cultural norms or religious rules. She did a beautiful thing.
Breaking the jar she left no options to pull back. She gave everything, not just some or even most. In this wonderful act of seeming foolishness, she did a beautiful thing.
Here is Jesus’ affirmation for women engaging their love for Jesus in women’s ways in the work of sharing Jesus in Muslim contexts. Extravagant generosity as an expression of love was affirmed by Jesus. What seemed to achieve nothing in this world’s eyes was affirmed by Jesus. Love shared, poured out by a woman in ways that were personal intimate, relational and generous was affirmed by Jesus.
She was not required to express her love for Jesus in male-centred, culturally shaped ways demanded by and acceptable to those (men) who were watching. Engaging as woman in every part of her world, including space designated as male was accepted and affirmed by Jesus. He didn’t send her to a woman’s space, or make her a side issue at the event. He didn’t reject her gift as a woman. He didn’t diminish the ministry she performed.
This act of ministry by this woman was not only affirmed by Jesus, he saw it as a prophetic act. She ministered to Jesus in preparing him for what was coming, his burial. In her self-giving, loving generosity she ministered to Jesus in what we can imagine was an encouragement that strengthened him as he faced this journey to Jerusalem where he would be arrested and killed. What others saw as wasteful foolishness, was a profound prophetic act that spoke of what lay ahead for Jesus.
What she has done will be remembered, it will be told in memory of her. Today we retell her story. It blesses and encourages us. it proclaims the death of Jesus. If calls us to generous sacrificial love. It challenges us to live our faith in the face of world that does not understand. One woman, doing what women do, as women do, is included at the centre of Jesus’ story. She proclaims him to us all throughout history.
As we think of our ministry among our friends who follow Islam this woman who broke the jar of perfume invites us, no urges us, to be unashamed in doing ministry as women do it. She encourages us that our ministry is part of the whole, not reduced to a sideline activity or seen as secondary. We participate in prophetic ministry that proclaims the whole story of Jesus. We do it as women. We do it in ways that don’t always fit the rules of engagement of our male colleagues. We do it with the affirmation of Jesus, she has done a beautiful thing and it is a central part of my story and ministry.
© When Women Speak … March 2023
CH spent nearly four decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and has returned as part of Interserve’s International Leadership. A co-founder of the When Women Speak… network, her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).