One Week in Jerusalem: Friday – The Cross

Scripture: Mark 15:1-47 (in eight parts, to be read after the following)

Where we left of on Thursday: night has fallen.

Jesus and his disciples have finished their Passover meal, sung the final hymn, and headed back toward the Mount of Olives, where they stop in a place called Gethsemane.  Jesus has prayed in anguish while his inner circle of disciples, stricken by the scene, shut the world out and sleep.  While Jesus prays, the Temple authorities have arrived, the chief priests and scribes and elders and the Temple police with swords and clubs, and at their head, one – Mark never lets us forget – who was one of the Twelve.  “Get up,” we heard Jesus say to Peter, James, and John.  “It’s time.  My betrayer is here.”

Before we move on, let’s take a moment to remember how we got to this point.

On Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the head of a makeshift parade, which one might see as a parody of an imperial military parade, though it would have been hard to prove.  We’re not told whether the Romans took note, but we can be sure that the Jewish Temple authorities, the local Roman collaborators, did.  Of course, they’ve had their eye on Jesus for some time now, but this Passover, it seems, things are about to be taken to a whole new level.

On Monday Jesus entered the Temple, that place that had been his spiritual home since childhood, and he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and the people selling doves for sacrifice.  He called the place a den of robbers.  From that point on, as far as the Temple authorities are concerned, his fate was sealed.  But there was still one problem – the crowds loved him, and if the authorities tried anything in public, the people would riot.  They began to look for another way.

On Tuesday, Jesus went to dinner at a friend’s house in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem, and an unnamed woman anointed him with perfumed oil, as if for burial, in an act of foreshadowing that showed she understood something that the others did not.  At the end of that dinner, one man, one of the Twelve, got up with a sense of resolve, and the very next day he went to the chief priests and told them he knew a way that their plan could work.  And on Thursday night, after dinner, Judas slipped away while the rest waited in the Garden of Gethsemane and when he returned, he wasn’t alone.

As the scene opens now it is dawn on Friday morning.  But the action has continued all night.  The disciples flee in fear.  From Gethsemane, Jesus is led away to the high priest’s house, where conveniently, the ruling council of Jerusalem is assembled.  They try to find a charge to bring him up on, but apparently no one has worked out their stories ahead of time, because the testimonies against him do not agree.  Jesus is silent.  Finally the high priest demands outright: “Are you the Messiah?” and Jesus says “I am,” or perhaps, depending on how one reads the Greek: “Am I?”

No matter: for the high priest it is enough.  “Blasphemy!” he cries, and Jesus is condemned to death.

As soon as it is morning, they bind Jesus and lead him to the only ones capable of carrying out the death penalty in first-century Jerusalem: the Romans.

Increasingly, over the course of this one week, it has become clear that when the fullness of the goodness and love and mercy and power of God comes head to head with the fear and pride and self-centeredness of the powers that be in this world, something’s got to give.

And in fact, from the beginning, it was always going to be this way: not necessarily by God’s design, but by ours.

And so, the question becomes, which one will it be?

Will it be love, or fear?  Will it be the quest for worldly status, or humility?  Hospitality, or social hierarchy?  Self-defense, or self-sacrifice?  Will it be the Pax Romana, or the peace of Christ?

Something’s got to give.  So which one will it be?

This is a question that will play out in the story we are about to hear, the story of Friday, and it may appear that we have our answer.  But then, sometimes we think a story is over before God is done writing.

But perhaps even more importantly, this is a question that continues to play out in our lives every single day.  Will it be love or fear?  Building walls, or breaking them down?  Will it be the peace and prosperity that empire, money, guns seem to offer – or will it be the peace of Christ?

The hymn we are about to sing will ask the question: “Were you there?” and in a sense, of course, we were not.

And yet the world hasn’t changed so very much since then, has it?

And we are not so very different, are we – from the chief priests who couldn’t take this threat to their orthodoxy or their status, or the disciples who fled out of fear, or the one who betrayed for money, or the Romans who didn’t really care – but took the easy way out?

And so the story plays out not just in their time, but in ours; not just on account of their sin, but on account of ours; and when Sunday does finally come, it is not just on their behalf, but on ours.

Love or fear, peace or power, life or death: for once and for all, which one is it going to be?

 

 

 

The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Week in Jerusalem by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan has been an ongoing resource throughout this series.

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One Week in Jerusalem: Thursday – The Last Supper and Gethsemane

Thursday Evening: The Last Supper

Mark 14:12-26

Thursday evening of Holy Week brings us into the Triduum, the three-day period from Thursday evening to Sunday evening in which the saga of Christ’s arrest, suffering, death and resurrection play out in vivid detail, as if in real time.  It is the most sacred time in the Christian year.

Thursday begins relatively uneventfully.  It is the Day of Preparation for Passover; since in the Jewish calendar days begin at sundown, Passover will officially begin that evening as it gets dark.  Until then there is plenty to do, but it’s all expected: secure accommodations, prepare a meal.  Jesus’ disciples scurry around Jerusalem making the necessary preparations.  Mark does not tell us that Jesus was with them, and we can imagine him hanging back in Bethany, praying and waiting for what is to come.  It’s a relatively normal Passover, but with a sense of foreboding hanging over it.

When evening comes, Jesus joins the rest, and again, presumably, the meal begins as a normal Passover meal would, giving thanks to God and telling the story of the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, in song and prayer, and with plenty of wine.  But then suddenly Jesus grows quiet.  “Truly I tell you,” he says, “one of you who is sitting around this table with me tonight is going to betray me.”  We, the audience, of course already know that this is true, that in fact this betrayal is already in the works.  Now we know that Jesus knows, too.

The disciples protest, maybe a little too quickly; maybe as much as they swear they would never do such a thing there’s something inside them that is just a little afraid that they might.  But eventually the moment passes; the songs and the prayers and the conversation pick back up, celebrating the time God acted decisively in history to save the Jewish people.

But a little later Jesus departs from the liturgy again.  Instead he takes a loaf of bread and he blesses it, and he breaks it and he passes it around the table to his friends, the ones who have been with him since the beginning, and he makes an odd, surprising statement: “This is my body.” And then he lifts up a cup of wine and says, “This is my blood.”

The disciples have heard Jesus’ predictions of his own death before.  And yet these words which are so comforting to so many of us must have been jarring the first time they were spoken.  This is your what?

Jesus continues: “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many.  Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the Kingdom of God.”

And then, Mark tells us, supper is over.

The scene that night is one that most of us have reenacted many times in our lives, as we too have taken the bread that is offered to us and the cup that is lifted up and heard those same words: “This is my body.  This is my blood.”

And maybe like the disciples that night, we haven’t fully understood what it means.

Not that we’re expected to, not totally, of course.  Like the words of the Bible, this meal is the kind of thing that speaks to us, over and over, in different ways, as we share it again and again over the course of months and years and over the course of our lives.  Sometimes it seems like just empty ritual.  But then one day, maybe, we will be especially struck by the bright purple-red color of the grape juice soaking into that piece of challah we hold in our hand, and we will be humbled by the thought of the blood that Jesus shed for refusing to live a life that was less than the one God called him to, and calls all of us to.  And maybe on another day we will chew that bread slowly and savor it a little, knowing that we need God’s sustenance, knowing that we can’t go on for another day without it.  And another day we will hear those words about becoming for the world the Body of Christ redeemed by his blood in a way we never have before; and maybe one day our attention will be drawn to those people waiting in line with us, waiting to experience God’s grace tangibly for themselves; or if you happen to be serving you might even take notice of all the hands: big hands and small ones, hands of different colors, hands that are aged and hands that are well-manicured, hands that are rough with dirt under the fingernails.  All those hands, receiving bread and dipping it in the cup.  This is my body; this is my blood.

We reenact this meal to remember, but not in the sense of looking backwards.  Instead we do it looking forward.  Jesus tells his disciples he will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until he does so in the Kingdom of God.  Even today we close our communion prayer with similar words: “Make us one with you, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until the day your Kingdom comes and we feast at your heavenly banquet.”

This is a meal that’s preparing us for then.

In it we remember that we are all children of the same God, all welcome at God’s table with no distinctions; in it we remember that we are sinners and it is God’s grace that feeds us and God’s grace that is poured out for us; in it we remember that we need the strength that God provides us daily, that we cannot depend only on ourselves; in it we remember that only by dying with Christ are we raised to eternal, abundant life.

And as we remember, as we eat, we slowly shape a different world: one that is characterized by mutuality and humility and hospitality and self-sacrifice and service to one another.  And we keep remembering until it is true: until the Kingdom of God is made real on earth as it is in heaven.

What does this meal mean?  Over and over, in different ways at different times, it reveals to us the Kingdom of God on which we set our hopes.

Of course, the disciples may not have understood that all just yet.  For them, it was a moment of grace before all hell literally broke loose.  Little did they know how much they would need the sustaining strength of God in the hours to come.

 

Thursday Night: Gethsemane and Beyond

Mark 14:32-42

When dinner is over and the final hymn of the Passover liturgy has been sung, Jesus and his disciples head for the Mount of Olives.

It’s possible the disciples think they are going home; Bethany, the small town outside Jerusalem where they were staying for Passover, is on the southeastern side of the Mount of Olives.  It’s possible they think the night is over.  They’ve eaten and drunk; there was this talk of betrayal that still nags at each one of them, though they have mostly put it out of their minds, like they have done every time Jesus tried to tell them he was going to die; there was this strange new addition to their ritual, which gave new meaning to God’s old promises of salvation and liberation and the covenant relationship between God and God’s people, which perhaps they are still trying to process.

But they don’t go home.  Instead, Jesus comes to a garden, and there he stops.  He asks the disciples to wait, and he takes Peter, James, and John, his inner inner circle, and he goes a little father and begins to pray.  But he doesn’t pray like we might imagine the Spn of God would pray, with a kind of holy serenity emanating, demonstrating his deep and inherent connection to God.  In John’s Gospel, he might pray like that, but not in Mark: In Mark he cries out in anguish, and he paces, and maybe he shakes his fist, he says “I am deeply grieved, even to the point of death,” and he throws himself on the ground.  He says, “God, Abba, don’t make do this.”

I can imagine the disciples, at first, watching the spectacle with their mouths hanging just a little bit open.  Was this the same person who calmly predicted his own betrayal and death just a couple hours earlier?  Was this their spiritual leader?  It’s all a little much for them, all a little too much for them to process, and so what do they do?  They shut down.  They sleep.  They remove themselves temporarily from this world and these events they cannot handle.  It will be better in the morning.

They never do hear the conclusion Jesus’ agonized prayer finally comes to: “Not what I want, but what you want.”

I admit that for a long time I never got what was such a big deal about the disciples falling asleep.  It’s late; it’s been a long day; they are tired.  I never really got it until those early days after Evelyn was born, when Jon and I would take turns getting up with her in the middle of the night to rock her or feed her, when we were both so bone-tired we wanted to cry and sometimes did.  And sometimes when it was my turn up with her I would come back to bed and Jon would be snoring away, and I would think in my desperate state, “Could you not keep awake one hour with me??”

For what it’s worth I’m sure Jon felt the same way at times.  But I got it then, because when you are bone-tired and distressed and grieved to the point of death, the last thing you want to feel is alone.

Last week we talked about Judas and his betrayal – and I do have to wonder if those eight disciples who Jesus left in the first group noticed when the ninth quietly slipped from their ranks.  But the betrayer is not the only disciple who fails Jesus that night.  Peter, James and John fall into the sleep of avoidance and denial.  Later, when Judas returns with the chief priests who arrest Jesus, Mark tells us, “all of them deserted him and fled.”  And Peter, who repents enough to catch back up with Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, then denies not once but three times that he ever had anything to do with that man.

What a difference a couple hours make – was it just earlier that same evening that they were sitting around a table singing hymns and telling stories of liberation and eating bread and drinking wine that Jesus told him were his own body and blood?

That meal was supposed to sustain them, to strengthen them, to tangibly remind them of God’s grace and keep them pointed forward to the day when God’s Kingdom would come in all its glory, on earth as it is in heaven.  It was supposed to keep them moving in that direction.

Instead they slept, and they ran, and they betrayed Jesus all over again.

I suppose it’s the case that God feeds disciples, that God gives them the grace and the strength they need to face what lies ahead, but in the end the disciples need to decide to stay that course, to put that grace to work.

In the hours that follow, things only get worse.  Could the disciples know that before sundown the next day, their leader and teacher will be dead?  Maybe they are just beginning to awaken to that possibility – and to their own failings in how it all played out.

And still those disciples will eat that meal again, many times, throughout their lives and ministry.  They will gather around a table together and they will take the bread and bless it and break it and share it, and they will lift the cup and bless it and pass it around and drink, and the body and blood of Christ will sustain them for the work that God has given them to do.  And when they fail and fall away and get all turned around, as disciples inevitably do, God will invite them to the table, and feed them, and point them back in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

One Week in Jerusalem: Wednesday – Judas Betrays Jesus

Scripture: Mark 14:1-2, 10-11

Wednesday brings us to the middle of Holy Week.  On Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey while the Romans marched in on their stallions.  On Monday, he caused an uproar in the Temple when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers.  On Tuesday, a nameless woman anointed him as if for his burial.  By this point, it’s not a secret where this is heading.  Jesus, and we, know how the week will end.

But woe to the one who sets things spinning along that inevitable path.

Last week Barb preached about the woman who anointed Jesus, who took an alabaster jar full of expensive perfume and poured it over Jesus’ head, to the horror of those watching.  They thought it was embarrassing, and wasteful.  Jesus said that wherever the Gospel was proclaimed, what this woman had done would be told in memory of her.  Today’s ironically more famous events are intertwined with last week’s story.

At the beginning of that story, we hear that the chief priests and the scribes are looking for a way to arrest Jesus in secret and kill him.  The fact that they want him out of the picture is not exactly breaking news in itself – they’ve been trying to figure out a way to bump him off at least since the Temple incident on Monday.  Only now it seems as though they have the seedling of a plan.  They know can’t arrest Jesus by day, in front of everyone, because the crowds love him and they would riot.  They realize they will have to do it stealthily, by night.  But their plan is still missing a key piece – who will lead them to Jesus in secret?

That night Jesus and his disciples have dinner at the home of Simon the Leper, where the woman pours perfume on Jesus’ head.  Then, Mark tells us, Judas “went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them,” and suddenly the details of their plan all fall into place.

Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes known as Spy Wednesday, because it is the day when Judas officially becomes an agent for the enemy.  For me, at least, the name kind of makes the day.  Suddenly it’s not just Judas, who did a bad thing.  Instead, it’s James Bond.  It’s Mata Hari.  Suddenly it’s a story of intrigue and drama and scandal and betrayal: the kind of show all of us would watch.

Where I grew up in Vienna – 20 minutes away – one of our claims to fame is that we have our own hometown spy.  Some of you may remember back in 2001 when an FBI agent named Robert Hanssen was arrested for selling secrets to the Russians while he was dropping off classified material on a bridge at a local park.  That that park is actually just a couple blocks from my parents’ house, where I used to go running all the time.  I’m sure there may be those of you who work for the government for whom these things do not seem so romantic, but for us, the story of Hanssen’s arrest was almost a source of local pride.  I still point out our “spy bridge” in Foxstone Park when I introduce new people to the neighborhood where I grew up.

The truth is that in real life, though, betrayal isn’t so sexy.  And that’s true whether we’re talking about someone like Robert Hanssen, or the family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues who may betray us in much less life-or-death kind of ways.

If you have ever been betrayed – if someone you trusted ever willfully did something to hurt you – then it may be some comfort to know that you are not alone.  Jesus gets it.  Judas was, after all, one of his twelve closest and most trusted friends.  Some interpreters, from what I’ve read, will go out of their way to say that Judas never really believed in Jesus at all, that he never really had a close relationship with him, that there was always something amiss, from the very beginning.  But for Mark, Judas is always described as “one of the Twelve.”  Jesus may well sense that something is up, but that doesn’t change the fact that the one who turns Jesus in is one who was chosen and called and entrusted with the secrets of the Kingdom of God.  And that hurts.

Now let me ask you this, though, and please don’t feel the need to answer out loud: Have you ever been the betrayer?

I don’t necessarily mean turning them over to their would-be killers for money.  I don’t even necessarily mean any of the other big, obvious acts that might come to mind.  I mean also acting like you’re someone’s friend and then talking about them behind their back.  I mean also throwing someone under the bus at work when you’ve been trusted colleagues but your boss is looking for someone to blame.  I mean pretending to have another person’s interests at heart when really, in the end, you only have your own.  And I suspect when I put things this way that there are few of us who are so entirely innocent of this sin of betrayal.

And if so, I wonder, might we find it in our hearts to have some sympathy for Judas?

Tradition might say no.  Dante, for example, in his Inferno, depicts Judas in the ninth and innermost circle of Hell, being chewed up in the mouth of Satan for all eternity along with two other classic traitors, Brutus and Cassius, who conspired to kill Julius Caesar.  And if you’ve ever experienced the sting of betrayal, there might be a bit of base satisfaction in that image.  After all, the ultimate sin deserves the ultimate punishment, right?

But I don’t know.  Sometimes I’m not sure I’m all that much different than Judas.

Why do you think he did it?

Some would say it was greed.  In John’s Gospel, especially, Judas is the one who objects to the woman anointing Jesus, saying that the expensive perfume she used should have been sold and the money given to the poor.  “He said this not because he cared about the poor,” John writes, “but because he was a thief.  He used to keep the common purse and steal from it.”  In Matthew, too, Judas goes to the authorities and says, “I know where he is, what’s it worth to you?”  Judas, it seems, is simply out to get whatever will benefit him – but maybe we can understand that, right?

Elsewhere, such as in the story The Last Temptation of Christ, Judas is depicted as disillusioned.  He had hoped for a Messiah who would liberate God’s people from the oppressive grip of the Roman Empire.  And for a while, maybe, he had even believed that Jesus was that one.  But when it became clear to Judas that that was not going to happen, he was bitter – bitter enough to want to hurt the one who had so deeply disappointed him.  And if so – we can kind of understand that too, right?

Luke, on the other hand, tells us that “Satan entered Judas” just before he leaves to sell Jesus out.  Luke makes it sound spontaneous, as if nothing has been building up to this.  And if this is the case we might even question whether Judas had a choice.  Is he simply an unlucky vessel for carrying out God’s plan?  But no – God’s plan never depends on us doing bad things.  God’s plan recognizes that will we sometimes do bad things and operates within that reality.  Jesus himself recognizes the inevitability of his death – and yet, he says, “Woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!”  Judas does not escape personal responsibility for his act.  But at the same time, we can kind of understand the feeling of knowing something is wrong, and doing it anyway, as if we had no choice.  Right?

Mark’s Gospel, however, leaves the question of why Judas did it completely open.  No one even mentions money until after he makes his offer to the chief priests (though I’m sure he knew his insider knowledge was valuable.)  As such, I think we get to write our own motivations onto Judas.  What was it – the temptation of the wealth or status to be gained?  The bitter disappointment of realizing that hopes did not quite match reality?  Was it embarrassment at the socially unacceptable ways Jesus sometimes acted – eating with sinners, touching lepers, letting that woman pour oil on his head?  Was there a mounting sense of shame at being associated with him?  Was it fear of what was coming as the week wore on and Judas, like Jesus, saw the writing on the wall?  And for any of these possible motives – might we sort of, a little bit, get it?  Might we not betray Jesus for the same?  Haven’t we?  Haven’t we expressed our allegiance to Jesus while turning on him out of fear, self-interest, shame, or doubt?

But then maybe the more important question becomes, what happens next?  Is it all Dante and Satan crushing traitors in his teeth for all eternity?

Jesus does say “Woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.”  And it is undeniable that woe does befall Judas.  In Mark, after Judas leads the chief priests and scribes to arrest Jesus where he is praying in the garden of Gethsemane on Thursday night, he disappears from the story.  But in Matthew, when Judas realizes that Jesus has been condemned to death, he tearfully tries to return his 30 pieces of silver and protest that Jesus is an innocent man – to which the authorities say, “That’s nice,” and Judas leaves and hangs himself.  Luke writes in Acts that Judas uses the money to buy a field, but then he falls face down in that field and all his guts spill out in a Dante-style image of divine justice.

But is that really the end of the story for Judas?

After all, Jesus ate with him at the Last Supper, even knowing all the while that Judas was his betrayer.  Not even Judas was banished from that table at which Jesus offered bread and wine, his body and blood, broken and poured out for them.

And after all, the whole story of God’s people, from the beginning, is one in which God’s people are unfaithful, but God remains faithful; God’s people fall away, and draws near again; God’s people turn their back on God, and God continually, over and over – invites them – and us – home.

I read an article not long ago about two politicians caught up in a love triangle in the 1850s.  The two men in question were Daniel Edgar Sickles, a Democratic Congressman from New York, and Philip Barton Key II, the district attorney for Washington.  The woman in question was Teresa Sickles, wife of Daniel and lover of Philip.  When the Sickleses moved to Washington, the two men quickly became friends – they “bonded over an all-night game of whist,” as the article put it.  Daniel Sickles learned of Teresa and Philip’s affair through an anonymous note, and when his wife confessed, Daniel knew what he had to do.

He saw Philip Key on Lafayette Square one day soon after that.  Philip, seeing Daniel approaching, went for a handshake.  Daniel shot him.  The scandal rocked Washington.  (You can file this story in the “you think politics are bad now” category.)  “He has dishonored me,” Daniel Sickles said, “and we could not live together on the same planet.”[1]

I do like that line.  But I don’t think that’s what Jesus says.  For Jesus, there is still room not only on the planet but around the same table, even for Judas.

I wonder if we could imagine an alternate ending for Judas.  John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in talking about the ultimate failure of all the disciples leading up to the crucifixion, point out that “Peter and the rest of the disciples are restored to relationship and community by Jesus” after Easter.  “Indeed,” they say, “had Judas not killed himself or died suddenly, we may imagine that even the betrayer would have been restored to relationship and community.”[2]

Would Judas have been “one of the Twelve” again?  I don’t know.  In our human relationships, at least, forgiveness doesn’t always mean that things go back to exactly the way they were, as if nothing happened.  And yet God’s grace is so much bigger than ours, and as I read the whole story, from beginning to end, I have to believe that it is big enough to include Judas too.  Because death is followed by resurrection, even Judas’s betrayal is not the end of the story.

There is room in the Kingdom of God – room for the woman who faithfully anointed Jesus, room for the disciples who failed him, room for the one who betrayed him, room even for those who have betrayed us, room even for those of us who might be able to understand, a little bit, why Judas did what he did.

That is, however, skipping ahead a little in the story.

For now, our spy makes his offer, and the events of the end of the week are set in motion.  For the end of the story will unfold as it is written, but woe AND grace to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.

 

[1]     https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2018/03/02/temporarily-insane-a-congressman-a-sensational-killing-and-a-new-legal-defense/?utm_term=.690f3d93ece1

[2]     Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: What The Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Week, p. 126.

One Week in Jerusalem: Tuesday – The Anointing at Bethany

Preacher: Barbara Schweitzer

Scripture: Mark 14:3-9

Life is really hard as a seminary student.  Especially when you have a sermon to prepare, lots of other papers to write, and a 20-year-old daughter who calls you at the most inopportune times and asks you to drive three hours in the car to see her, right away.

A week ago, on Friday—that’s just what happened. Chris had had another bad week at school and needed to talk.  Her whole world was crashing down on her and she wanted her mom–she wanted me.

Being the devoted mom and seminary student that I am, yet thinking about all the work I had to do, especially preparing for this sermon; I quickly thought of a practical solution that would kill two birds with one stone.  So, I asked Chris if she thought we could talk face to face, over dinner, using Face Time, rather than my driving three hours to Philadelphia that night.  To make the deal even sweeter, I offered to buy her dinner. I proposed that I would give her my credit card number, and she could order herself some food and have it delivered to her apartment. Then, when the food arrived, she could call me on Face Time, and we could sit down and chat, while eating, face to face, using Face Time.  This was a great practical solution, right?

After all, it was not practical, but rather extravagant, to think that I would drop everything and drive three hours to Philadelphia, just because Chris had a bad day.  I didn’t want to set a precedent that communicated that every-time she had a bad day at school or work, I would drop everything and drive three hours, just so that I could be physically and emotionally present to her.  To do so would be irresponsible, right?  Driving three hours there and three hours back, and buying dinner while there, would also be costly—and not the best use of my resources. These practical matters could all be solved by using Face Time, right?

Can you guess how Chris responded to my practical and responsible, and cheap proposal?

If you guessed, that she wasn’t too happy, you are right.

What would you have done in my shoes?  Would you have gone?

What would the woman who anointed Jesus at Bethany have done?

In seminary, we are told that we always have to have a back-up plan for how we are going to get our assigned tasks done, because, come Sunday, we still have to preach, no matter what happens. So, my back-up plan was to listen to preaching podcasts, on my iPad, on the text for this sermon, while I drove.  At least I could listen for some sermon ideas and get my mind focused on the text, right?

So that’s what I did.

While driving, I listened to six different preachers, preach on our text for today, and a pattern began to develop.  Every preacher, despite the text’s focus on the woman’s anointing Jesus, merely mentioned the woman’s act, and then moved on to talking about Judas betraying Jesus.  Every one of the preachers skipped over the central act of the whole text.

How could six different preachers skip-over this woman’s act of anointing, when Jesus said,

wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Let me repeat that.

How could six different preachers skip over this woman’s act of anointing, when Jesus said,

wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

I had to stop, do a double take, and ask: What did this woman do that was so important, important enough for Jesus to hold up her actions to be remembered, whenever the gospel is preached?  And, why did six different preachers mention that same act, only in passing, before rushing on to talk about Judas’s betrayal?

Maybe we missed something. Let’s read the passage again.   But this time, I’m going to read the short passages before and after our passage to see if doing so will shed a little light.

Mark 14:1-11

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus, by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.  But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?  For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.  For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.  Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.  When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So, he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Why do you think that preachers skipped over this woman’s story?

  • Maybe it’s because bad news and scandals preach better.
  • Maybe it’s because the preachers read the woman’s act as a mere show of sentimental love.
  • Maybe because it is easy to overlook the loving acts of women who attend the dying because that was common place.

In the first century, it was probably natural for men to overlook or dismiss this woman’s act as merely sentimental, just because she was a woman.  Obviously, the people observing the anointing did not overlook or dismiss her. No. They were indignant, and scolded her; they judged her act as wasteful extravagance. But the preachers I listened too are from this century, not the 1st century. So, why would they skip over this woman’s story and lead their congregations to also skip-over the story, against what Jesus foretold?

My hunch is that the preachers that I listened to, skipped over the woman’s story, because they, themselves, did not fully understand what the anointing meant or fully understand its significance. I can make this hunch, because I too, don’t fully understand the anointing’s significance either. And let’s face it, when we don’t understand something, it’s easier, sometimes, to move on, and talk about something we do understand.

Well, I’m not moving on.

To understand this woman’s act of anointing better—we need to understand something about the act of anointing itself.

In the Old Testament, and in the ancient world, anointing people or objects was common-place and could mean many things.  Most broadly, if a person was anointed, the anointing would usually indicate a change of identity or status.  Aaron, for example, was anointed with oil when Moses consecrated him as head priest, indicating that Aaron’s status had changed. Aaron had been set apart as holy, and his status had changed to that of High Priest.

We commonly read in the Old Testament, about Ancient Prophets who anoint new kings.  The prophet and priest, Samuel, anointed Saul as Israel’s first king, for example. He anointed David too.  When prophets anointed kings, they signified that the person being anointed had been chosen by God to be King over God’s people.

It might surprise you to know that “regular” people, or people without a title or office, people like you and me, could also anoint people.  If a person, without an office or title, anointed a person reputed to be a king, that signified that that person doing the anointing, accepted the person whom they anointed, as their king.

In our story, the author writes that Jesus, interpreted the woman’s anointing of his head, as having “performed a good service for him . . . and as having anointed his body, . . . for its burial. “

In ancient times, people did anoint the dead for burial, but not the living.  In Mark 16, Luke 23 and John 19, we see that Jesus’s followers came to his tomb to prepare his body with spices, after sabbath was over, after Jesus died. So, the experience of anointing the dead, and preparing the dead for burial was pretty common in that day, even among Jesus’ followers. SO, why did Jesus think this woman’s anointing was so special?

What is unusual about this woman’s anointing is that she anoints Jesus before he is dead.  And, If we think about all the customary reasons for anointing in the first century, I submit to you, that it is possible, that she did a whole heck of a lot more when she anointed him, than what 21st century people realize, especially 21st century people who are unfamiliar with first century practices.

By anointing him, she may be prophetically recognizing Jesus as God’s chosen King (and Messiah), just as Peter had a moment of brilliance and faith and proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah in Matthew 16:13-20.

By anointing him, as a person without a title or position, she may be signifying that she accepts Jesus as her Lord and King.

By anointing him, she may be consecrating Jesus, or setting him part as holy.

By anointing Jesus in front of the others at Simon’s house, she may be acknowledging Jesus as God’s king and as Messiah—before other people. Matthew 10:32 states that Jesus said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”

So, could it be that this woman, who while anointing Christ, before his death, for his burial, may have been proclaiming both her faith in Jesus as her savior, Lord, and King and as the expected Messiah, who has come? Jesus, the promised eternal king of the Davidic Line?

Would this act of anointing, then, be the first public proclamation of the Gospel made by someone other than John the Baptist and Jesus himself?

It’s something to think about.

Another aspect of this woman’s anointing act, speaks of reciprocity in a covenantal relationship.

For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only begotten son, that who-so-ever believes in him shall not perish but have ever-lasting life.

There is an element of reciprocity in this gospel proclamation.  I’m not saying that we, you and I, as human beings, can do anything to affect our salvation. No, I’m talking about the reciprocity in our relationships with God.  The gospel message proclaims salvation for those who believe, but, the gospel message also proclaims a message of reconciliation between two parties; a covenant, where Jesus dies for us so that we can be reconciled to God.

God gives God’s son, because of God’s love.

God gives us eternal life, because of God’s love.

And we, responding to God’s love, give God our trust-through-belief.

And we, responding to God’s love, should respond by giving love back to God.  As freely as God gives love to us, we should give love back to God.

Can it be that the woman’s extravagant pouring out of all of her expensive ointment was her response to God’s love, while acknowledging Jesus’ own extravagant gift of his life-giving blood, soon to be poured out as a ransom for us, an event that the woman seems to understand was soon to come?

Jesus stopped the woman’s critics, who scolded her for her extravagance.  They uttered a very practical truth, that the value of the ointment might have been put to a more practical use, like providing for the poor.

Jesus did not say that the critics were wrong.  No.  But, Jesus responded to the woman’s devotion, her show of kindness, her good service, which she provided.  Jesus responded to the fact that the woman, “did what she could.”

Jesus, once again shows us, what is the better way.

Jesus, once again shows us, how to think more clearly about what he desires, what God desires.

Jesus poured out his love on the cross for us, which many considered an extravagant waste of life; but for Jesus, his crucifixion was an extravagant demonstration of God’s love for us.

Our response should be to do the same. Just as the woman who extravagantly poured-out her expensive perfume, worth more than a year’s wages.  We also, should show love to Jesus, extravagantly.

That day, some who watched, judge the woman’s act as an impractical and extravagant waste.

Jesus judged the act, as being on the same level as the Gospel; in fact, it completed the gospel’s message of reconciliation, and demonstrated the reciprocity in relationship that God wants with all of us.  Freely, we have been given love; and freely, we should give love.

Do we worship God and love God in the way that the woman at Bethany did?

Do we show God’s extravagant love in all that we do?

Do we do all that we can, both in worship and in service, not out of obligation or fear, but out of a tender, heartfelt response to God’s extravagant love?

And do we love one another with everything we’ve got, or do we calculate, like I did with my daughter—how many hours it would take to “give love” the way she wanted or needed it?

Do we offer to our loved ones and do we offer to God, the equivalent of a quick fix on Face Time?

When it comes to worshiping God and spending time with God, and our loved ones, the quick fix over Face Time, misses the point.

Will you pray with me?

God, help us to love you extravagantly, to give you our all, to give you what we can—without calculating the cost to us.  And help us to love others in the same way.  Amen.