Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Mixed Motives


Isn't the bible remarkable in the way that you can read a passage you've read or heard 100 times and still hear God saying something new? This morning, as I read Mark 14:1-11, I saw a Markan sandwich that I hadn't noticed before. This seems to be one of those passages in which Mark sandwiches two different episodes together into one passage in order to connect their meaning and say something more substantial than both would say on their own.

Typically, when I read or hear this part of the gospel, my focus falls on the nameless woman. Her act of costly love--breaking a jar of "very costly ointment of nard" and anointing Jesus' head--is the tender moment that captures our hearts. Even Jesus tells us that, whenever the gospel is told, "what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." The drama--the cinematic tension and release--of this story is found here. She does something remarkable, but the disciples can't see it for what it's worth. Knowing their master's simple, unadorned lifestyle, they object to the expense of this gesture and ask how the ointment might have been sold and the money given to the poor. The room grows silent. Onlookers hold their breath. Jesus pauses for a moment and then responds, "You will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me. You can take care of them whenever you wish, but she has done everything that she could in preparing my body for burial." As the beauty of her gift is highlighted by Jesus, the tension eases, and we leave the scene satisfied that the story has reached a natural, audience-gratifying conclusion.

Only it hasn't.

The bits tucked into the beginning and end of this passage are important: "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..." and "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." Those parts go together. They make their own interesting story. But they don't really go with what happens in the middle. It's almost as if Mark started to write something, then got distracted by another story, and finally wrapped it up by returning to the point with which he began. Of course, this is no accident.

How do they go together? On the surface, we could say that they are connected through the foreshadowing of Jesus' death in the act of the anointing for burial. It's an anachronistic gesture--Jesus isn't dead yet; how can his body be anointed for burial?--but we understand the loose connection. But I think there's a stronger tie than that. I think we're supposed to revisit the exchange between the disciples and Jesus and allow the unresolved tension and unanswered questions of that moment spill over into the attitude with which we approach Jesus' betrayal and, ultimately, his arrest.

There's something about Jesus' answer to the disciples' objection--you will always have the poor with you--that seems rather incomplete. The disciples' response to her exorbitant "waste" (their word) feels reasonable. It's the kind of thing Jesus might say if the perfume were being used to anoint a rich Pharisee or another person of power. The logic of "you will always have the poor with you" sounds like the sort of justification a selfish person of great means would use to explain why he or she doesn't give more away. But, in this case, it's the argument Jesus makes. And I'm not 100% comfortable with it.

And there's the rub. By the time he gets to Bethany, Jesus has his sights set clearly on Calvary. He knows the fate that awaits him there. He's pressing toward that goal with singular focus. But the disciples are still living in this world. They have to. It's all they know. It's all they can see. And so there is a split that I also feel. Jesus is calling me to have God's kingdom in view, but all I can see is what is in front of me. How will that conflict be resolved?

Jesus' praise of the woman and strange explanation about the poor suggests that his journey to death and beyond is the key to God's kingdom breaking through into the world. It's the only way that all that is wrong in this world--including the plight of the poor--will be made right. But the disciples can't see that yet. And, when Jesus brings them to a crossroads they cannot fully understand, they must choose to follow him down a path they can't see or turn away. Judas' decision to betray Jesus isn't simply a reaction to the woman's lavish anointing, but the contradiction that it represents--the message of ultimate hope through Jesus' death--is the principle Judas rejects. He cannot follow his master into the next world. He is too thoroughly stuck in this one. Thirty pieces of silver are a symbolic anchor to this world. They contrast with the 300 denarii worth of ointment that is freely poured upon Jesus.

We have a foot in this world and a foot in God's kingdom. Of course, those two things coexist, and we coexist in both. God's kingdom is not a magical place in the sky. It's here. It's now. But we still struggle to see it. We still think in limited terms. We still see only the small picture. Occasionally, we get glimpses of God's landscape, and those are the glimpses that give us the courage to follow Jesus to places we do not understand. When this world and God's kingdom are in conflict--when they bump up against each other in ways that don't make sense to me--which way will I turn? Will I be anchored down and unable to see God's kingdom, or will I follow even to places I do not fully understand?

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