The schedule of Bible reading for this year—known as the Lectionary—does what I think is a strange thing…You’ve heard me say that the featured gospel is supposed to be Mark for 2015; well during Lent and Holy Week the powers that be decided to switch to primarily readings from the Gospel of John. I don’t really know why—except that Mark is the shortest of the four gospels and maybe they were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough Mark to last the whole year. Anyway, as you’ve probably noticed from the bulletin, I have decided to go ahead and be attentive to Mark’s story in spite of the Lectionary. I am doing this because I believe that Mark has a particular way of telling the story that is important. I am not alone in this; my friend Caspar Green has written a study book on the story of the passion in Mark for this very reason. I will be relying on his material—which he calls the Scarlet Journey– for our little adventure here at Adirondack Meeting. He uses the word “scarlet” to emphasize that his perspectives will not follow this year’s traditional journey to the cross. Our job on this journey is to pay special attention to what Mark—and only Mark—says. This shouldn’t be too onerous; the passion narrative is only about 3 chapters in Mark. Our job is also to notice where we get surprised or shocked by what we learn, for this may well lead us to new understandings about Jesus Christ; as well as influence or renew our faith in ways that help us live it out in today’s world.
Let’s start by hearing what Caspar says about the particular importance of the gospel of Mark: “it’s the earliest of the four gospels in the New Testament. As such, it reflects in many instances the stories about Jesus that are closest to the way they were originally told. As with any story told orally, over time details change, and the significance of events are rearranged. Written thirty-something years after Jesus’ crucifixion, even Mark’s accounts have already been retold to address the concerns of the second generation of Jesus followers. Still, so close people and events that touched off the Christian movement, they reflect a highly similar understanding of the circumstances in which Jesus and his original disciples lived. The first readers of Mark would have had the chance to see the Temple in Jerusalem with their own eyes, and would have experienced the competing claims of the same religious and political authorities Jesus experienced. In other words because this is the oldest version of the Jesus story, the similarities it has with the actual world in which Jesus lived, ministered, and died are very close. The culture, those in power, those NOT in power in Jesus’ life closely resemble what is depicted in Mark’s story and in Mark’s world.
Along with his commentary and interpretation of this part of Mark, Caspar has also created his own translation from the Greek of the particular passages he considers. I will be sharing these as well each week, in hopes of allowing a fresh approach to the texts. You are invited to follow along from the back of your bulletin as I read again Mark 14:3-9 according to Caspar Green:
Jesus was at Bethany in Simon’s house. (Simon was a leper.) While they were eating diner, a woman came with a bottle of Clive Christian perfume. She smashed the jar and poured it all over his head. In anger, several of the company protested, “Why was this perfume wasted like that? We could have sold that for more than $200,000! Think how much we could have given to the poor with that!” And they excoriated her.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why are you berating her? She’s done me a great service! You’ll always have poor folk with you, and you can always be kind to them. But I’m not always going to be here for you. She’s just doing what she could to help. Now I’m ready to go to my grave. Seriously, wherever people tell this story all over the world, people will tell this part. And they’ll remember her.”
First, a little background information:
What kind of picture do you get in your mind when you think of Simon, “the Leper”? What does that even mean? Most of our Bibles suggest that leprosy is similar to what we know of today as Hanson’s disease or another skin disease…For all we know, Simon had a birthmark or a mole or a boil. He’s NOT sick; he’s unclean. Cleanliness has nothing to do with germs here; it’s all about whether someone is in conformity with the rules or laws. The important question is; are you behaving or appearing like the law indicates is “normal?” In addition, anything touched or possessed by Simon is ALSO UNCLEAN by association. Eating at his house would be like having dinner in a gas station restroom for us—REALLY ICKY. What’s more is that Jesus cannot “heal” Simon, because he isn’t sick. Purification requires going through the ritual at the temple that makes one “clean”, which includes the purchase of a specific animal sacrifice. It is very likely that Simon is not only “unclean”, he’s poor as well. What the heck is Jesus doing hanging around with him?
And then, there’s this woman with a jar of nard or perfume. When you look at the website for Clive Christian Perfume—which is used in Caspar’s transation, you’ll see that it claims to be the world’s most expensive perfume…She comes forward and anoints Jesus, breaking the expensive container as well as spilling out completely the costly oil. This sets up a number of crucial contrasts…
Here you have poor old unclean Simon on one hand, a social outcast who can’t afford the cost of purification, and on the other, a woman—of course ALSO an outcast—because she’s a woman, who has lavished in excess on Jesus a perfume used only by the wealthy.
On one hand you have the followers who are scandalized at the woman’s behavior, assuming that the expense of the perfume could have been used to feed the poor there’s the money issue—not seeing beyond the value of the money involved; on the other there’s Jesus who has just taught his followers about caring for the poor. But in this case he praises the actions of the woman, calling her a true disciple that everyone should remember and learn from; which is something that hasn’t been done over time; there’s the sex or gender issue—not seeing beyond the fact that a WOMAN is involved.
On one hand, you have a crowd who sees Jesus’ presence at Simon the Leper’s as an opportunity where they can capitalize on the difference between them and him to stroke their own egos, and on the other there’s Jesus who wants merely to eat with folks in an attempt for them to know Simon as an equal outside of the constraints of the social and religious mores.
What conclusions can we reach from this setting? First off and foremost: Jesus IS ALL ABOUT breaking down the barriers of class, and social oppression. He eats with, helps, and LOVES ALL. THAT IS THE GOOD NEWS OF GOD THAT JESUS BRINGS.
Secondly, Jesus here is offering his followers an opportunity to really SEE the situation and make a difference. It isn’t enough that they condescended to come into Simon’s presence. They COULD BE looking for ways to help solve his problem. The woman’s interruption with a sacrifice of such extravagance boggles the ordinary person’s mind and proves the poverty of the assembled company’s hearts. She had a lot and gave it without hesitation. It’s about one’s willingness to do what needs to be done with what is available in the moment. Unfortunately the only person who sees the extraordinary generosity of her act was Jesus. That’s why he says she should always be remembered for her actions. It’s too bad she was judged only by her gender and that her gift was misunderstood by the crowd.
AS I considered this story, I couldn’t help but think of the recent incident in Hudson Falls involving the effort to establish a recovery center for heroin addicts within a church building in a residential neighborhood. A local clergy person offered the facility from a place of really seeing and understanding the situation at hand; he himself is a recovering addict. Initially this seemed as if it was going to be an important initial step in combating the epidemic of addiction in our area. Unfortunately the neighbors to the church see this as a threat to their community. Their fear is that those visiting the center would put the locals “at risk” and create an undesirable environment for family living.
As I view this situation up against this passage in Mark, I can recognize some common issues. Those in recovery seem to be viewed as unclean; their circumstances are not really understood nor are they readily incorporated or welcomed into the status quo of normal community living. Most of those who live nearby claim to be in support of “somebody doing something” to counteract the heroin epidemic, but they don’t want it in their “backyard”—that would certainly be as over the top as throwing expensive perfume all over a revolutionary leader. If we open our eyes to the situation and really see the truth of drug addiction recovery and prevention work, we might see that there are most certainly already addicts in varying stages of recovery in that neighborhood; that the problem isn’t about THEM—it involves US ALL. Why throw any lip service or money at a problem that can be addressed with time and space and people who care and are equipped to help those that want help? What will it take for us to look deeper than the money and sex issues in this case that cover over the reality that exists beyond cultural assumptions and prejudice? Here, it IS NOT ABOUT just throwing money at “the poor” or “a problem”, or making assumptions due to gender or social class. These block and destroy a real effort to resolve or relieve the situation. It is about trying to use our abundance in ways that really see the problems and doing the best we can when we have the chance.
Where else in our lives are we being called by Mark’s Jesus to get beyond the assumptions made by our society in order to deal meaningfully and responsibly with an issue that threatens to destroy the gifts and opportunities of our common humanity?
Where or how do we see ourselves or our faith community acting in response to the status quo of our culture in order to allow Good News to flourish?