Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What she has done will be told in remembrance of her

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.

- Mark 14:1-11

Mark tells us it is two days before the beginning of Passover and the festival of the Unleavened Bread. It's important to think about these great feasts; they both commemorate Israel's liberation from Egypt. The Passover is the celebration of the "passing over" of the Jewish homes by the angel of death, when the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed (Ex. 12:12-20). The unleavened bread is a reminder of the haste with which they left Egypt. Jesus has used leaven or yeast as a metaphor for influence within a given group or society: the unleavened bread symbolizes a bread made of innocence or holiness unmixed with evil. As we move into Passover week and the Passion, we must keep this in mind.

The great love and devotion with which the woman at Bethany breaks the bottle of nard is a representative action of "the better part" to which Jesus referred in the story of sisters Martha and Mary. The disciples themselves are indignant at her failure to sell this costly ointment and give the money for distribution to the poor. My study bible notes that those who are angry with her know more about religion than she does. But her act is a gift to Christ, her devotion at his feet reminds us of the devotion of Mary in the story noted above (whom the gospels say performed a similar act of devotion). I think this important story at this time is not just about Jesus' acceptance of an act as he is so close to his death, some type of exceptional occurrence, but of the reality of the centrality of worship. We don't know what acts which stem from this love will eventually come to mean or to effect. But everything starts from this love and devotion: discernment, practice, and the gifts of spirit (including love, mercy, forbearance, patience, etc.) that we share with others come from this central love and devotion. Jesus accepts her love and admonishes the others for criticizing her.

As we practice good works of any kind, I think it's important to remember this story. The reason I say so is because so often, it seems to me, that losing sight of this central personal relationship, this devotion and love, even while practicing good works, leads to forms of what has been called by at least one theologian "abstract life." No ideology, in my opinion, can substitute for this mystery of worship and relationship in terms of creating the effects of love, however myriad and deep they may be. The reason I say so is because ideology - no matter how well-intentioned - always stands in danger of becoming an abstract way of life, of boiling down to the rules, without mercy. I feel that we either center our worship on the Person who is love or we worship something else. An ideology cannot substitute, the rules cannot substitute. When we become vociferous critics in the name of rules, we lose our sight of mercy, our relatedness and our humanity. We lose our empathy and compassion. If the God of love and mercy is the One whom we choose to worship, then no rules, no matter how well-intentioned, can stand before that love. Her simple act of devotion is a great example of this power of love; Jesus' criticism of his disciples for criticizing her is the power of the Lord to teach us what is the "better part."

The gospel of John specifically names Judas Iscariot as one of those critics whom Jesus chastises in front of the rest. Perhaps in this understanding, we become more insightful into his reasons for betrayal. At any rate, I choose to read it this way: Judas is reprimanded for his outspoken criticism. He is personally humiliated and does not accept this criticism and teaching as an act of love. And, I think, we must also see this as a case where "the rules" - even those rules made from concern for the practice of love and mercy - are rigorously followed without room for human love, for the practice of mercy in direct relationship. For me, this is a central key to my faith. The rules must support those realities that happen in the moment, when we are face-to-face with questions of relatedness and mercy, when it is the person whom God has placed before us and the immediate reality that asks us to choose love is concerned.

To my mind, this story and this teaching cement Jesus' own opinion on this matter. The far-reaching effects of this act of love and devotion, and others' response to it cannot be estimated. This woman, in what seems a spontaneous act of love and devotion, may or may not have known that she was anointing his body for burial. Nor could she have known that those who responded with anger at her love would be the instrument of his death. What we do for love may disrupt and disturb; how others respond to love and devotion may become the very substance of Judgment.

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