Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

In Memory of Her

What a great surprise to find that Doug King of the Witherspoon Society did a review of my blog. He is looking for other progressive oriented blogs. The Witherspoon Society is a page to add to your favorites. It provides a progressive witness in the PCUSA ("news and networking for progressive Presbyterians"). You might consider joining them! Now that Doug and I have shamelessly promoted each other, on to Jesus!

Following the last week of Jesus according to Mark and with the assistance of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book, The Last Week, we come to Wednesday. Jesus has finished a long day teaching and jiving with the scribes. They have had about enough. This
"Bible-thumping hack from Galilee" is daaa-aaangerous (remember the song from Jesus Christ Superstar?) and he is stirring up the crowd who delights in what he has to say.

The crowd is the reason the authorities want Jesus dead. We get insight into their motiviation in John 11. The authorities are worried:

47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’

While it might be tempting to demonize the temple authorities, we need to know that they were in a tight spot between the people and Rome. If Rome gets wind of this guy stirring up trouble, they fear that Rome will retaliate against the temple itself.

The crowd is also Jesus's protection. You can't just arrest him in broad daylight or the crowd will retaliate. You need to find a way to get him alone, away from the crowd and deal with him stealthily. It has to be an inside job. Hmmm. What to do? Here is the text:

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; 2for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’
Mark leaves us in suspense and shifts the scene. Jesus has left the temple and is relaxing in Bethany. Mark inserts the following story in the midst of the plotting authorities. Throughout Mark, the disciples are as dumb as they come. They never understand the message of Jesus and he has to tell them repeatedly why he is going to Jerusalem, what will happen there, and what they must do to be followers. I think of the Gospel of Mark not as history remembered but as a parable about discipleship. In the heat of the Jewish War (66-70), in response to the violence of empire and the injustice of religious collaboration with empire, Mark's Gospel is about the way of following Jesus. It is the way of the cross. The disciples are all bad examples. They are illustrations of fear. There is one who gets it and this is her story:

3 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. 4But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

We need to stick with Mark. The other gospels take this story and run with it in their own way. For Mark, the unnamed woman is the one who actually listens to Jesus. She knows he is headed for death and that she must anoint him now because she may never get another chance. She knows the cost of discipleship. The costly ointment is a symbol for the cost of following Jesus. It is the cost of one's life. It represents all that is valuable. While "some" scold her for wasting this ointment, Jesus understands. "She has done what she could," he says. She has given what is most valuable in order to follow the way, the way of the cross and resurrection.

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.’

Do you understand disciples? Do you understand, dear reader? That is what I think Mark is saying. In contrast to the one follower who gets it, to the model of true discipleship, Mark takes us back to the main plot. We are introduced to failed discipleship at its most explicit. Enter Judas:

10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11When 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 gives no motivation for Judas's betrayal. None is needed. There is no need to make Judas greedy or possessed by Satan as the other gospels regard him. There is no need to make up all kinds of motivations for him. What reason might you have to betray the way? Judas is that. Judas is one of "the twelve." He is the disciple who for Mark represents the failure to walk in the way of death and resurrection. Judas misses the way to authentic life.

Thus ends Wednesday, with a contrast between two ways of discipleship: the costly giving of oneself (the unnamed woman) or the betraying of oneself (Judas).


  1. Surprised to see "Bible Thumping Hack " & Witherspoon society on the same blog.

    Good interpretation of the scripture John.

    We might be miles apart - geographically and theologically - but have a blessed Easter with your church.

  2. Thanks Stushie! A Blessed Easter to you as well!

  3. I found the contrast between the woman and Judas very poignant and some excellent work in interpreting the passage - I really like that comparison and the point made with it (the authentic life).