copyright 2010 by Sea Raven, D.Min.
John 12:1-11; Isaiah 42:1-9; Hebrews 9:11-15
The reading from John’s Gospel for Monday of Holy Week revisits the story of the woman with the alabaster jar. The story is so powerful that it appears in all the gospels, and is considered twice by the lectionary readings in Year C. For that reason, some form of this incident may very well have actually happened. The question is when, and under what circumstances. She must have been an important member – even a leader – in Jesus’ entourage, even though she is unnamed in Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Mark, Matthew, and John place the story in Jesus’ last days as he journeys toward Jerusalem, death, and resurrection. In Luke’s version this demonstration was not associated with Jesus’s last days. It was an intrusion on a symposium, or banquet, for men only. The woman was a penitent prostitute (by legend, Mary Magdalene), and the story is treated as a scandal.
John assumes she was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, close friends of Jesus. In John’s version of the story, “six days before the Passover,” there is a dinner for Jesus at the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus has raised from the dead. At this dinner, Lazarus is one of those at table with him, and Martha serves. Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet with it, then wipes his feet with her hair.
The Revised Common Lectionary includes Hebrews 9:11-15 with the readings for Monday of Holy Week. The writer of Hebrews argues that the Christ came as a high priest from the mysterious order of Melchizedek. This high priest overthrew the old ways of purification through animal sacrifice. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!” Heb. 9:14. The writer is talking about purity and redemption (buy-back) for transgressions committed under Moses’s old covenant. It is because of Jesus’s pure blood sacrifice that “those who are called” can “received the promised eternal inheritance.” These passages – lifted from the context of the full argument – place anti-Semitism like a faint watermark in the background.
But from Israel’s ancient past, Isaiah’s “suffering servant” models a different kind of power that brings God’s justice-compassion. Whether the servant is a person – perhaps a future king – or represents the collective people of ancient Israel, power is redefined as kenotic power. That is, power that is self-denying, not self-aggrandizing. In the first of these “servant songs,” the prophet says that the former ways of doing business are well established, but new ways are coming. The mandate is unmistakable: the servant is a partner with God in establishing God’s justice, and “the coastlands” – the earth within its coastal boundaries – actively wait – anticipate – look forward to hearing – whatever the servant has to say. Suddenly there is no threat of retributive mayhem or payback, and the universe – perhaps weary of the constant bombardment of human unwillingness to live in trust and wholeness – is waiting for that teaching.
Mary’s action at Lazarus’s dinner party claims unequivocally that the first part of the prophecy in Isaiah 42 has been fulfilled in Jesus. The meaning of this story is far removed from what is presented in Hebrews.
"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching."
Three times, God says his servant will bring justice, and while it will come with non-violence, and without fanfare, it will come nevertheless with power. How is justice brought forth with power and without violence? Here is where post-modern Christian exiles must part company with the Christian orthodoxy represented by the writer of Hebrews. Jesus death was not a blood sacrifice required to “purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God.” Jesus’s death was in the service of God’s distributive justice-compassion.
That death – although violent – did not happen in order to bring about God’s distributive justice-compassion. That violent death was a result of subverting the old ways of doing business – retributive justice, payback, the usual power structures. Isaiah says that the servant “will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice . . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”
The poor and those denied access to the usual social and political powers afforded to citizens of civilized societies (the disenfranchised) demand justice because they live with injustice daily. But any human being is susceptible to the corruption of political, social, economic, and personal power systems that lead seemingly inevitably to what John Dominic Crossan calls “the normalcy of civilization.” Justice under this “normal” condition is retributive. Power-over others and getting even define the only power that seems to make a difference. The rich – the privileged – who control access to the usual expressions of political or social power are the ones most easily corrupted by the power they hold.
This may be the trap Judas found himself in. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus may have been among the rich patrons who supported Jesus. Lazarus sponsored a dinner party for Jesus. Mary may have bought the perfume herself. So what is Judas complaining about? In John’s story, Judas is outraged by Mary’s extravagant waste of a commodity that could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But it is a false piety. “He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief,” says John. “He kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” The writer was probably setting up Judas for the betrayal to come. But money is not what brings God’s distributive justice. What brings God’s distributive justice is “my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” Mary uses the money to buy a pound of pure nard, and instead of keeping it “for the day of my burial,” as Jesus suggests, she anoints Jesus’s feet with it. Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” Money designated by the rich for the poor merely continues to buy into the normal systems that keep injustice and violence in place. Instead of making the expected donation, Mary has acknowledged Jesus as the servant of God, and has anticipated his death. The writers of both Luke and John say that the reason Judas betrayed Jesus was that he was possessed by Satan. Without working through the metaphor suggested by this characterization (“the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” 1 Timothy 6:10), it is possible that after Mary’s extravagant misuse of the company funds, the only way Judas could see to ensure his own economic survival was to turn Jesus in to the collaborators with Roman authority.
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