11/25/18: Doing What We Can, Mark 14:1-9
Doing What We Can
First Lesson: Psalm 93
Second Lesson: Mark 14:1-9
Rev. Scott Dickison
It’s perhaps appropriate on this Sunday following Thanksgiving that we find Jesus and his disciples sitting around a table together, probably about to share in some meal.
Of course, chances are good that this is where we would find them—the gospels tell us that Jesus and the disciples are constantly gathering around tables. The table was one of Jesus’ favorite places to be for some of the same reasons it’s probably one of your favorite places to be. For one, it was where food was served and drink was poured. The gospels tell us at different times that Jesus and his crowd were regarded by other more pious groups as something like partiers—they were not opposed to a good time. But more than this, Jesus knew that life happens around tables—kitchen tables, or tables with food on them, in particular.
So much of life happens around the table, doesn’t it? Some of the best memories of your life and probably some of the worst. Or at least the hardest. Some of the most tender—sometimes because of who was there and other times who wasn’t there.
Jesus knew, too, that tables are also where rifts, or distance between people is laid bare. To share a table with someone says something. It says we’re in communion with each other, even if delicately—does that describe your Thanksgiving table?!
Jesus gathers around a table with all kinds of people in the gospels—men, women and children.
Rich people, poor people.
Scribes and pharisees and tax collectors and sinners—all of these separate tables showing so intimately where then lines are, and Jesus will have nothing to do with this. He floats from this table to that table. Over and over the scandal Jesus’ opponents accuse him of is eating with people he shouldn’t for one reason or another. Even, we’re told almost off-handedly here, lepers.
Simon was his name. Simon the leper he was apparently known by. Leprosy, in the New Testament, can describe any number of skin conditions, but all of them severe or disfiguring enough to render someone, at best, ritually unclean, and more than this, unwelcome in public for fear of contamination.
At other points in the gospel, Jesus dining with a leper might be the focus or even the scandal of the story, but here near the end of the gospel, in fact, on the Wednesday evening of the last week of his earthy life—just two days before he will be crucified—it’s become so the norm for Jesus that it comes to us almost as a footnote. Mark is much more concerned with telling us about this woman.
Jesus is sitting there at the table when a woman—we’re not told her name—comes over to him carrying a jar of very costly perfume. She proceeds to break this jar open and pour the contents on Jesus’ head—anointing him. A curious thing to do, certainly a generous thing to do, but not unheard of in those days. It was a sign of extravagant hospitality.
And the disciples object—or at least we suppose it was the disciples. No one wants to own up to it. Mark just says, “Some were there” who whispered disapproval. Some people.We know “some people.” Do you hear the cattiness, here, directed at this woman?!
Some people were there whispering to each other,Can you believe she did that? How she wasted the ointment in that way?
And they do it in the name of piety. You know, she could have sold that for a lot of money and given it to the poor…
But is it possible there was just the slightest bit of jealousy, here? After all, this was costly ointment. The wives of middle-class fishermen do not have jars of costly ointment. 300 denarii would have equalled about a year of their family earnings.
How much do you think she paid for that?
Well, you know her husband’s a doctor.
I heard she comes from money.
And they “scolded her,” it says. Like a child.
Jesus hears them and says—No, no. Leave her alone. She has done something good for me—a better translation is She’s done something beautiful for me. You’ll always have the poor with you and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish—and he isn’t being careless here, in fact, he’s quoting from Deuteronomy 15 where it says how the poor should be cared for.
There will always be people in need and of course you should show kindness to them. But you won’t always have me. She has done what she could,Jesus says. She knows I won’t be with you much longer. Wherever the good news is proclaimed, they’ll remember what she’s done.
She has done what she could.
It’s possible to hear these words as a statement of futility: Well we did what we could—but that’s not how Jesus means it, not in the slightest. This is not a statement of disappointment. This unnamed woman, who seems to float into the gospel here at such a critical juncture but who must have been with them for some time to offer such a gift to Jesus, she trulydid all that she could, which turned out to be a great deal. She took what she had and she gave of it, wholly, extravagantly,
beautifully, even—what if discipleship meant doing “beautiful things,” and not just “good” things or “kind” things or even “generous” things? Who would we value as a church? But she offers these things in the time she had left with Jesus—recognizing that there wasn’t much time left.
Anointing one’s head with oil was an act of extravagant hospitality, but of course it also harkens back to the anointing of kings and other messengers of God. The word “messiah” means “God’s anointed.” It was an act of hospitality, but also an act of awareness—this unnamed women, more than anyone else in the room and really the entire Gospel of Mark “get’s it.” She knows who Jesus is and what this means for him—that the cross is not too far away. And she knows how we’re to respond. She did what she could. She did allshe could. It was a costly thing but in the end, it was a small thing. It didn’t feed any hungry people, it didn’t clothe the naked or heal any sick person. But it was an act of tenderness, done with love and compassion. And Jesus tells us wherever the gospel is told we’ll remember what she’s done. In fact, no higher praise is offered in the gospel of Mark. This unnamed woman and her costly oil so extravagantly offered to Jesus is lifted up as the model disciple in Mark’s Gospel: she alone understands it is Christ in front of her, the Messiah, and how to respond.
But I wonder if it’s more than this.
I wonder if Jesus is so in awe of this woman not simply because she saw that the person in front of her was Christ, but because she saw Christ in the person in front of her, and “she did what she could.” Maybe this was what Jesus lifted up as the heart of discipleship: to be truly present with the people around us. To be attentive and aware. After all, it was just two days from his trial and crucifixion, surely Jesus knew this and was carrying a weight. She must have seen it in his eyes or maybe in his shoulders. And so she did what she could. The ministry of presence, we often call it. The discipline of focusing yourself to the people in front of you, whoever they are—friends, family, your children, your spouse, strangers, store clerks, coffee shop baristas, because “in front you” may very well be where you find the presence of Christ.
I’ve spoken before about Father Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest who started Homeboy Industries, working with gang members in East Los Angelos. And he talks about how back in the 4thand 5thcenturies, still early on in Christian history, there were some believers who felt the only way to be completely present to God in the moment was to rid oneself of all the distractions of the world. And so they left their homes and society in general, and went out into the desertto seek God through a life of prayer and solitude and so we have the beginnings of Christian monasticism. We know them now as “the desert fathers and mothers.” And he says when times were particularly difficult for these early monks, and they weren’t sure how they would make it out there—on those days when they were particularly in need of God’s presence, or feeling especially vulnerable or distracted—they would focus their attention and their prayer to one word, and repeat it over and over—in what other traditions might call a mantra, this word or phrase that when repeated over and over is thought to lead to some kind of transformation. And the word they repeated over and over was not Jesus, or God or Spirit. The word was today.Today. Today is where they directed their focus and hoped to find God. Today.
Father Boyle also talks about Thomas Merton, the great writer, thinker and Trappist monk from the 1950s and 60s. Before he tragically died, Merton shared with one of his closest friends a type of rule for life. it was Now. Here. This. Now. Here, H-E-R-E, This.
Now—the present moment.
Here—where we are currently.
This—whatever and whomever is before us.
You may have noticed, too, this is the title of my column each week in our newsletter, aimed at helping me stay focused on our life together here as a congregation. On this Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday in our church year together, where we look back on the year we’ve traveled and the tory we’ve told, this may finally be the “task” of discipleship: simply to be here, fully. After all, attention, the poet Mary Oliver reminds us, is the beginning of devotion. It’s the simplest thing there is and perhaps the most difficult. The most costly, but also the most beautiful. It’s really all we can do.
And crazy as this holiday season we’ve just entered as a wider people is, and potentially stressful and tender and just plain hard and sorrowful, it also provides an opportunity for us to put these things into practice. We’ll no doubt find ourselves around many tables in the coming weeks, just as we did over these past few days. And we’ll experience another reason Jesus was so fond of tables, which is the way they focus us. The way theyposition where we almost have to try not to see each other. Tables almost force us to see each other face to face, just like Paul says it will be. Which I think is so much of what Jesus was trying to get us to do in the first place: to see each other face to face. See our neighbors face to face, see our enemies face to face. To see our family face to face.
And when we do, is it too much to wonder if we’ll see Christ face to face, too? Isn’t that what we wait for in this season ahead?
From Fr. Greg Boyle on On Beingwith Krista Tippett. http://www.onbeing.org/program/father-greg-boyle-on-the-calling-of-delight/transcript/5059#main_content