July 24, 2007

Mark 14.3-11

Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. As he sat at table, a woman came in carrying a small bottle of very costly perfume, oil of pure nard. She broke it open and poured the oil over his head.

Some of those present said to one another angrily, "Why this waste? The perfume might have been sold for thirty pounds and the money given to the poor." And they turned against her in fury.

But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why must you make trouble for her? It is a fine thing she has done for me. You have the poor among you always, and you can help them whenever you like, but you will not always have me. She has done what lay in her power; she is beforehand with anointing my body for burial. I tell you this: Wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as her memorial."

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priest to betray him to them. When they heard what he had come for, they were greatly pleased; and he began to look for a good opportunity to betray him.


At 9:06 a.m., Blogger forrest said...

Much going on... for one thing, I would say that here we have the source of the "30 pieces of silver" legend. Not thirty pieces that Judas wanted, but 30 pieces that outed Jesus as Messiah.

In Luke, this (7.36 etc) oil is misdirected to Jesus' feet, and used as the occasion for a homily. But pouring a small bottle of nard over someone's head is more than a rich person's indulgence.

The woman?--a "sinner" as in Luke, or a prophet?--or someone representing a prophet? (It was a prophet's assistant who annointed Jehu, in secret at that.)

And this notorious "The poor you'll always have around," misused so gleefully by apologists for social evil? In the Torah, it's: "If you do all these things, there will be no poor among you." So this more or less implies that at least those people Jesus was immediately addressing were never going to follow God's commandments well enough to not impoverish people.

And what is this "gospel" here?

At 1:20 p.m., Blogger David Carl said...

I get a sense of Jesus perhaps warning his followers not to get too hung up on only one aspect of his teaching. That its important to help the poor does not mean there can never be some "extravagance" for example. One might take this as a lesson not to go too far overboard on one aspect of spiritual life to the neglect of others. We often seek a sense of security in spiritual things, "Eureka! I've got it!" A good spiritual teacher might often find him or herself saying to such aspirants, "Eureka, you don't!" In that sense, Margaret Fell's declaration that a proscription against wearing red was "a silly, poor gospel" could be related.

Another aspect of this is the suggestion that, far from being an extravagance, he was about to die and "deserved" some TLC beforehand, or at least, that this was an appropriate act given the circumstances. Or perhaps Jesus simply saw in the woman a generous, unselfish and compassionate spirit, which, in greater supply would redound to everyone's benefit, the poor included.

At 5:24 p.m., Blogger forrest said...

Jesus is not saying, as I understand this, that the needs of the poor have low priority--but that helping them is not facilitated by pretending inhuman dedication, or by taking on personal austerities, or by condemning anyone for not doing so.

So far, I think we agree.

But this event happens in a political setting; it's triggered by a ceremonial act with political implications. Jesus is a guest here; he's in a house where there's room for a significant number of guests; and it's a formal occasion. Pouring this oil is a public act, and it noticeably upsets some of the people present. This, in a time when having purple undies in one's sock drawer could get one suspected of plotting to seize the Empire, and rulers customarily had secret agents going about testing their subjects' loyalties.

Jesus is quite right about this setting him up "for burial," and that comment doesn't cheer up anyone present.

At 12:58 p.m., Blogger David Carl said...


Can you explain the political implications a little more? Why would this be considered an act of disloyalty to the empire?


At 3:50 p.m., Blogger forrest said...

"Christ" is a culturally misleading translation of "Messiah" or "Annointed One." It has very little to do with expectations of an afterlife, and hardly much more to do with what modern Christians would call "sin," that is, the closest connect we get to "sin" is a widespread opinion that "The Romans (pagan goyim!!!) are here running our country because we (the nation) have sinned!"

"Separation of Church & State" won't be thought of for another 1600 years. Religion in this context has as much to do with political & ethnic allegiance as it does to anything we'd call religious.

"Annointing," in Israel, is what you do to kings and high priests. An individual might put some cheap oil on his head for secular reasons, perhaps, but in a ceremonial context it's effectively equivalent to a coronation.

Elisha, when time seems ripe to bring down Ahab, sends one of his servants to Jehu, carrying a flask of oil. The servant calls Jehu aside, pours the oil on his head, and flees. Jehu gathers his forces & races for the palace, where he begins a massacre of everyone remotely related to the old regime...

You're at a respectable formal dinner party in a politically touchy kingdom; someone (We aren't told who!) comes in and puts a large, jeweled crown on the head of one of the guests. How exactly are you going to feel about this?

Do the Romans care? They've been "keeping the peace" in the area for some time now, rewarding themselves generously for the "service." They wield considerable military force, but like the US, they prefer to rule subject nations indirectly through native rulers. At this time they are running and taxing part of Israel directly, and appointing their choice of rulers over the rest. Yes, they care enough to hang a person on a cross for any serious challenge to their arrangements. They'd already crucified some 2,000 Jews when they put down a revolt in Galilee, close to the time of Jesus' birth.


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