Sunday, August 16, 2020

Mark 14 1-11

after two days was the feast of the passover and of unleavened bread
and the chief priests and the scribes 
sought how they might take him by craft and put him to death.
but they said, not on the feast day, 
lest there be an uproar of the people

and being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper as he sat at meat, 
there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard
very precious
and she brake the box and poured it on his head.
and there were some that had indignation within themselves
and said, “Why was this waste of the ointment made?
for it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence
and have been given to the poor”
and they murmured against her.
and Jesus said, 
“let her alone; why trouble ye her? 
she hath wrought a good work on me.
for ye have the poor with you always
and whensoever ye will ye may do them good
but me ye have not always.
she hath done what she could
she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
verily I say unto you, 
wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world
this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.”

and Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, 
went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
and when they heard it, they were glad, 
and promised to give him money
and he sought how he might conveniently betray him

Two stories, wrapped around each other: the culmination of Jesus' conflict with the Priests; and a woman with a jar of perfume. Mark wants us to think of the two stories together. 

The anointing of Jesus is of pivotal importance. The Messiah is the One Who Has Been Anointed: that is what the word — mashiach — means. We readers have known that Jesus is the Messiah from the very first verse of Mark’s book: but that information was concealed from everyone inside the story. But a few pages ago Peter let the holy cat out of the holy bag. Jesus is not just a prophet; and he is not even Top Prophet. He is the One Who Has Been Anointed. People are openly calling him “Son of David” and quoting Messianic hymns when he arrives in town.  But this is the moment when Jesus literally becomes Jesus Christ. 

Would it have been better if the woman had sold her ointment and given the money to the poor? Jesus’ answer is double-edged. Today no; but in the future, yes. On any other day in human history, help the poor. Today, do what you are supposed to do for me. Many very good sermons about faith and works and worship and charity have been preached on this. It either proves that Jesus was definitely a socialist; or it proves that he definitely wasn't. But I don't think that this is the point of the story. 

We are listening to Mark telling a story about Jesus. And, for the first time, Jesus, inside the story, looks forward to the time when the story will be told. This woman’s deed will always form a central part of that story: of course it will. You can hardly tell the story of the Anointed One without telling the story of the person who did the actual anointing. Jesus doesn’t say that the story of Peter or James or John or even Andrew will be told all round the world. Mark, by including the story in his text, shows that Jesus' words were true. The story of this woman is part of God’s spell. 

But Mark remembers where Jesus was staying. At the house of someone called Simon the Leper. But he doesn’t remember the woman’s name.  

Many good sermons could be preached on this point, too. It may prove that Mark was definitely a feminist or it may prove that he definitely wasn’t. 

But I don’t think this is the point of the story, either.

Jesus has been anointed. Literally anointed. And no-one present seems to understand the importance of what has just happened. They don’t say “He is literally the Christ”. They say “Gosh. That anointing oil was awfully expensive.” They have missed the point. 

One might even say that, when we miss the point of the story, we get it. 

At the exact moment that Jesus becomes literally the Anointed One, people are plotting to kill him. 

It is the Priests who want to kill Jesus. No-one else. Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem, made straight for the Temple, and announced that the Priesthood and the temple itself is going to come to an end. Obviously the Priests would want him dead. 

The story is focussing down. Jesus versus the priests. The bearer of the holy dove against the temple. God against religion.

And therefore, of course, Christians against Jews. 

Remember the mountain in Galilee: Jesus choosing twelve men from among his disciples, giving them new names and declaring them his envoys. The Rock and the Thunder-Brothers and Andrew “and Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him.”

So we come to Judas' part of the story.

Mark tells us three things about Judas: his first name, his last name, and the fact that he handed Jesus over to the Priests. 

His last name doesn’t tell us very much. There might have been a town called Kerioth, so he might have been Judas of Kerioth, so he might not have been a Galilean. 

On the other hand, there was a group of Jewish Ninja who carried daggers called sica so he might have been Judas the Sicarri. This is pretty desperate stuff. 

But unfortunately, his first name tells us a very great deal. 

Judah was the brother who dissented from the plan to sell Joseph into slavery. When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt, he gave Judah twice as much corn as the others. Father Jacob called Judah a lion; that’s why we talk about the lion’s share. He predicted that Judah’s descendents would be kings. That’s why we talk about the Lion of Judah. And King David did indeed come from the tribe of Judah. Most of Jacob’s descendents disappeared after the Babylonian exile, but the tribe of Judah came home. The action of Mark’s story has shifted from Galilee to Judea: the land of Judah. The religion of the temple is known as Judah-ism. After Daniel’s Abomination of Desolation, the temple was freed by a hero named Judah. 

Yehuda. Judah. Judas. 

Jesus is handed over to the Jewish Priests by a man whose actual name means Jew. There is no way out of it. 

We can only ascribe human motivation to Judas by adding to Mark’s text; by referring to things which are not there. Maybe Judas went to the Priests because the woman wasted so much money. Maybe Judas went to the Priests because he saw that Jesus was claiming to be Messiah and feared the repercussions. Maybe Judas went to the priests because he understood that Jesus wanted to die and needed someone to facilitate it. Maybe Judas went to the priests because he was a greedy old shylock who saw the chance to make a fast buck. None of this is in the text. 

We will have to get used to this. As Mark’s story builds towards its climax, there are more and more silences. More and more characters who we know nothing about. More and more places where we have to imagine or guess or make up what is going on.

The Priest’s decide to kill Jesus. A woman anoints Jesus. Judas hands Jesus over to the Priests. That is Mark’s story. 

So let me make something up. 

At the end of Act I of Tristan and Isolde, a member of the supporting cast inadvertently switches the cups containing “deadly poison” and the cups containing “magical and incurable love-potion”. The hero and the heroine enter into a suicide pact: they believe they are ending their lives, but they are actually binding their hearts together for eternity. Symbolically, within the story, being in love and being dead are the same; and the music manages to convince us that this is so. Devotees talk about the liebstod, the lovedeath. 

I think that something slightly similar is going on here. Making Jesus king and making Jesus dead are the same thing. He’s the victimking; the sacrificemessiah. 

Kings get anointed. “Jesus Christ” means no more and no less than “King Jesus”. But corpses get anointed as well. 

The woman Christifies Jesus: she pours oil on him. Everything has been building up to this moment. But in that same moment Jesus redefines what Christification means. 

Jesus is turned officially into King Jesus. The audience start to obsess about the cost of anointing oil. Jesus says “you haven’t prepared me for my coronation; you have prepared me for my funeral”. And Dagger-Wielding-Foreign-Jew is in the same moment become the betrayer: the one-who-hands-him-over. 

Jesus is to all intents and purposes a dead man. And tomorrow is the most important sacrifice of the Jewish year. 

Fun Facts: Things which Mark does not say

1: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was called Mary.

2: He does not say that Jesus’ hosts in Bethany were named Mary and Martha.

3: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was a prostitute.

4: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus had narrowly avoided being stoned to death for adultery. 

5: He does not say that the woman who anointed Jesus was sinful in any respect.

6: He does not say that she poured oil over his feet or mention her hair in any context.  

7: He does not say that she cried over Jesus. 

8: He does not say that it was Judas who objected to the waste of money. 

9: He does not even say that it was the generality of disciples who objected. 

10: He does not say that the Priests agreed to pay Judas thirty silver pieces.

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Thomas said...

"And, for the first time, Jesus, inside the story, looks forward to the time when the story will be told."

Jesus did make an earlier reference to the Gospel existing in the future, in Mark 13: "and the Gospel must first be [made public] among all nations." Obviously, this is Mark talking from his own perspective. By euangelion, he means the oral tradition existing in his lifetime, and his book is an extension of that tradition.

"The story is focussing down. Jesus versus the priests. The bearer of the holy dove against the temple. God against religion. And therefore, of course, Christians against Jews."

That last one is a false dichotomy. The people around Jesus are mostly Jewish themselves. The distinction is between Jews-following-Jesus and Jews-following-the-Old-Religion, with the understanding that the Old Religion with the Temple as its focal point would cease to exist in that form. The destruction of the Temple is indeed central to an understanding of the Gospel in its historical context. (As I've come to realize while reading all of this!)

Jesus didn't set out to start a new religion. Jesus took a long, hard look at religious practices in his lifetime and proclaimed that people should mend their ways. He may have been subversive, but he was still a religious Jew operating within a Jewish context.

(Honestly, I don't think that I can add anything that you wouldn't know already.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Up to a point. To say "Christians vs Jews" is an anachronism: "followers of Jesus" become "the Way" for the first pages of the book of Acts; and the term "Christian" is coined part-way through. I was making the rhetorical point -- leading into my comments about the probable meaning of Judas's name -- that the whole conflict of Jesus versus temple, sacrifice system, priests, pharisees and law is problematic and rather shocking. That complex temple/sacrifice/priests/pharisees/Torah is to a great extent what we mean by "Judaism". (I didn't mean to imply a conflict between racially Jewish people and racially non-Jewish people, of course, although that comes in Paul and Acts, to some extent, arguably.) It might have been better if I'd said "Christianity against Judaism" or "Nascent Christianity against Judaism" or even "The followers of Jesus' new Way against the followers of Moses and the Torah and his interpreters".

Mark's Jesus, the character I'm talking about, didn't "take a long hard look at the religious practices of his day"; he was possessed or visited by the Spirit of God and proceeded to act and behave as if he was God. It is hard to know if he (the character in the book) intended to start a new "religion": he certainly proclaims a new Covenant; and certainly sets up the Eucharist as a new ceremony -- replacing Passover? Mark doesn't give us many clues about what he thinks happened after the Resurrection. Indeed it's pretty hard to see how Mark's story can possibly dove-tail into Luke's. Obviously there are a lot of ideas about who The Historical Jesus who lies behind Mark's story was. Jewish reformer and Jewish apocalyptic prophet are two very popular ones. I am not in any way opposed to or uninterested in Quests for the Historical Jesus (although I am pretty ignorant about them) but I am trying to stay as focussed as I can on Mark's Version.

Thanks for your comments and for taking me seriously, by the way!