Thursday, October 22, 2009

In these scant few verses...

This morning, I sat down to write a reflection paper for my biblical interpretation class.  It is the culmination of over a month spent in just six verses of the Gospel of Mark, 14:3-9.  Here is the text, from the NRSV (with verse numbers removed):
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.

But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 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."
What follows is the last of seven papers I wrote for this class, on this text.  It is the final step in the exegetical process: theological reflection.  For the non-seminary crowd, "exegesis" can simply be defined as "close reading."  Seven or eight weeks on six verses of scripture certainly qualifies as that.  Read on to see what conclusions I came to...

Over the summer, a friend of mine and I engaged in a Bible study project together. Every day for the entire month of June, we read the entire letter of Paul to the Ephesians, which is six chapters in length. There were a few days here and there that I missed, but for the most part, we were successful. In addition to reading of the letter, we would correspond over e-mail (he lives in Minneapolis) about once a week, offering reflections on how the text was speaking to us over the past week, and what new perspectives we had gained. We didn't use commentaries or dictionaries and we didn't delve into any of the Greek (neither of us have the ability to do so). But it was what I would consider my first deep exegetical exercise. I had never spent that much time with one chunk of scripture, and doing so caused it to sink deep into my conscious and subconscious mind, my heart, and my spirit.

Now four months later, there are still echoes of the letter reverberating within me. When we spoke about Galatians last week in class, for instance, there was something deeply familiar to me (the two have significant overlap). I couldn't have imagined last June, however, that I would spend over a month with just six verses of scripture and write seven papers on them! How on earth could there be so much to say about these few verses in Mark's gospel? To my pleasant surprise, there is much to say about so few verses, and I have enjoyed the exercise on a number of levels, including intellectual and spiritual. And the exercise has deepened my skill in worship planning for church, at The Table on top of the hill. The methods and framework are becoming etched into my mind and I'm starting to flow within them, which makes the worship planning process at The Table – a highly scripture-led process – very engaging on a deeper level.

So what of the text itself, Mark 14:3-9, and its impact on me over the past month? After all the detailed work has been completed, what has it preached and taught? The story of the woman anointing Jesus for burial with costly perfume invites us to see Jesus as God's son, mere hours before he is betrayed and crucified, buried and resurrected. This simple story contains symbolic connections to Hebrew tradition and faith. Jesus anointed not only for burial, but also as high priest and king. The woman is exercising the prophetic role as well as the role of disciple who is willing to give up much in order to glorify Jesus. A broad sweep through scripture in just six scant verses. This is no mere smearing of oil, divorced from any symbolism and meaning. Not for those standing in the room, and not for us.

This story offers us the hope that despite Jesus' coming burial, the gospel he brought to us will live on and be preached throughout the world. And it is a gospel that has many dimensions. This gospel will be told to include such things as this woman's act of love and sacrifice, in remembrance of her. If this gospel that Jesus brings includes such things as acts of self-emptying and humility, how can so many Christians in this day and age have such a single-minded focus on the gospel and the salvation it brings as a personal eternal life insurance policy? The gospel has this in it, certainly, but it has so much more that calls us to greater accountability now, and not just at the time of judgment or at the end of times. This text offers a glimpse of what living the gospel actually looks like.

God's redemptive work in creation – significantly altered by the earthly life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the Christ – is at work and on display in this very story. The wheels of redemption are in motion as Jesus is anointed and a glimmer is seen of the post-resurrection gospel, carried on by his church, his body, connected and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. Part and parcel of this redemptive work is the judgment that Jesus levels at those who would take an act of loving sacrifice for Jesus' sake and twist it into a wasteful gesture. The ordering of the kingdom that Jesus began to spread, and which is indeed continuing to spread to this day, is made clear. Anointed as king, Jesus and his kingdom, his reign, is our primary concern. This most certainly has implications on our ethical behavior, here seen as caring for the poor, but the kingdom principle stands: “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness” (Mt. 6:33). Indeed, here, as in the passage from Matthew just quoted, kingdom principles and ethical teachings are never far apart when Jesus speaks. We need to hold them together because Jesus and the gospel holds them together.

The image of Jesus anointed as high priest gives us another perspective on the gospel, and that is one of our intermediary and reconciler to God. Where no mere man can tread, Jesus enters into the presence of our creator and stands, offering the sacrifice: himself. Jesus as high priest and sacrifice. Jesus as king. Jesus as friend. Together as the followers of the Christ, Jesus, his church comprises the ongoing embodiment and living invitation of the gospel: the in-breaking kingdom, his reign in and ultimate redemption of creation, the forgiveness of sins, the glorification of God through acts of self-emptying love. The death of our sinful selves and the sinful structures we have created to distance ourselves from the love of God and the love of our neighbors, even the love of our enemies.

This woman anointing Jesus' head stands in stark contrast with those whose primary concerns are placed somewhere other than Jesus and the gospel. In this story, she is our primary example of prophet and disciple. Her actions speak against sin and corrupt powers. Her actions show us what it means to give up everything, take up the cross, and follow Jesus. And this done before Jesus had even taken up his own cross and subverted that symbol of Roman oppression into one of self-emptying love and sacrifice...the same kind shown by the woman here in Mark 14:3-9. These scant few verses of scripture.

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