Tuesday, March 19, 2013

People of the Passion: Preparing

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The texts were Luke 7:36-39, 44-50; 19:29-38; 22:7-13:

It seems like ages ago, to me at least, that we began this journey looking at the people of the passion.  You might remember that was when we changed things up and had worship in the fellowship hall because the heater broke in the sanctuary and it was a nice comfortable 53 degrees.  Much has changed since then.  We began at the cross and have been making our backwards to today, and then next week we reverse the process starting at Palm Sunday, making our way to the cross and then the celebration of Easter morning, which we will begin at 6:45 outside in the dark and the cold, although I hope it’s not as cold as I imagine it’s going to be.  But today we look at those who prepared the way, all of whom are unnamed in Luke’s gospel, and unlike those we look visited at the cross, with one exception, tradition has not named them at all.

We begin with the woman who anoints Jesus with oil.  Even though this story which we just heard from Luke occurs way before the last week, it is found as part of the last week in Matthew and Mark, and it is the last thing that happens before Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem in John.  Now there are some significant discrepancies between the telling of these stories, so much so that there are debates among scholars of whether these are actually two different events, or if it was only one event over time the stories diverged in the communities where they were told such that we get two different tellings, and where they are placed in the gospels also give them different meanings and messages.

Now if you’ve been here for a while then you’ve heard me say that although I tendency is to try and combine the gospel texts all into one, to make them tell us the same story, but they don’t each gospel author has a unique story to tell and we have to respect that, and when we combine them we end of creating a new gospel, one of our own creation, not the one we have presented to us.  Now, that being said, I am going to do that which I just said we shouldn’t do, and treat these stories as if they are not only the same, which they are not, but also as if they are the same person doing it, which they are also not.  I will make the differentiations known where they are, but I am going to treat them as if they are the same and treat the story from sort of a 30,000 foot view so that we can learn something from the general more so than from the specific.

Luke tells us that Jesus was dining with a Pharisee, when a woman whom it appears is well known to be a sinner comes into the room where they are dining.  This story is actually the one that has given us the tradition that Mary Magdalene is a prostitute, because it is immediately after this story that Mary is introduced.  There are several problems with this.  The first is that it is not Mary Magdalene who is the one with the oil, and that is clearly the case in Luke because Mary is introduced after this happens, not before it.  But a lot of the confusion comes because in the gospel of John, it is a Mary who does the anointing, but it is Mary of Bethany, who is the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  In Matthew and Mark, the anointing also takes place in Bethany, but the woman is not named.  So while it may have been a Mary who did the anointing, as that was an extremely popular name of the time, it was not Mary Magdalene.

The second problem with this attribution is that the woman is referred to as a prostitute, or harlot depending on translation, but nowhere is that actually said.  Usually this attribution comes because she is referred to as a sinner.  But sinner does not mean prostitute, it simply means one who is not following Jewish laws.  The Pharisee knows that she is a sinner, so what she is doing hast to be well known, but if she was raising pigs, or not properly observing the Sabbath, both violations of the law, and therefore things that would make her a sinner, would also be well known.  And just to make sure this is clear; this is not the only place that Luke uses this word to describe someone.  The Greek word here is hamartolos, and we are told in Luke that when Jesus calls Peter, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and says “Go away from me Lord, for I am a hamartolos, a sinful man.”  Now unless there is something we don’t know about Peter, which I really doubt, this is a word that does not mean that the woman is a prostitute, or has committed some other sexual sin.  Instead, again, it’s just that she doesn’t follow Jewish law, which could cover a wide range of issues.

So now that we’ve redeemed her character from 1500 years of abuse, and in this maybe the church has really become like the Pharisee in his judgment, what does this woman do?  If you were here last week when we talked about how people dined in the ancient world, hopefully it also added some perspective to today’s passage and made it a little more clear what was happening.  Because Jesus was reclining at the table, as was the custom, his feet would have been behind him and that would have really been the only thing that she could reach without Jesus having to move.  And she washes his feet with her tears, an act which Jesus points out the Pharisee has not done, nor has he provided any water for such an action, then dries his feet with her hair, and then kisses his feet and anoints them with the ointment she has brought.  There is an intimacy in this process in what the woman does, just unloosening her hair would have been something normally done only in the privacy of her own home, not something done in public, but she is willing to bear all, as it were, for Jesus, something which the Pharisee is unable or unwilling to do, and it is because of the woman’s actions that Jesus says that she has shown her love to him and her sins, which are many, are forgiven, and again the sort of comparison shown here is against the Pharisee who was not shown much love, little is forgiven, or maybe because he is forgiven little he has little love, the Greek isn’t totally clear on this.

But it really is the anointing that plays such a key role in the telling in the other gospels.  Last week when we looked at Judas we talked about conceptions of who and what the messiah would be and what the messiah would do, and the week before when we talked about Peter we talked about the fact that Peter was the first disciple to make the public proclamation that Jesus was the messiah.  But Peter had a problem with his words matching his actions.  This woman does not.  The term messiah means, “the anointed one,” and comes from the ceremony performed for the king of Israel when they would have oil put on their bodies, usually the head, during the coronation ceremony, so they became the messiah because they had been anointed.  So David, and Solomon and Josiah, and all the other Israelite kings were technically the messiah because they had been anointed.  And so while Peter might claim that Jesus is the messiah, this woman anoints him as such.  In Luke and John, Jesus’ feet are anointed, but in Matthew and Mark, the woman anoints his head, which also gets interpreted as preparing his body for burial.  But, by anointing Jesus with this ointment, she makes a proclamation, and really makes him the messiah.

But before we finish on the woman, let’s quickly address two other people who play significant roles in preparation for the events of Jesus’ last week who also not only go unnamed but really undiscussed.  The first is the person who provides the donkey upon which Jesus rides into Jerusalem for what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday.  This triumphal procession would not have been unusual to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, not just from history in hearing of the triumphal entry of the king’s of Israel, but even from recent experience having seen Pontius Pilate and Herod do something similar as they entered the city to make their presence known.   Although Jesus’ procession would have been a little different, because according to the prophet Zechariah who says that “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  So this is not a triumphal procession with chariots and armies and the king riding a majestic steed, instead he comes riding in on a donkey, humbly.  There is almost something comical about this entry when compared with others.  Now one of the interesting things about this passage is in Matthew, he is so concerned with making everything match prophecy, that he ignores the poetic doubling that Zechariah has used and instead he has Jesus riding in not just on a donkey, but also on a colt, and so you have to picture Jesus sort of straddling both animals as he rides in.  It’s true, you can look it up.

But in order to prepare for this Jesus sends two of the disciples, they are unnamed, ahead to procure for him a donkey, and Jesus seems to know what is going to happen and he tells them what to do and say, and so they find a colt, and as they are untying it the colt’s owner, as we would also probably be want to do, ask them just what they think they are doing, and they simply say “The Lord needs it,” and go on about their business, and the owner lets them.  Now I’m just guessing here, but I strongly suspect that if someone was going to come along and begin taking one of your horses, or cows, or donkeys, and simply said “The Lord needs it,” you might put up a little more of a fuss, but this man doesn’t.  Likewise, later, Jesus sends two disciples, again unnamed, to find a place for them to share the Passover meal.  Just like with the receiving the donkey, it’s unclear whether Jesus knew what was going to happen, or perhaps he had already made prior arrangements, but it’s not like he could do a Google search for best place to have Passover meal in Jerusalem.

The disciples go into town, and just like before, they find exactly what Jesus had told them they would find, but what is very unusual here is that they meet a man who is carrying a jar of water.  What is unusual is that this was a task which was primarily done by women, so for a man to be carrying the water for a house would have been strange, but there is no reason given for why this is happen.  And they go into a house and make their way to the upper room where they will have their last meal together.  This would have been the house of a wealthy man, because not only did he have access to multiple floors, but had a room large enough to host at least 13 people and that seems to be used exclusively for dining or gathering.

What strikes me about all these characters today is their ability and willingness to give.  We often talk about Jesus and money, and while we can’t say that money is a sin, it is a problem, as is seen time and time again in stories in the gospel.  But, and this is a big but, Jesus only chastises those who have undue attachments either to their money or their possessions because you cannot serve both God and money.  If we have a proper relation to our things and serve God, then we can use our things to do that as well, which is really what I think we can see here, as well as understanding that the size of our activities don’t matter, in fact it might be that even the smallest, most insignificant act can have profound impact.  The man who gave up the colt may have in fact been giving up his most significant possession.  Depending on what he did it’s also possible that his livelihood may have depended upon having this colt, and yet he lets the disciples take it for Jesus to use.  He doesn’t question, he doesn’t argue, he doesn’t hesitate, he doesn’t do anything of the things that I know I would probably want to do, if I didn’t actually do them, and I’m guessing the same would probably be true for you.  But instead, he allows the colt to be taken, and this seemingly insignificant act has a profound impact on the story that we tell of Jesus and of his last week.  Although we don’t know his name, his actions still speak loudly even 2000 years later.

The same with the person who gives of their home for Jesus and the disciples to share.  As I already said we can tell just from the simple description that this was a person of at least a little wealth, and yet they don’t argue with the disciples, they don’t say that the room is going to be used by them and their families, or that if only Jesus had reserved the room a year earlier than he definitely could have had the use of it.  Instead he simply takes the disciples to the upper room, he has everything ready and prepared, and again maybe the simplest of acts has such a profound impact that we are still talking about it 2000 years later.  We don’t know the owner’s name, but we know his actions, and I believe that we are called to emulate them.  Sometimes the smallest of actions makes a huge difference.

And finally there is the woman with the ointment.  She too has some possessions which she wants to make use of for Jesus, but this time many people have a problem with what she does and what Jesus does.  The first is because she is a sinner, and thus Jesus shouldn’t be touching her, because by doing so it’s possible she is making him unclean.  In addition, although Luke implies that the ointment is expensive because he says it was in an alabaster jar, which would have been expensive, Matthew and Mark make this point directly by saying that the ointment was expensive, and the disciples complain that this money would have been better spent in being given to the poor and Jesus rebukes them for this.  Jesus praises the woman for doing what she has done, and puts the Pharisee in today’s passage from Luke, or the disciples in Matthew and Mark, in their place.

With the instillation of the new pope, we are sure to hear similar commentary about how much money is being wasted and it should instead be given to the poor, just as we heard it over the presidential inauguration, and churches hear it all the time especially when building bigger sanctuaries, and I’ve even said it myself, and perhaps maybe we’re right sometimes, but when we sort of get caught in these absolutes, that we are obviously right, after all we want to help the poor, or others, and the other side is therefore wrong, we end up in a position where we are instead the ones to be rebuked, we become like the Pharisee.  In addition, when we do that we begin to make a judgment about the integrity and the motives of the other person.

I think that Andrew Carnegie was trying to buy his way into heaven, or at the very least atone for some of his sins, by his sponsoring of all the buildings he did at the end of his life, but how many people have benefited from his libraries or his sponsorship of performance spaces, like Carnegie Hall?  I think that is something that Jesus is trying to tell us, it’s a reminder not to judge lest we be judged, as well as reminding us that ultimate forgiveness comes from God not from us.  We remember the woman with the ointment, we remember the owners of the donkey and the upper room, not because they held back, not because they were concerned about what others would think, not because they said, “well I could do this for Jesus, but I’d rather use this in a different way.”  Instead we remember because they gave, they gave of themselves and they gave of what they had in order to support Jesus’ ministry and mission.  And really the lesson also must be applied and seen in Jesus himself who was willing to give of himself to death, even death on a cross, and for doing so he met lots of criticism, but that didn’t stop him, and of course we are forever grateful.

What I think we learn from today’s lesson of the woman who anoints Jesus, the man who provides the donkey and the man who provides the upper room, is that they were willing to give of themselves and of their possessions in the service of Christ, knowing, or maybe at least assuming, that they would be criticized and questioned, but it didn’t matter, because serving God was more important, and in that I think there is a lesson for all of us.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.Amen.

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