Mary of Magdela

What an awful few days. First, Jesus was arrested and they took him away–all because of Judas, his friend who betrayed him—turned him in. Then Peter denies knowing Jesus—denies having ever met him, let alone being one of his followers. Then I watched in horror as they beat him. They took him out of the city and made him carry his own cross for as long as he could. And then they crucified him like a common criminal. All he had ever done was love everyone. How is that a crime? And now everything is even worse. I went with Mary and Salome to his tomb. We didn’t even have a chance to prepare his body for a proper burial because it was the Sabbath. Now we can’t because he is gone. The man in the tomb said that Jesus had risen and would meet us in Galilee. How can this be true? Where did they put his body? We saw him die.

While he was dying someone taunted him, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.”

Perhaps the most difficult thing in life is to believe something that seems almost impossible. I want so badly for what I heard in the tomb to be true but I don’t know if I can believe it after everything that’s happened. I don’t know if I can trust the significance of this miraculous event. I want it to be true. I want to believe that death doesn’t have the last word in a world of violence and hatred and poverty. I want to trust that there is something beyond this horrible death and that the death means something.

Even if I believe what I saw and what I heard, why should anyone else believe my story, my experience on this first Easter morning? Would you believe my story? Would you believe that it’s real?


A Tale of Two Women


anointing Jesus' feet

Let’s think for a moment about the woman in the story. In Mark’s version of the story, the woman is unnamed and unknown. We don’t know who she is. She could be one of the disciples, someone that Jesus healed or helped, she could be his lover, she could his patron—sponsoring his work in the countryside. How we imagine this woman changes how we hear this story.

Let’s imagine for a moment that this woman is poor and that she has had some interaction with Jesus previously. Perhaps Jesus healed her or a family member. Maybe she witnessed Jesus feeding huge crowds of people with only a few morsels of food. Maybe she heard him preaching outside the temple. Whatever their previous relationship, she is drawn to him. She recognizes something special in him. She is poor. She and her family work hard for every bit of their money. There isn’t much to spare so maybe she goes to her friends and neighbours—who have also experienced and witnessed Jesus’ love for people and asks them each for one coin so that they can buy perfume as a gift for a worn out and tired healer who has done so much for them. And so the whole community contributes to this gift. She couldn’t have purchased it on her own.

And then, she goes to the home where Jesus is staying. She peeks through the open door to see what’s happening in the house. There are many men about—all talking and drinking and eating. She covers her head like a servant woman and steps cautiously inside hoping that no one questions her presence or sends her away. As she crosses the room to where Jesus sits, she gains some confidence. Finally, she stands in front of him and pours the perfume over him as she professes her love for him.

The perfume fills the air and silence falls as people in the room watch the scene unfolding. After a moment of shocked silence, a voice from the other side of the room speaks, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way. Why did you go and spend your own money and your neighbours money in such foolish ways? You yourself are poor and you have wasted a whole year’s wages. Now you will need to rely on our charity and the charity of others. If you had saved your money and looked after yourself and your family, we wouldn’t have to.” And the voices grow louder in anger. A weary and tired Jesus speaks, “Leave 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.”

Now imagine the story again. This time imagine that the woman in question is wealthy. She doesn’t normally interact with the peasants but her servant girl was near death and was healed by Jesus. The girl is valuable to her and the woman is grateful to have her restored to her work again. After all it is hard to find good servants.

There’s a rumour that Jesus is visiting the home of a neighbour tonight. She thinks about what she might do for this poor peasant healer. He gives so much to others but he certainly doesn’t have either the time or money to engage in a little luxury pampering. She goes to the cupboard where she always keeps a well-stocked supply of perfume. She pulls out the most expensive bottle on the shelf. She calls for a slave to accompany her and leaves her home being carried in a litter. She arrives at her neighbour’s home and walks with confidence into the gathering of men. She walks across the room and stands before Jesus. Here she opens the perfume and pours it over Jesus. She rubs it into his sore shoulders and expresses her gratitude at having her serving girl returned to her.

The perfume fills the air and silence falls. This well-known, wealthy woman has dared to touch a dirty, poor peasant. Into the silence a voice speaks. “Why did you waste the perfume on a peasant who won’t appreciate it and will be dirty and smelly again in a few hours? Jesus has always taught that we should sell everything and give the money to the poor and now here you are indulging him. It goes against everything his taught us.” And the voices rise in anger against her.

Finally, Jesus speaks into the fray. “Leave her alone; why do you trouble her? She has cared for me in a way that you could not. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”

The story sounds different depending on the status of the woman. If she was poor, she shouldn’t have been able to enter the room with Jesus and the disciples. She shouldn’t have had access to the perfume in the first place. She shouldn’t have wasted scarce money on something so extravagant. A few weeks ago we heard how Jesus watched the wealthy people make their offerings and then how he noticed a poor woman giving such a small amount. If the woman in this story was poor, her gift to Jesus is valuable, not only because of her care for Jesus but also because it cost her so much.

If the woman was wealthy she shouldn’t have cared about a poor peasant healer like Jesus but she could get away with it. If the woman was wealthy, why didn’t Jesus tell her to sell the perfume—along with everything else she owned—and give the money to the poor?

Either way, this is a story that seems inconsistent with the Jesus we know. The Jesus we know always sides with the poor, the outcast, the widows, the orphans. And yet here Jesus chooses to affirm this woman—whoever she is—in caring for him. I wonder as the events of Holy Week begin to unfold if Jesus had a sense that he was on a path that was leading him to death. I wonder if Jesus felt tired, maybe afraid, maybe alone—even surrounded by his friends. He’s worked hard and now everything seems to be falling apart. The disciples haven’t understood his message. They are still looking for a way to overthrow the empire. They are still arguing about who will be the greatest.

Here’s a woman who saw Jesus as a human. She may have recognized the path that leads towards death and the cross. She may have recognized his weariness and his very human need to be loved for who he is. Jesus had already given so much of himself to heal others and she saw an opportunity to care for him.

The woman crossed so many boundaries in order to care for Jesus. She stepped outside the rules she had been taught all her life—rules about her proper place as woman, as a poor or wealthy person. Jesus himself was a rule breaker who crossed boundaries. Here is a woman following in those footsteps.

Sometimes we get the idea that our faith gives us rules to live by. Sometimes our faith teaches us to only associate with people like ourselves—respectable people. The disciples who had been following Jesus around didn’t get the message but the woman crossed many boundaries and risked her proper place in the society in order to show Jesus that she understood his message of love.

The World as we know it is ending…Maybe that’s a good thing!

There’s a whole genre in the Bible of what we call apocalyptic literature. This is sometimes interpreted as predicting the end of the world or the end times. The reading from Mark 13 is an example of this type of literature. Apocalypse is a fancy word that means to make something that is hidden or unseen a visible reality. When we find this type of literature in the Bible there is usually some kind of conflict or persecution going on in the background.

Apocalyptic literature is usually written in a context where it seems like the world is falling apart around the writer and those hearing the message. The point of apocalyptic literature is to remind people that destruction is not the end. Death and destruction do not have the last word in our lives or in the world.

In this passage we hear the Jesus predicting that the temple will be destroyed. The Gospel of Mark was written in the late 60 or early 70 CE. The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 CE so the writer of Mark may have already known the temple would be destroyed and placed the words into Jesus’ mouth. To someone who had lived through the destruction of the temple these words remind them that life continues. It is different but it isn’t the end.

The passage goes on to talk about the signs that the end is near: Wars, earthquakes, famines. Some translations say this is the beginning of troubles or the beginning of agonies. Other translations say it is the beginning of the birth pangs (NRSV/Inclusive). I think the translations that reference birth are more helpful. We know that birth is about bringing forth new life. Birth is painful but we know that there is an end to it and that the outcome will be worth it because there will be new life.

The next part of the passage is closely related to other passages we find in the Hebrew scriptures:

“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”(13:24-25 NRSV)

 “For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.” (Isaiah 13:10 NRSV)

 “The earth quakes before them,
the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.
The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”   (Joel 2:10, 31 NRSV)

“When I blot you out, I will cover the heavens,
and make their stars dark;
I will cover the sun with a cloud,
and the moon shall not give its light.”    (Ezekiel 32:7 NRSV)

Jewish hearers of Mark’s gospel would have known these scriptures and known that they weren’t original to Jesus. They came from the prophets Isaiah, Joel, and Ezekiel. These were not new prophecies. These are prophesies that they had all heard before. And guess what? Centuries later the world still exists. People still live their day to day lives. People who heard these words would recognize that hearing these words about stars falling, the earth shaking and the moon being dark didn’t mean it was actually happening in the immediate future. It might happen in the future but not in their own lifetime.

Isaiah, Joel and Ezekiel were all Jewish prophets who spoke to their own people in times of turmoil. The book of Isaiah was written covers the time before, during and after the Babylonian exile. Ezekiel was written during the exile and the book of Joel draws on these and other works. For people living through war, sieges, deportation and exile it might seem like the world is ending. It might seem like the world is falling apart around them. Life as they know it is ending.

Imagine Jesus talking to his disciples and quoting from their own scriptures. The disciples, living in the midst of Roman occupation, would hear these words and be reminded that the world did not end with war and exile. There was life after the exile. It was a different life but it was still life. They would understand that the Roman empire could not bring about the end of the world. It might seem like the world is ending sometimes but even the Roman Empire didn’t have that much power.

In our own time, we hear people use similar words quoted from various scriptures to predict the end of the world. We hear people talk about wars and famines and natural disasters as signs that the end of the world is near. A more helpful way to think about these signs is as birth pangs. They are signs that new life is coming. They are signs that the world as we know it is about the change.

We look around and see so much destruction in various places. One way to see these events is that the end of the world is near. We can wait for the stars to fall, the sun and moon to be darkened and the whole world to be destroyed—the end times. But there’s another way to understand the war and upheaval we see around us. We can think of it either as the end of an era or as birth pangs. The world is always in the process of birthing something new. Think about World War II. What terrible, horrible things happened during that time—things which shouldn’t happen to anyone. People living through war as Holocaust survivors, as soldiers, as civilians might have felt like their world was ending. There were many personal and communal apocalypses during that time—times when it felt like the sun might not rise the next day.

And yet the sun did continue to rise every day. And something new came out of that war. There was a new understanding of the world. There were technological advancements. It became more acceptable for women to work away from home. It was the end of an era but not the end of the world.

We find ourselves again in a time when we witness violence and destruction on an almost daily basis. We see ethnic conflict and genocide. We see refugees fleeing. We see climate change and environmental destruction. We see shootings in schools and other public places. It feels like the world as we know it is ending. And hopefully, the world as we know it is ending.

What would happen if the world as we know it ends? Everyone would be safe. Everyone would have enough. The earth and all creatures would be healthy and fully alive. The second part of apocalyptic literature is that after the world as we know it is destroyed a new world is created. This is the place to think of utopia. The perfect world that we all dream of and that even the prophets dreamed of.

“The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain.” (Isaiah 65 NRSV)

 Mark goes on to remind us that we don’t know what will signal the end of the era. We don’t know the exact moment that everything will change. It might be easy to believe the world is simply going to spiral downward and self-destruct. Why should we bother trying to live faithfully when nothing we do seems to make any difference to the larger picture? Why shouldn’t we just wait for whatever is going to happen?

There will be a change. God’s people have always lived in hope of a time when we live fully with God’s presence among us. God’s people have always lived in hope of peace and harmony and justice. Jesus often spoke of God’s kingdom as being among us, near at hand and yet to come. When the world changes and God’s kingdom is fully present where do we want to be? Do we want to be like the slaves in this passage who find themselves napping in apathy when the world changes or do we want to be active participants in the creation of God’s kingdom on earth?