Message Delivered on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015
Mark 14: 1-15
This week is Holy Week and begins with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, teaching in the Temple and with people everywhere he went. Thursday is the remembrance of the Jewish Passover, which Jesus celebrated with his disciples in an upper room. This gathering is the foundation for our Christian celebration of Holy Communion as we remember Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross and his glorious resurrection on Easter.
The lectionary for this Sunday recalls the triumphal entry of Jesus as recorded in Mark 11. The reading from Mark 14 speaks about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper, who would have been considered untouchable, yet Jesus went to his house to eat. Luke’s account in 7:36-50 tells us that Simon was a Pharisee and that Jesus was eating in his house, when Mary anoints Jesus and is forgiven for her sins. How ironic that forgiveness is meted out in the home of a Pharisee, one of the leaders Jesus chastises for spouting off the law but not living the law. In John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of Lazarus, whom he has raised from the dead. Jesus is anointed by Mary. It has always been a troubling question to me: which Mary is anointing Jesus? Is the identity of the “Mary” using a costly ointment to anoint Jesus important or is the act the important point?
In Jewish tradition anointing was reserved for the dedication of a king in preparation for his reign over his kingdom. Was Mary anointing the “King” of heaven and earth? The Mary who humbled herself and anointed Jesus in a selfless act was chastised for her extravagant gift–her gift of love for the Savior. How did she know that Jesus would die to save us all from sin? The guests were concerned about wastefulness but Mary understood self-sacrifice. Jesus had been teaching everyone he came into contact with since his entry into the city. He had been speaking about forgiveness and the gift of grace. The Pharisees and other leaders were unwilling to hear or believe. They had their own profitable system of attaining forgiveness by bringing offerings to the temple to lift up to God for forgiveness. It was a profitable system based on works righteousness. Simply put, work to get offerings to present in the temple to literally buy righteousness.
We think that we have to work to effectively to have approval in our world. If we think we need feathers in our cap, we will find it tough to live without them. Our culture lies ethically in the dregs of what used to be the Protestant work ethic. Remember the “blue laws?” An arrogant woman wired home from her new job, “Made supervisor, feather in my cap.” A few weeks later another wire arrived, “Made management, feather in my cap.” A month later they got another wire, “Fired. Send money for ticket to fly home.” Her parents wired back, “No ticket necessary, use feathers.”
In the account of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, one Christian behaved in a way that many Christians have forgotten how to behave. One Christian is extravagant and accused of being wasteful. She gives from her heart. The disciples want to know why the woman with the alabaster jar of expensive ointment (nard) did not sell it and give the money to the poor. Jesus’ explanation is simple: “I am going to die soon. That is why.” Surely the disciples did not realize how numbered Jesus’ days were, but the woman with the nard knew. She knew that she would not have many more chances to anoint her Savior. She was very different from the young woman of the feathers. She lived for something more than her own interests, she lived for Jesus.
Some of us have become victims of our own feathers and our own pragmatism. We are committed to efficiency, productivity and saving the poor–but we rarely remember why we are so driven in these directions. As right as it is to work hard for the poor and to impact the world in a positive way, it is more urgent to remember Jesus–especially on this day of the Palms. We only had thirty-three years with him.
We think we have to be effective to have approval in our world. If we think we need feathers in our cap, we will find it tough to live without them. Our culture lies ethically in the dregs of the Protestant work ethic promoted by the evolution of the blue laws. Middle class men and women live by the dim lights of the Protestant work ethic instead of the light of Christian grace. Poorer people are beaten over the heads with these dim lights daily. Why are they poor? Because they won’t work. Because they are lazy. Even though many of the poor are mothers of young children, they are labeled as poor because they do not or will not work.
Well, folks, work is not the basis for our salvation! Grace is! In the deep down places of life, grace is real.
The work ethic took something good and turned it into something like control. The one anointing Jesus at Bethany did not try to control life, she tried to spend her life for Jesus. The work ethic has become perverted into a ploy to control God, hoping that God will do our bidding. The work ethic began as a belief that if we work, things will go well for us. If not, it is our fault for not working. The God who is implied by the Protestant work ethic needs sacrifices laid at the altar daily: paystubs, raises, promotions, upward mobility, a well-feathered cap.
The God we actually worship in Jesus is a God who requires none of these sacrifices. Our God accepts gifts in the form of expensive oil (love gifts with no strings attached), praise and grace-filled living. Originally Protestants meant to experience the grace of God deeply enough so that they could make and do, buy and sell, trade and travel. They thought that material prosperity was a sign of their election by God to renew and remake their world. Was capitalist activity an offering to God? Since the Reformation, capitalist activity has become a sacrificial, controlling offering. God has been pushed out and off the stage. We are now human doings, rather than human beings. We make and do and do not feel elected so much as oppressed. We allow ourselves to be busied to death. We accumulate to our own death, afraid that if we spend we might come up empty. In fact, if we were to spend what we have, we would come up full! All kinds of people lay their lifestyles and excuses at God’s feet, having very little memory of what it is like to play or do what you want to do, rather than what you have to do. The woman at Bethany took time out for Jesus. She did what she wanted to do. Some people are too far removed from the holy–time off for rest on the Sabbath. It is what some might call grace and what others might call ointment. Can’t you hear the disciples complaining? The woman did what they could not do. She spent. She gave.
What might God be saying about our human economy? Neither buying or selling is directly related to our reward, not on earth or in heaven. There is no salvation with having what we can earn. We can play our way to salvation. Play is what you want to do while work is anything you have to do. Play does not mean that we quit our jobs tomorrow and move onto our couches. Play is an attitude, a spirituality, a home. It has to do with what stands inside us when we tell the boss we have had enough. Play is freedom: the ability to give away what we have, even in the face of what to some is the ultimate scarcity, death. Play understands what Jesus understood: time and life go on after death. There is an eternity to life. We can enjoy each other now, even if there is not much time left. Many fear that play is not plausible. What is not plausible in the terms of the gospel is the world of works righteousness. Grace is more plausible than any work–any way you look at it.
Reformers proclaimed Solo Gratia, Solo Fide. We are saved by grace alone. Some of us take off early some days while others are sitting at their desks. We do not live a switched life, turn me on, turn me off. We play at work. We play with God. Sometimes we play with our feathers. If we run into Jesus at Bethany, hopefully we will give him all that we have and are.