|Photo entitled "Alabaster Jar Spilled".|
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:15-21; John 11:55-12:8
I am provoked.
I’m provoked by John’s gospel. Every time I encounter it I am provoked – though that does not stop me from welcoming – even seeking out the encounter. I’m provoked because John comes across as being so very anti-Semitic – even though I know that in its original cultural context it was not really anti-Semitic at all. He’s always talking about the Jews, the Jews, the Jews, and in a way that sounds critical, accusatory, and derogatory. Part of the problem is lies in translation. The word in Greek is really Judean – meaning the people of the land of Judea – originally the southern kingdom of the Hebrew people. It refers to the nationality rather than the religion. Not all Judeans were Jewish – just as even at the height of American Christendom not all Americans were Christian – though part of a culture that was deeply shaped and informed by Christian themes and commitments. Today, as we look around our nation, we might wonder what some people who call themselves Christian think that means.
Still, it provokes me and serves to foster misunderstandings about the relationship between Jews and Christians – which should be congenial. Nearly two millennia later, relations are still often troubled. Provoking. Nonetheless, nearly every time I encounter John it is a redeeming experience, and I begin to see things in a new way.
In addition to this little problem is the more provoking problem of interpretation. John’s language is beautifully poetic – though very straightforward and readable. It all seems to be in plain speech. John speaks of signs rather than parables – as though there is nothing parabolic about John’s gospel. However, John is also the most metaphorical gospel. Every sign, every action, every story is parabolic in some way, layered with meaning upon meaning. John is thought by most biblical scholars to be the most recent gospel in our bible – the furthest removed from the events of Jesus’ life, out of sequence with the other three gospels – called synoptic because they seem to present events with a shared vision. Though recent scholarship is trending toward a simultaneous date with Luke, or perhaps Luke being even a little later.
Certainly John is revisionist – addressing new realities as they arose in the nascent church, even within a century of Jesus’ death. John’s gospel may be more accurate in some of its historicity than the other Gospels, but John is not at all concerned with a documentary type of reportage. Nothing in John is really meant to be taken at face value. Provoking. Nonetheless, nearly every time I encounter John it is a redeeming experience, and I begin to see things in a new way.
I’m also provoked that the Revised Common Lectionary places this text from John at the penultimate Sunday of Lent in the Luke year. We have been building from week to week on Lucan themes, and now John is interposed. Sometimes the lectionary breaks up the narrative this way, and because we mostly get our bible about twenty verses at a time, we lose the overarching thematic connections and the arc of the story each Gospel is trying to build. The composition of the gospel narratives is as important as their contents – each of them in response to a specific context of time and place. And we can thank God that we have the stereo-optic advantage of multiple perspectives. These multiple perspectives invite us to ponder how the gospel message is alive and responsive to every generation and situation.
If we had to summarize the themes of John versus Luke, we might do it this way, borrowing from Gary Wills’ accessible explanation in What the Gospels Meant.[i] Luke is the compassionate gospelist who emphasizes Jesus' solidarity with the outcast and reconciliation between Gentile and Jew. How bitterly ironic, then, that Jesus is himself cast out by the powers-that-be. John is the mystical gospelist who preaches the Body of Christ and focuses on the Light – within and without. John's gospel is a history of the interior community. To jump from one to another is…, provoking. Nonetheless, the contrast helps us to begin to see things in a new way.
There is still more that provokes me. Each of the four gospels includes a story in which a woman anoints Jesus. This suggests to us that there is strong evidence for such an occurrence. But the circumstances are different in each instance. In Matthew and Mark it is Jesus’ head that is anointed with the costly oil. In Luke and John it is much more intimate – his feet are anointed. But there is a great contrast between Luke and John as well. Specifically, in Luke, the woman is one who has spent her life in “sin” – leading to the assumption or tradition that it was Mary of Magdala that anointed him. In John, it is more like a sister or a member of his household that offers him this luxurious and potently symbolic sacrament.
So, while it would be simple to adapt John’s gospel to a screenplay – as many movies and TV series have attempted – it’s more important to ponder, what it might mean that Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, friend and hostess of Jesus, wastes the expensive, fragrant, embalming ointment by wiping it with her hair on Jesus’ feet.
A tension is set up in this story between two of Jesus’ intimate acquaintances – Judas and Mary. Judas expresses concern for the poor – a matter close to my own heart – and Luke’s. But Judas is presented by the omniscient narrator in John as being guilty of embezzlement, deception, and greed. Doubt and criticism are cast upon someone whose rhetoric is close to my heart.
Meanwhile, Mary of Bethany – which literally means the weeping one of the house of the poor or house of misery – is affirmed by Jesus for her extravagant, wasteful, inexplicable act of devotion and adoration. This too is close to my heart – the conviction that God is worthy of our submission and the release of that which is most dear to us. Luke’s gospel and the prophet Isaiah, from which it draws often and deeply, make clear the worship that God desires:
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
So how do we reconcile these competing and compelling commitments – you might call them personal piety and social holiness? Let us turn to a more recent narrative to suggest an option that could hold great potential for us today in our time and place. John Steinbeck is known for deliberately crafting his novels around classic literary narratives – just as his contemporary James Joyce did in writing Ulysses, for instance, or, as some scholars believe the gospel of Mark, and Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, use the structure of the Homeric epics to subvert Greco-Roman values.
One of Steinbeck’s earliest literary successes was the short story cycle Tortilla Flats. He acknowledged its basis in the Arthurian legend cycle, which in turn has obvious roots in Jesus’ relationships with his disciples and Ulysses’ adventures with his crew. In Tortilla Flats, Danny surrounds himself with the down and out of society, an odd assortment of misfits, providing them a safe place in which to live – a refuge from the harsh world around them. They happen to be unskilled laborers…, like the disciples – and also drunks.
Into this community enters an even odder misfit they call Pirate. Most of this band work only to drink and would rather steal than work. Pirate has a higher motivation. His ailing dog recovers after Pirate prays to St. Francis to heal him. In response, Pirate vows to dedicate a golden candlestick in the church, and he saves his earnings twenty-five cents at a time toward the $250 cost of the candlestick. Eventually the other men get caught up in this project and find themselves on their knees with Pirate in the sanctuary at the dedication.
Is it too much to see in this act an expression of fidelity, community, devotion, and gratitude that has the potential to transform lives? How might the lives of these wayward men be transformed – even redeemed – by this act of worship? I’m not suggesting that the church universal, or any particular church, or even this particular congregation, is the only setting for lives to be transformed by the circumstances that surround an act of sacramental, sacrificial devotion. But what if that were the case?
What if we saw our mission as the reconciliation of these two holy impulses – the love of God and the love of all that God loves? Must we not choose to love Jesus and love the poor? Is this not the discipleship that Jesus’ calls us to – in both Luke and John – in both the compassionate and the mystical gospel?
To provoke literally means to call forth. So I am provoked – called forth – in response to the scandalous worship demonstrated by Mary as well as the scandalous poverty of those who are systemically trapped in cycles of disadvantage, disease, and disempowerment. Most often we are a little too tepid and proper in both our good works and in our good worship, as if there is not quite enough grace to go around.
As I listened to Pastor Leigh’s sermon last week, it occurred to me that the prodigal father’s mysterious and compassionate response to both of his sons only makes sense when we consider the unending abundance of grace. So maybe it’s a good thing and a God thing – the placement of this momentary departure into John’s gospel and the provocation it elicits between Judas and Mary. Following on the heels of the message of extravagant grace, which only appears to be wasteful, is this message that giving ourselves away to poor must be deeply grounded in giving ourselves away to God.
Jesus says, “Follow me.”
“Come and see.”
And then he turns his face toward Jerusalem – to give himself away – to provoke punishment…, and then to provoke grace.