Sunday, October 04, 2009

Not Me!

Mark 14:12-26

by Daniel Harrell

The account of the Last Supper is a familiar one. Verse 12 tells us it was the first day of the weeklong Feast of Unleavened Bread, of which Passover was a part. Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem where every Jew desired to be for the festival. Thousands of pilgrims from across the known world crammed into the city. Added to the normal enthusiasm surrounding the remembrance of Israel’s divine deliverance from Egyptian slavery was a fervent expectation of future deliverance from current Roman oppression. Into this enthusiastic and expectant throng, Jesus sent a couple of his disciples to locate a man carrying a jar of water. Jesus instructed them to “follow the man and say to the owner of whichever house he enters, ‘The Teacher wants to know where the guest room is, that he may eat the Passover with his disciples.’ Then the owner will show you a large upper room, all furnished and ready. You make preparations for us there.”

I used to read this passage and imagine it to be like that scene from The Return of the Jedi where Luke Skywalker strolls into the lair of his nemesis, Jabba the Hut. With a mere wave of his force-filled hand, Luke compels Jabba’s bodyguard to unwittingly cooperate with him and his scheme to humiliate the Hut. “You will take me to Jabba now.” Against his better judgment, he does as instructed: “I will take you to Jabba now.” Surely Jesus, having calmed storms with the mere wave of his hand and fed thousands with a meager bag lunch, would have no trouble mysteriously maneuvering a man with a water jar and a homeowner to set a table for thirteen. When later asked by his wife why he did it, the homeowner would say, “I don’t know, I think we’re having company.” At which point the disciples would knock at his door.

Of course, Jesus was no Jedi. Magic was not his MO. More likely, both the homeowner and the man with the water jar were followers of Jesus and in on a secret plan. Why all the intrigue? Knowing that the Pharisees were out to get him, and that Jerusalem lay in their jurisdiction, and that he wanted to eat the Passover before they got to him, Jesus needed to enter the city undetected. I guess he could have just miraculously popped in as he would do a few days hence. But here Jesus exercises his human side and employs more pedestrian means. Carrying water jars was predominantly woman’s work, so having a man with a water jar signal the disciples would be easy for even them to spot. That the homeowner knows who the “The Teacher” is proves he was clued in. Most importantly, at least from Mark’s perspective, the secrecy darkens the treachery that is about to unfold. None aside from Jesus’ closest friends would know his whereabouts. Betrayal would have to be an inside job. It would be as the Scriptures portended, specifically the Psalm of David we read to open worship: “Even my close friend, whom I trusted, who shared my bread, has lifted up his heel against me.” So went David, so would go the Son of David.

Granted, Jesus isn’t specific as to the Scripture. He actually says in verse 21: “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” Referring to himself as “Son of Man” is often code for the prophecy of Daniel, chapter 7, where “Son of Man” refers to one victoriously arriving on clouds at the end of time. Jesus described himself as doing the same thing in Mark 13. Daniel writes that to the Son of Man was “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” This sounds like Jesus. In Mark, Jesus adds that “he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.” But not wanting to get too apocalyptic, I’ll lastly mention that Daniel 7 also has the saints of God engaging in a fierce struggle with evil, which actually gets the upper hand for a time. This Last Days struggle between good and evil plays out at the Last Supper. In the gospels of Luke and John, evil takes the sinister shape of Satan who “enters Judas” to induce the betrayal. Nevertheless, Judas remains his own man. To be possessed is not to be coerced. He could have said no, it seems. But because he does not, Jesus bewails Judas as one who should have never been born.

Such ominous woe leaves little wonder as to why the disciples each frantically worried that he might be the traitor. One by one, they sought reassurance. “Surely, not I?” they say. Echoing Psalm 41, Jesus informed them that the guilty party would be “the one who dips bread into the bowl with me.” The unleavened matzo bread of Passover worked kind of like a pita chip with which you ate food served in large bowls spread on the table. However, I’m thinking at this point each disciple did all he could to avoid Jesus’ bowl so as not to get fingered. Maybe this is why John’s gospel has Jesus handing a piece of bread directly to Judas. Here in Mark, Jesus’ words about sharing bread serve mostly to accentuate the intimate friendship Judas and Jesus shared. They also accentuate a sacred cultural norm. Ancient near-eastern culture dictated that to eat with another was to foreswear ever doing him harm. Ancient covenants and peace treaties were often made over meals. Jesus declares this meal to be a covenant too―the one promised by Jeremiah: a new covenant between God and his people whereby God would transplant his law from stone tablets into their hearts. “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’” Jeremiah reads, “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD.” The evil Judas perpetrates therefore crosses every imaginable line. It violates the bond of friendship, the bonds of society and the bond of God.

And yet, just as Jesus would extend forgiveness to his executioners as he hung on the cross, so he extends grace to Judas here, even as he accuses him. Mark doesn’t tell us, but it may very well be that the bread that gets dipped as an indictment of betrayal is the same bread that gets offered as Jesus’ own body broken. Grace is fundamentally an indictment. Pardon is only extended to those who need it. To forgive is first to blame. We chafe under the command to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, begrudging Jesus for making us be doormats. We do so because we forget that to forgive is not to act as if the wrong never happened. Forgiveness fully acknowledges the wrong―but then refuses to press charges. Does this mean that Judas is actually absolved rather than doomed? No. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. The waiting father forgives his prodigal son, but the parable’s not complete until the son returns to his father’s embrace. This is something that Judas never does.

In Matthew’s gospel, Judas is stricken with remorse. But rather than turn to Jesus, Judas returns to the priests who recruited him and tries to return their money. They haughtily refuse it. Judas throws the coins on the floor and then goes out and hangs himself. He dies before Jesus does. For many, this remains very disturbing. If Judas (as one of the Twelve) could so willingly betray Jesus for money, what chance do I have to be faithful? An August New Yorker article by Joan Acocella traces attempts made throughout history to rethink Judas. “Did Judas deserve his fate?” she asks. “If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and then tells you to hurry up and do it [as he does in John’s gospel], are you really responsible for your act? Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process—Christ’s Passion—whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, the Church says. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you.”

Because the church’s verdict only exacerbates the dissonance we feel, efforts at rehabilitating Judas have proved necessary, if only to relieve our anxiety. Recent efforts have been fed mostly by an ancient text entitled “The Gospel of Judas.” Hailing from the late second-century (at best), the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic gospel about Judas that portrays him as Jesus’ favorite disciple, the only one who really understood him. It also portrays Jesus as wholly divine and not human, the good news being that Judas couldn’t have had him killed anyway. As fitting to Gnosticism (where anything physical is considered perverse), Judas actually does Jesus a favor by helping him get out of his bodily imprisonment. But then speaking of Star Wars, Jesus goes on to castigate the physical earth which was brought into being by a violent demiurge, Nebro, and his stupid assistant, Saklas. Any relief gives way to ridiculousness.

On the other hand, there are those who have dealt with Judas hitting too close to home by making him into something out of a monster movie, so hideously disfigured and disgusting that no human being could ever imitate him if he tried. Regrettably, such typecasting proved conveniently advantageous to early Christians seeking to cozy up to Roman political power. Knowing that access to such power meant having to dissociate from their rebellious Jewish roots, these early Christians did so by smearing all Jews as “sons of Judas.” Even the luminary church fathers Jerome and John Chrysostom joined in. Centuries of subsequent anti-Semitism, stoked by saints such as Martin Luther in his later years, fueled an already vicious succession of pogroms that achieved its climax in the Holocaust. Ironically, postwar recoil from the horrors of the Holocaust actually improved Judas’ reputation. Portrayals of him as a political operative, betraying Jesus in order to force the launch of a revolution against evil Roman oppression, appear in films like Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Acocella concludes that “the original, Biblical Judas may have had a bad influence on our politics [and our movies], nevertheless he does represent something true about our lives. Many of us, on many occasions, are not going to love one another.” I’d suggest that it’s worse than that. There is a human evil, a Satanic evil, that Judas represents. And it’s an evil that makes its way into us all. We are all complicit in Judas’ betrayal―in the trust we so often violate, in the relationship we wrongly ruin, in the conflicts we gladly nurture, in the deception and disloyalty and lies we relish. Scripture is clear that Jesus dies because of this sin, because of the perfidy we each commit individually and collectively.

In verse 24, Jesus calls the Passover wine “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Old Testament covenant-making involved sacrificing an animal to seal the agreement, symbolizing the extent to which a covenant-maker would go if ever he became a covenant-breaker. With his own death as sacrifice, Jesus seals the deal. But with his blood as poured out for many, Jesus also seals the breaches our treachery tears open. He forgives our treason.

And yet because our evil by nature so vigorously resists any blame, we regard God’s offer of forgiveness as offensive. Jesus knows as much, which is why, citing Zechariah, he announces to his disciples in verse 27: “You will all fall away.” Or as the King James puts it, “all ye shall be offended.” The Greek word is scandalized, and in the passive voice means: “to have your moral sensitivities insulted.” How can forgiveness ever be so insulting? My favorite illustration is that of a blind date. Imagine you’ve been set up. You’re then met at the restaurant by this person whom you’ve never set eyes on before in your life. She walks over and the first words out of her mouth are not “nice to meet you,” but, “I forgive you.” To forgive is to blame. To have someone forgive you implies that you are not a good person. To have someone be cursed and crucified on a cross for you implies you are a really bad person—“grievously sinful and perniciously wicked, provoking most justly God’s wrath and indignation”—just like the old communion prayers confess.

The apostle Paul himself admitted that to preach Christ crucified was “an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” As for the disciples, gathered around that last Passover meal, they had to think it odd enough to hear Jesus call the unleavened bread his body broken. But then to be asked to eat it? What foolishness was that? No wonder so many early critics of Christians called them cannibals. Of course for those who made the connection to sacrifice― disturbing talk of Jesus himself as the sacrifice notwithstanding—to eat the body of the sacrificial animal was customary. The Passover Lamb, as was the case with most sacrifices, was not so much burned as it was cooked. The lamb that saves, also nourishes. (Fortunately for communion preparers ever since, Jesus did not take a lamb shank and say “this is my body.”) Bread made the symbolic point: Jesus would be the final Passover Sacrifice. That Jesus tied his death to Passover rather than to, say, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, made the further point that his sacrifice not only nourished and saved, but kept safe too. In Exodus, as God readied to unleash his wrath against Egyptian cruelty―indeed against all human wickedness―the Israelites were instructed to smear lamb’s blood on their doorposts as a safeguard against God’s avenging angel. Likewise, Christ’s blood safeguards God’s people from the wrath to come, when all injustice and oppression and tyranny will be dealt with for good.

Seen this way, you’d expect Jesus to instruct that the disciples smear his blood on their foreheads or something. But instead Jesus tells them to drink it. This is where Jewish offense comes in. If Torah prohibits anything it prohibits consuming (or even touching) blood. The reason is found in Leviticus; namely, that “blood is life” and all life ultimately belongs to God, the source of all life. The blood drained from sacrificial animals (and never eaten) was splattered against the sides of the altar in recognition of this reality. If the paycheck for sin is death, then the payback to God is blood for the life that was lost. It is only with blood that lost life can be redeemed. This sacrificial separation of blood from the body explains the language of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus speaks of “my body” and “my blood,” as opposed to, say, “my flesh and bones” or my “heart and soul.” But it still doesn’t explain why Jesus would say drink my blood. To drink an animal’s blood would be scandalous enough. To drink the blood of a person—even metaphorically speaking—is the purview of cannibals and vampires. It insults anybody’s moral sensitivities.

Jesus clearly does something radically new here. Rather than thinking of the blood of the lamb only in terms of taking away sin, Jesus seems to add the idea of taking on life; specifically taking on his life. Instead of blood as life for life, Jesus introduces his blood as life in life. Having saved us from death by shedding his blood, he gives us new life by our drinking his blood. “Since we have now been justified by Christ’s blood,” Paul writes, “how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” Guarded by Christ’s blood and its guarantee of ultimate justice, we are freed to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors; forgiving them just as Jesus forgave us. We can do this because of Christ’s life in us. Satan entered Judas, but we drink in Jesus.

Paul calls it a mystery: “Christ in you, the hope of glory”―a glory Jesus alludes to in verse 25: “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” By calling the cup “the fruit of the vine,” Jesus acknowledges that its contents are not literally his blood, much to the relief of the devoutly Jewish disciples. But by also announcing he would not drink again, Jesus indicated that his death was literal, and coming soon. However for those who made the connection between death and sacrifice, between blood and redemption, between death and resurrection, the hope of glory was evident. The offending cup of death and indictment ferments into the redeemed wine of gladness and victory―a new covenant in his blood shed for you. The same chapter in Jeremiah that promised the new covenant, paints a portrait of glory: “The Lord’s redeemed will come and sing for joy on the heights of Zion; their faces radiant over the lavish bounty of the LORD—the abundant grain, the new wine and the fresh olive oil, flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. They will be like a well-watered garden, and all their sorrows will be gone. … I will be their God, and they will be my people. … I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim Christ’s death and this hope, until the Son of Man comes again.

Out of Poverty

Mark 12:41-44

This familiar account of the widow’s two coins—or as the King James renders it, the widow’s mite—has become so familiar that it’s lost a lot of its power. Online you’ll find a website called, which is a Christian jewelry store. You can purchase settings of authentic widow's mite coins excavated in Israel from the time of Jesus. Of course the jewelry goes for significantly more than the poor widow could have ever afforded, but that’s beside the point. The point, according to the website, is that: “Jewelry should mean something. When women rejoice upon receiving a beautiful diamond ring, the joy isn’t in receiving a rare crystallized form of carbon. The joy is in receiving a symbol—a symbol so powerful that a man is willing to spend a month’s salary on it to say ‘I love you.’” Without a trace of irony, the website then adds, “When you give the gift of the Widow’s Mite, you are saying to the recipient, ‘When you wear this piece of Christian Jewelry, you are connecting yourself to the poor.’” Nice. People actually fall for this shtick. I guess that buying a widow’s mite to wear is cheaper than giving all you have to God.

Giving can be an embarrassing topic. Even though from the earliest pages of Scripture, giving is how people show gratitude for God’s grace, how they express love and worship, how they acknowledge God’s place as the giver and Lord of all things, and how they acknowledge their own place as stewards rather than owners of God’s gifts. To give is to thank. To give is to love. To give is to worship. To give is to free yourself from money’s evils. Of the 500 plus references to evil in the Bible, none explicitly mention its origin save one. 1 Timothy 6:10: “the love of money is the root of all evil.” Jesus declared back in chapter 10 how it’s easier to thread a needle with a camel than to squeeze a rich man into God’s kingdom. And thus throughout Scripture, from the law to the gospels, the message is clear: let loose of your possessions. You don’t possess them anyway―they possess you, right? Give and you knock out the two greatest commandments at once. When you give to love God, you automatically love your neighbor. The money you give to the church becomes money used to reach the city and world with the gospel, to heal the sick, feed the hungry, care for the lonely, as well to teach and to train in the way of the Christ.

To give is to thank. To give is to love. To give is to worship―which is why we pass offering plates in worship. And yet at the same time so much of our giving gets run through a grid, mostly out of concern that we not give too much. We debate whether our giving should be pre- or post-tax, and whether tithing even applies anymore. “God doesn’t need our money,” we say, “what Jesus really cares about is my heart. Jesus says here that this widow’s two cents counted for more than the vast riches given by others. I put in two dollars!”

Now I’m not trying to get all televangelist on you, but the truth of the matter is that as Christians commanded to love God with all of heart, soul, mind and money, we’re pretty lousy givers. According to statistics, we each give on average about two percent of our income, significantly less than we spend on bottled water, music downloads or computer games. In recession-wracked America, where good water is free, we still spend almost 17 billion dollars on bottled. Not only would drinking from the tap be huge for the environment, but it would free up enough money to fully educate every single child in the developing world. If any of this makes you feel guilty, I told you that giving can be an embarrassing topic.

Of course at issue in tonight’s passage is not necessarily stinginess. As we read, the people putting money in the temple offering plates were putting in plenty―a good deal more than two percent I’d guess. Back then, if you loved (and feared) God at all, you tithed. This is what makes the widow’s act so odd. She had two coins―she could have kept one for herself. In fact, she could have kept both for herself. The same law that dictated God’s people give ten percent of their earnings instructed that a portion of that ten percent go to widows and orphans. We read in Deuteronomy: “The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving them food and clothing.” And yet you’ll remember from last week that the ministers in charge of the temple offerings were “devouring widows’ houses” (verse 40), bilking poor women out of whatever dower they had inherited upon their husbands’ deaths. In chapter 13, Jesus will indict the entire Temple system, labeling it corrupt and doomed to destruction. And yet the poor widow gives to support the temple anyway because it’s supposed to be God’s house. And she doesn’t give a tenth or even half of what she has; she gives everything.

However, since two measly cents didn’t buy anymore then than it does now, skeptics might wonder why all the fuss? It wasn’t going to do her any good to hold onto it, so how hard could it have been to give it? It’s like the retiree down to her last quarter in Vegas. She might as well take one more shot at the slots. Maybe she’ll hit the jackpot. Or better, like the desperate person who figures she might as well pray to God when at the end of her ropes. What do you have to lose? God does answer those prayers. Maybe Jesus rewarded the widow’s desperate bid too. Maybe once she got back outside, she discovered a whole pocketful of change―like Jesus miraculously made appear in that fish’s mouth when he needed a coin to pay the Temple tax (see Matthew 17). Or like Christians find Jesus doing with unexpected checks in the mail for just the right amounts. If God takes care of the lilies of the field, which are here today and tomorrow thrown into the fire, surely he took care of this widow.

But the widow’s welfare is not the point of this passage. Jesus sees her humble act as motivated by neither resignation or desperation, but rather motivated by love. The widow’s gift decidedly sharpens the contrast between pretense and true piety. Unlike the shameless scribes and Pharisees, she was a poor widow who loved God wholeheartedly. As an impoverished, disenfranchised, uneducated woman, she represents the least and the last whom Jesus said would be first in God’s kingdom. As one who out of her poverty gave everything she had, the widow previews Jesus himself, who out of his own poverty—being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped—gives everything he had and more for the sake of love.

But it doesn’t stop with Jesus. Jesus did not give to release us from giving any more than Jesus died to release us from loving. To the contrary, “Christ’s love compels us,” the apostle Paul writes, “he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him.” And what does it mean to live for him? The widow is our example. The poor widow previewed Jesus’ giving, and she previews ours too. If it is the case that tithing no longer applies, it’s only because Jesus has upped the percentage from ten percent to a hundred. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” That’s what Jesus told the rich man in chapter 10. Was Jesus just talking to rich people? Fine. Flip back to chapter 8: “If anyone would follow me you have to deny yourself and take up a cross to do it.”

Fortunately, jewelry store can help you do that. Their ad reads, “Someone who wears a cross immediately associates him or herself with Jesus’ selflessness who willingly gave his life that we may live.” Take up one of their crosses and you’ll only have to deny yourself about fifty bucks.

Farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry points out two embarrassing questions that every reader of the gospels must face when confronted with the words of Jesus. First: If you had been living in Jesus’ day and heard him teaching things like “sell all your possessions” or “deny yourself,” would you have been one of his followers? Don’t be too sure, Berry cautions, “in Jesus’ lifetime even his most intimate friends could hardly be described as overconfident.” Secondly, can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so?

Wendell Berry goes on to recount the story of a 16th century Anabaptist in Holland named Dirk Willems. An Anabaptist was a Christian who insisted that only believers, and not infants, could be baptized. Today we call them Southern Baptists. Back then, Catholics and most Protestants considered Anabaptists to be heretics worthy of hanging, which many of them were, some right out here on Boston Common. Dirk Willems, a known Anabaptist, was fleeing arrest from the Protestant authorities, pursued by what was known as a “thief-catcher.” As one chased the other across a frozen body of water, the thief catcher fell through the ice. Without help, he would have drowned. But in addition to believers’ baptism only, Anabaptists were also stern adherents to the Sermon on the Mount, which on this day carried stern implications. Because the sermon on the mount teaches that we love our enemies and persecutors, Dirk Willems turned back, put out his hands to his pursuer and saved his life. The thief-catcher, who then of course wanted to spare his rescuer, was forced to arrest him nonetheless. Willems was brought to trial, sentenced and burned to death in a “lingering fire.”

Wendell Berry writes, “I, and I suppose you, would like to be a follower of Christ even at the cost of so much pain. But would we, in similar circumstances, turn back to offer the charity of Christ to an enemy? Again, I don’t think we ought to be too sure. We should remember that the ‘Christian’ persecutors of 1569 undoubtedly thanked God for the capture and death of their enemy, Dirk Willems the heretic.”

If you had been living in Jesus’ day and heard him teaching things like “sell all your possessions” or “deny yourself,” would you have been one of his followers? And, can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? If we are honest, we cannot escape these questions. And if we are honest, Berry writes, “we cannot answer them either. We humans, as we well know, have repeatedly been surprised by what we will or won’t do under pressure. A person may come to be, as many have been, heroically faithful in great adversity. But as long as that person is alive, there is always a next time, and so the questions remain. These are questions we must live with, regarding them as unanswerable and yet profoundly influential.”

I agree with Wendell Berry that these two questions are profoundly influential, but are they unanswerable? Perhaps, but they don’t need to be. Here’s where other words of Jesus come to bear. In Matthew 11, Jesus said that “wisdom is proved right by her actions.” In Biblical parlance, a wise person is any person who loves God enough to trust him, but nobody can be said to trust God if they never do anything that requires trust. Wisdom is not the same as saying you love God or understanding that it’s good to trust God, or knowing the right thing to do. If “wisdom is proved right by her actions,” then wisdom only works when you act. Can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? The only way to know is to do it.

Dawn and I have this running joke about how I’m 87% into everything. While this serves me well when playing sports (I always have something left in reserve), it’s lousy in relationships and most everywhere else. I’m continually haunted by a mentor of mine in high school who stood me in the middle of a parking lot many years ago and told me as I went off to college that if I never ended up making anything of my life, it would be because I’d learned to do so well by giving so little. “Until you hold nothing back,” she said, “you will never discover your true calling.” She was right. And while I’m still mostly 87% about too many things, those places in my life when I have gone all in have been places where I have discovered not only my calling but God’s trustworthiness and the strength that truly comes from denying myself. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the Christian martyr under Adolph Hitler, put it this way: “To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more of the road which is too hard for us… All that self denial can say is: ‘Jesus leads the way, keep close to him.’”

Which brings us back to the widow and her two cents. She was determined to stay close to God even though it cost her everything she had. Can you be sure that you would still follow Jesus if it became excruciatingly painful to do so? What if it was only mildly painful? The only way to know is to do it.