And Now For Something Completely Different
When I’m watching a movie or TV show with Heidi or one of my sons, often there will be a part of the story they’re telling where they focus on one person – usually not the central character – to underscore that things are going very well for so-and-so: they’re head-over-heels in love, just coming into their own or experiencing some kind of bliss. And then, I’ll turn to Heidi or vice versa and say, “OK, something bad is about to happen. He’s a goner.” Know what I’m talking about? Art or entertainment – if it’s any good – does reflect life. And we know that life is like that sometimes. It can turn on a dime from wonderful to challenging or even tragic. Our world just went from getting ready to celebrate the Olympic Games to living in quarantine.
Never has this turn been more true than on the fateful day Jesus entered Jerusalem, thus beginning his passion narrative – what we call Holy Week. It begins with palms waving and people celebrating as Jesus rides into town hailed as a king who will restore to his people a long-lost kingdom. But it quickly turns as the powers-that-be implement their takedown of Jesus. Palm Sunday is about the hailing of a new king and the anticipation and foreshadowing of the turn, a 180 that leads us into Holy Week.
And so, appropriately, we have two key texts today that represent these two moments: on the one hand, a celebration with a most odd detail that is highlighted (we’ll get into that in a minute), and, on the other hand, prophetic foreshadowing by an unlikely woman who is astounding in her perception and enters into a profoundly worshipful moment.
And so, first, in chapter 11, we have the passage where Jesus rides triumphantly into Jerusalem on a colt, or mule. He gets a royal reception as the crowds praise him, put their cloaks on the ground and wave palms. This was a common scene when a general, or a hero, or a king came to town. A general would be on a horse, but any other hero, leader or king would ride a donkey or mule. Palms and cloaks on the ground was standard fare for a hero. Make no mistake about it: Jesus is seen by the people as messianic – a savior. So he gets a royal entry! His is the arrival of the first king in 600 years for Israel. For that whole time, they had been under the thumb of a foreign oppressor and now it was Rome. With Jesus’ entry, people are envisioning the return to the glory days of King David and King Solomon, when they had their own kingdom and answered to nobody! But those reigns were a thousand years ago. So, this is a big deal, a political rally of sorts. At least that’s what many thought it was, until suddenly they didn’t.
We know about these things. In 2020, we have political rallies because people know how important leaders are and the directions in which they lead us. This has never been more true than now! We know that government matters, and so did the people in Mark’s time. They just had no idea how different this king and kingdom would be.
Which brings us to this odd feature in our text today: the colt Jesus rode was a colt that had never been ridden – a specific request of Jesus. But why? For instance, during the transition from King David to his son, Solomon, the soon-to-be King Solomon rode King David’s mule. Appropriately, he rode the “presidential limo” of that time!
I mean, if you’re looking for a triumphal entry, it seems that you would at least want to ride an animal that is used to being ridden, no? Can you imagine the embarrassment if Jesus gets on the colt, people are cheering, and the animal spooks and goes nuts, throwing Jesus off of it?? Hail to the king who just did a faceplant in the dirt!
Why on earth “a colt that has never been ridden”? Because Jesus is signaling that just as this colt is going to do something entirely new in its young life; just as kings never rode animals like this in this situation; so, too, Jesus is doing something entirely new. In Jesus, we have a king the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
And now Mark is asking a question: what does the kingdom of David look like with Jesus as king?
The story of the woman anointing Jesus with very expensive perfume gives us two very big clues. The kingdom Jesus institutes will indeed be unprecedented.
Start with the anointing itself, a ritual act that for centuries in Israel was something done as a sort of coronation, always done by an important person – a priest or someone of royal stature, always a man. The fact that the disciples point out hew expensive this perfume was, suggests this was a royal anointing for the messiah king. But we don’t have a priest or leader anointing Jesus, do we? Rather, a person of no apparent standing – possibly even negative standing. And a woman. An unnamed woman anointing a king – again, something new, like the colt never ridden. The meaning cannot be missed: this king is of – and for – the common people, marginalized people. “For people like me,” this woman clearly believed.
But there is much more to this anointing, and Jesus picks up on it. This woman not only ritually anoints Jesus king. She can see what his kingship means; how uniquely different it is and what this will cost Jesus to be the savior. She alone, perhaps, can see that he will die, and soon. And so, her anointing has another meaning: she is anointing the dead for his soon to be burial. She is proclaiming in her act of worship and praise that this kingship does not end with his death, but will be born out of his death – enacted and fulfilled through his incomprehensible act of sacrifice and solidarity with all people. So, this woman, out of love for her savior -and grief, too – worships and adores her king by anointing him for his burial.
As one theologian has put it, in reference to the spilling of this precious perfume: “suddenly the scent of 10,000 gardenias filled the room.”
Mary Magdalene has been called the first preacher of the resurrection after discovering the risen Christ first and telling others about it. The unnamed woman of our text is the first preacher of the crucifixion – a female preacher/prophet. Her sermon was anointing a king who would die and simultaneously give life.
Note that the disciples are the foil once again. They don’t get it yet, but quite understandably raise objections to the value of the perfume being wasted – could have been sold and the money used for the poor. Oh, but she understands the gravity of the pivot about to take place, and the extraordinary love that has come down to them all in Jesus.
So, Jesus praises the woman for her act of worship. She has done what she could – anointing his body for burial. She will be remembered for her bold act of devotion and extravagant act of love. Partly because it reminds us of someone else’s love, in particular.
Jesus spoke throughout his ministry about the extravagant, even scandalous, love of God – a love eventually poured out for us through Jesus himself on the cross. This woman’s act of worship reflects the divine love that Jesus makes real for us – a love that holds nothing back, is not reasonable or restrained, but gives fully, completely.
I don’t have to tell anyone who is listening today that death haunts us these days. Its specter is more vivid now than any of us wishes, isn’t it? As we prepare to journey through Holy Week, what a thing it is, we believe, that one particular death has produced a new kingdom, a new creation. Somehow, in one man’s death, so too, died the things that haunt us and bind our lives. Somehow, in one man’s death, God is already with us, and we are already free. Amen.