Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lent 5

John 12
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them* with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii* and the money given to the poor?’ 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it* so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

The story ends with a man in a tomb.

But before we go there, with two weeks to go, I want to talk about another man on a tomb. This man was found in a tomb near a small town in Somerset, in the southwest of the UK. The town in famous for two things in fact: the man in the tomb and the cheese that was named for the town, Cheddar.

The man in the tomb, given the somewhat unlikely name “Cheddar Man,” was found over a century ago. His bones were gathered up, he was send to the British Museum, and then the long wait for science to develop something truly useful began. First, it was determined that this poor fellow died 9,000 years ago. And finally, in the late 90’s, a researcher named Bryan Sykes tested Cheddar Man’s DNA, the genetic material passed through his family tree.

Next, Dr. Sykes conducted an interesting experiment. He went back to Cheddar, the village next to the cave, and began testing the DNA of the local residents. Imagine his surprize to discover that at least one resident, Adrian Targett, was a direct match. It seems that for 9,000 years now the Targett family of Cheddar have been enjoying English country life and resisting the urge to move.

No doubt someone today will say ‘we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.‘ In fact, Cheddar Man and others prove that the pre-Roman population of the British Isles was quite stable, with Romans, Saxons, Angles, Danes and Normans having very little effect in the local population. So for those of us who can trace our roots back to Britain and Ireland, 80% of us are Celtic. So Sláinte!

Now back to that other tomb. “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” What follows these words is one of the most evocative and oft-quoted passages in John, maybe the Bible, with an act of love followed by confrontation, and then a summary statement about the poor that has come up in conversation in every era since.

But first, nard. It is a familiar scene. Jesus is in this home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary: Jesus and Lazarus are in conversation, Martha serves the meal, and Mary interrupts the conversation to sit at Jesus’ feet, take a pound of nard, and anoint him. As she wipes his feet with her hair, the scent fills the room, and the scene is set for the conversation that follows.

Judas asks the obvious question, the question that any one of us would ask when expensive perfume is used and not sold for the benefit of the poor. 300 denarii is a farm worker’s wage for a year, $20,000 in our terms, and something that I imagine would cause us to gasp as it goes over his feet, and on her hair, and likely on the floor. It is an outrageous act, and one that we struggle to interpret.

Before I go further, I should note that some of the things our little learning cohort has been looking at while discussing John’s Jesus, applies to this passage. Biblical scholars will tell you that when you are trying to interpret a passage of scripture, you might begin by stripping away commentary and explanations that appear, since these are likely later additions to the book.

In this case, we might want to take a second look at everything in brackets in the passage (“Judas, the one who was about to betray him” and “Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it”). Not only is it extraneous to the story, it is slander, and we can be mad at Judas without making him a monster. So we remove the brackets.

Next is an argument about the poor. Do we sell all we have and give it to the poor, the very advice Jesus gave the rich young ruler in Mark 10, Matthew 19 and Luke 18? He also gave the same advice to his disciples in Luke 12, and in Mark 6 he gave the clearest instruction of all on the topic of discipleship and poverty:

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and...he ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

In essence, Jesus is creating a new order of Cynics, not the people who take a dim view of things, but the Greek philosophy of austerity, and living simply as nature intended. They famously gave all their wealth away too, and were told to live with no more than a knapsack, a staff and a cloak. Note the key difference here: Jesus says “no bag” to his disciples, only a tunic, a staff and a sensible pair of sandals.

In other words, the disciples are supposed to make the Cynics look extravagant with their fancy knapsacks, and live even simpler lives. So it seems that the “sell the nard and give the money to the poor” argument would not have been an argument at all were it not for love.

Ah, love. You might remember back to the beginning of Epiphany and the most inappropriate baby gift of all time, myrrh? Well, this isn’t myrrh. And in spite of the fact that Jesus says “leave her alone, so she might keep it for the day of my burial,” there is a Dan Brown-style conspiracy happening here, because nard is for love, and not burial. You might even say Jesus ‘doth protest too much,’ since the only other reference to nard in the Bible is in some racy Hebrew poetry, in Song of Songs.

Now that the kids are out of the room, I can read from ‘M for Mature’ book of the Bible to illustrate my point: This is from chapter 4:

You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride;
you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain.
Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates
with choice fruits,
with henna and nard,
nard and saffron,
calamus and cinnamon,
with every kind of incense tree.

If you are wooing or courting, or whatever the kids do these days, you can’t go wrong with Song of Songs. I can’t say more without blushing or confusing St. Patrick’s with St. Valentine’s, but I will say that Mary was in love, and she found the best way to show it, with nard.

So it’s not a passage about Judas, and it’s not a passage about the poor, and it’s not about the love sub-theme because Jesus and Mary never “happily ever-aftered,” so what is it about? It seems that all along it was really about the tomb.

First, it begins with a reference to Lazarus, newly escaped from his tomb. Then we have Jesus making a reference to his burial, and even though he might have said it to divert our attention from the love that was being lavished on him, he still mentions his death. So we have a short passage that begins and ends with tomb references, and lots of material in between meant to distract the reader. But we are not to be fooled.

Here, in John 12, the passion of the Christ is set to begin. Next is the triumphant entry, then he predicts his death, then he washes the disciples feet, and then he utters perhaps the most important words he will speak on this long journey up to Jerusalem, found in chapter 14:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

So as we face the tomb of Jesus we try to set aside fear, and understand that something akin to the raising of Lazarus might be possible, and we struggle to understand how. And for this, we might need Patrick and Cheddar Man.

But before we revisit Cheddar: throughout the British Isles and northern Europe, many ‘bog people’ have been discovered, well-preserved ancients, many with some unlikely similarities. Two in Ireland, for example, Old Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, were both young men in their twenties, both lacked the scars that would indicate hard labour, and both showed signs of good grooming, including (believe it or not) hair gel. Both, along with our Cheddar Man, showed signs of a quick and violent end, which of course leads to the conclusion that they were victims of human sacrifice.

Cheddar Man was given a tomb, and the others were placed in a bog, some suggesting a link to Druid practice. Nevertheless, we know that when Patrick was a young slave in Ireland he witnessed human sacrifice, something the Romans, including young Patrick, found deeply offensive.

When he returned as a missionary-Bishop, Patrick may have been tempted to condemn the Irish for their ongoing cultic practice, to convince the High Kings of Tara to ban the practice much in the way the Roman Senate banned the practice long before, but instead he found a simple and effective way to end the practice.

Patrick told them that no longer did they need to sacrifice the young and blameless ones to somehow appease the gods, that in fact God’s son gave his life once and for all. God no longer wanted or needed the death of the unblemished, and that a blameless one had set down his life for the sake of this friends, and through this, we gain an end to death. Thanks be to God, Amen.


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