Bible Study · Church · Devotional · Spiritual Disciplines

Mark 14: “The poor will be with you always” is not a directive

Chapter and verse divisions in the bible are not in the original manuscripts. They kinda, sorta evolved over time into the near universal system we have now.

So why is Mark 14 so dang long? I have no idea. With all the stuff crammed in here, it sure feels like it could split up into a few extra chapters. I mean, how am I going to get through all this material?

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Actually, let’s just break it up into littler pieces like the folks who put chapter and verse numbers in this things should have done in the first place.

Foreshadowing

Mark 14-1.0 opens with some good foreshadowing, just two verses with the chief priests and teachers of the law. But it is the context to keep in mind for whole rest of the chapter.

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”

~ Mark 14: 1-2 (emphasis added)

It’s reaaaaallly important to keep in mind that these people wanted Jesus dead. They did not have pure motives and good intentions. So when you read something that makes you hmm, maybe don’t give the benefit of the doubt to the people trying to kill Jesus?

I dunno, just a suggestion.

A Dinner and an Anointing

Mark quickly jumps to this dinner party story, where a woman (and isn’t it always a woman) crashes the party and makes a spectacle of herself and Jesus. She pours expensive perfume from an alabaster jar all over Jesus’ feet. And the good religious folks at the dinner are just scandalized! “This is so wasteful! That perfume could have been sold and given to the poor! Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

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And Jesus is moved by shame, and kicks the woman out!

Wait, no, that’s not right.

But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

~Mark 14: 6-9

First, let’s go ahead and acknowledge that on the surface, this seems an odd thing for Jesus to say. Jesus, who cared about the poor and marginalized above all else, who elsewhere told a story that seemed to indicate you were in danger of hellfire not for believing the wrong things but for failing to care of the least (Seriously, reread that sheep & goats parable in Matthew. Pay less attention to “this proves hell is real” and more attention to “who are the sheep and who are the goats?”) — it feels like a kind of a big deal that this Jesus is being flippant about poor people.

So let’s try and dig a little below the surface. And let’s remember those first couple verses of foreshadowing while we’re at it.

The Woman

The woman doesn’t get a lot of backstory in this telling. But a version of this story appears in all four gospels. Matthew’s version is almost verbatim of Mark’s; but in Luke’s telling, she is “a sinner.” And I think we all know what that means.

This is a woman who obviously had an encounter with Jesus that moved her greatly. Because you don’t waste this kind of perfume for nothing. It’s very likely that Jesus treated her like, oh, I dunno, a real human being instead of the commodity she was used to being treated as, for probably the first time in her life. (Isn’t it interesting how everyone is talking about her in the third person throughout this scene? Like she isn’t even there?) And like the widow’s offering back in Mark 12, she gives extravagantly out of what she has.

It is very human, very authentic, very sincere, very real. And Jesus … well, Jesus just has no interest in dumping all over that sort of heartfelt reaction. His words about her are less a how-to for “this is a specific thing you should definitely do with your money when you find yourself moved with compassion” and more a “you know what? it’s okay to let yourself get carried away by compassion.”

I mean, I’m fairly certain in an alternate reality where she did sell the perfume and fed a bunch of people with the money, then came to Jesus and excitedly told him she did it because of all he had done for her, Jesus wouldn’t have been all “hey, what you should have really done is poured expensive perfume all over my feet!” No, I think Jesus would have been equally moved by a different gesture. Because Jesus was lauding less the actual response than the fact that she responded.

So remember, kids: you can’t spell compassion without passion.

Jesus

It’s also worth remembering that Jesus wasn’t a robot. This incarnation thing does not mean Jesus was a God/human hybrid; he is not half human/half God. He is all human. He knows he is going to die, in large part because he has been orchestrating it. That doesn’t mean he was looking forward to it. Like every human who has ever walked the planet, Jesus did not want to die. So when this woman does something sweet and caring and compassionate and beautiful, not for some theoretical other people, but for Jesus himself, it touches him on a deep, emotional level.

And on a different level, this was just Jesus showing he was raised right. Mary taught Jesus the same thing my mom taught me: when someone gives you a gift, the most important thing to do is to say “thank you.” And if you can, really try to mean it. Because to be ungrateful for a gift robs them of the joy of giving.

The Others

Just like Jesus saw no reason to criticize this heartfelt gift from the woman, he comes down on the others pretty hard mostly because — well, look up at those first two verses again. They “were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” So it’s likely that their motives in this concern trolling on behalf of the poor were not entirely on the up and up!

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I have sympathy for people with the spiritual gift of butwhatabout, probably because it’s my own particular gift. And Jesus is not saying there is never a time to evaluate how you’re allocating your resources. He’s not saying there isn’t a time for criticizing people (because obviously, here he is criticizing people).

And he sure as hell isn’t saying “the poor will be with you always” like that’s a good thing and you shouldn’t worry about it. “The poor will be with you always” is not a directive, people. It’s not a mission statement.

I’m no Greek and Hebrew scholar. But I want you to take a look at the pronouns Jesus is using and who he is addressing.

Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.  For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.

Believe it or not, once upon a time I saw pretty conservative. And when I read this, I felt like my inner conservative rear his head. It was very weird.

So let me ask you a question:

Whose perfume was this?

Was it their perfume? Or her perfume?

And isn’t it hugely presumptuous for a bunch of men sitting around the table to just assume they know best how to allocate the funds from this valuable commodity that isn’t even theirs to begin with?

It’s interesting the way Jesus shifts gears suddenly, going from talking about her doing good with her service, to calling out the you (this is y’all plural, basically everybody around the table). He’s not really very subtle in telling them, look, you wanna help the poor? Have at it! Ain’t nobody stopping you! You talk a real good game when you’re giving away her stuff. But what are you doing with your stuff?

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And again, it’s really, really, really worth remembering that these are likely the same folks who wanted Jesus dead. And when people with bad motives are the ones playing whataboutitsm with you, you probably don’t need to worry about cutting them extra slack.

So yeah. We are indeed called to be “wise as serpents.” There is nothing wrong with examining your organizational practices, and seeing if the things you are trying to do to help people are, you know, actually helping people. That’s not what this story is about. At all.

This story is about there being a time a place for butwhatabout. So if you are like me, and you have the spiritual gift of butwhatabout, maybe you need to check your motives. Like, often. (Read: All the time.) Because if you are witnessing somebody doing something nice and kind and lovely for someone else, and your first instinct is butwhatabout? There’s a better than even money chance that “now” is not the right time and place for it.

Trust me, I know this from experience.

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