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Readings: Palm Sunday

20 March 2015

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Isaiah 50.4-9a; Psalm 31.9-18; Philippians 2.5-11; Mark 14.1 - 15.end

Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross: grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

THE story of Jesus's last few days, as Mark presents it, could have been told without the cameo appearance of the unnamed woman who appeared in the house of Simon the leper, and poured a generous quantity of expensive ointment of nard over Jesus's head (Mark 14.3-9). Omitting the episode, however, would have made a much poorer account. We would not then have had this late opportunity to see the persistent obtuseness of those who had been close to Jesus, and heard him teach, as they fail to understand what the woman is doing. Her action is not waste, but worship. The New Revised Standard Version makes this clearer by calling it not just "a good service" (Mark 14.6), but "a beautiful thing". Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan hail her as Mark's "first believer", and, for those who would come to believe, "the first Christian".*

Immediately, the prodigal gift of the precious oil is contrasted with the much more exact financial transaction that Judas has arranged with the chief priests (Mark 14.10-11). That is the backdrop to the plans for the Passover meal. Jesus is not providing clairvoyant insight in his instructions to the two disciples who are sent ahead into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover (Mark 14.12-16). At a time when he could have been mainly concerned for himself, he has ensured that this last meal will take place, that he and his friends will celebrate the end of Israel's slavery in Egypt, and - even under Roman rule - pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Luke adds a dimension, having Jesus say to the disciples: "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Luke 22.14-15). But there are risks. Borg and Crossan suggest that matters were arranged so that Judas would not know the venue of the meal in advance, and would therefore not be able to have an ambush waiting.

That takes us back to the opposition of gift and betrayal (words with shared roots in Greek). Knowing that one of those around the table will hand him over to the Temple authorities, Jesus willingly gives himself to them in the words that accompany the broken loaf and the shared cup (Mark 14.22-24). This act looks beyond the rebuilding of the earthly Jerusalem to the "Kingdom of God" (Mark 14.25). In a sense, there is nothing that can be taken from him now, except the suffering that lies ahead, and he chooses to go to the end of the course on which he is set. Mark does not make explicit reference to the deliberate progress described by Luke (Luke 9.51), but his Jesus, too, has "set [his] face like flint" (Isaiah 50.7).

If this is a picture of obedience, it is obedience not as capitulation to the inevitable, but as the exercise of strength and will. The Jesus who arrives before Pilate, having already been falsely accused at the high priest's hearing by a crowd assembled for that purpose, and beaten by guards, is not a crushed and humiliated figure (Mark 14.53-65). He is able to face Pilate in silence - apparently not something that the amazed governor expects from those who appear before him accused of serious offences (Mark 15.1-4). If, like the Servant in the third of Isaiah's songs (Isaiah 50.4-9a), he is challenging the assembly to find him guilty, the charge never comes (Mark 15.13-15). In the end, it is not Jesus who appears weak, but Pilate.

Yet there is still a human dimension to consider, and, after a further flogging, and the exhausting mock coronation by the soldiers, it is unsurprising that Jesus is no longer physically able to carry the cross (Mark 15. 15-21). So it is that Simon of Cyrene becomes inscribed in history, as the bystander who is forced to become part of the action (Mark 15.21; Matthew 27.32; Luke 23.26). The woman with the ointment may be the first believer, but it is Simon who will briefly inhabit Jesus's own metaphor for the serious commitment of discipleship (Matthew 16.24; Mark 8.34; Luke 9.23).

About nine hours later, the body - which had last been gently handled in the house of Simon the leper - is laid in a tomb, watched over by two more women (Mark 15.42-47). The "tender love towards the human race" (collect of the day) which sent Jesus into the world "in human form" (Philippians 2.7) has nearly completed its work.

* Borg and Crossan, The Last Week (SPCK, 2008)

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