Broken for Us
Fifth Week of Lent—March 31, 2004
- Isaiah 43: 16-21
- Philippians 3: 4b-14
- Psalms 126
- John 12: 1-11
Everybody’s been beating up on Mel Gibson for his direction of “The Passion of the Christ.” Jewish leaders accuse him of the latest round of anti-Semitism; movie critics rate the film a poor sequel to “Braveheart,” and cultural theorists suspect a pornography of suffering, dubbing “The Passion” a snuff film in devotional drag. Feminists complain that Satan is once again depicted as a woman, while transgendered folk complain that Satan has no gender—and is androgynous. The film succeeds in being an equal-opportunity offender. Viewers’ responses are almost as visceral as the movie, and all this commotion only confirms that violence begets violence.
But what struck me about “The Passion according to Mel” is how right Gibson is about part of the story. It’s a part that the creed puts so tersely it’s over before we know it: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” We fast-forward to resurrection, as if we can already hear the Hallelujah choruses playing in the background. In contrast, Gibson doesn’t allow us to skip the hard parts. He reminds us—and it’s no gentle reminder either—that Jesus was persecuted, tortured, and vilified, before he was put to death. Gibson flogs us with the fact that crucifixion was a horrible way to die. And so we leave the theater mentally beaten up, psychologically bloodied by the hard truth of Jesus’ death.
The problem with Gibson’s portrayal of the Christ is not that this hard truth is not the truth; the problem is that this hard truth is not the whole truth. The danger is in mistaking a part of the truth for the whole thing. Gibson has given us crucifixion without resurrection, Good Friday without Easter, and Jesus’ death without Jesus’ incarnation and the lifetime of ministry that preceded it, clarified it, and placed it like a precious stone in a setting.
But then Gibson is a good company. The gang in today’s Gospel reading all makes the same mistakes, only the bar is higher—and time is running out. It’s not just box office numbers at stake here, it’s the very identity of Jesus and the purposes of God.
The text for the day is a circus, only not of the Cirque du Soleil variety. In John’s account, Italian director Federico Fellini as ringmaster, for the story that unfolds before us is a veritable satyricon of partial truths. It’s a crowded text, with one character after another elbowing in to claim his or her piece of the truth. The whole incident transpires at the home of Jesus’ rich friends. Here’s the guy who spent so much of his time hanging out with the outcasts that he was repeated ly accused of being “a glutton, a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34, Matthew 11:19). And lo! here we find that Jesus has jumped class, and now he’s hanging out with all the swells.
Judas is quick to catch the incongruity of it all. He nails Jesus on the gap between his preferential option for the poor and his penchant for rich friends. The Gospel’s author stops in mid-description to speak directly to the reading in one of his snide, Fellini-esque asides about Judas, “(He was the keeper of the common purse… ”), which adds to the circus-like quality of the text. But I suggest giving Judas the benefit of the doubt. Didn’t Jesus say it would be harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? Didn’t he say the last would be first—and the first last? Didn’t he disparage all efforts to lay up earthly treasures? Where were Jesus’ allegiances? Isn’t Judas right to question them?
Then there are the rich friends themselves. We are told that Martha serves them all. It’s clear she has not learned her lesson from the chapter before, where Jesus urged her to take a load off, choose the better part, listen to him, and leave behind her compulsive worry. But Martha is certainly right in there serving the neighbor in need right—and wasn’t that part of Jesus’ message?
Mary is not only at Jesus’ feet—but all over them! She performs a dramatic gesture of breaking a stone jar full of precious ointment over Jesus feet, an act which fills the stage like the perfume of the oil must have filled the house. It’s a gesture so bizarre and out-of-place that Jesus has to interpret it: “she’s preparing my body for burial.” One senses the strain in his voice, as he seeks to explain the behavior of his friend. But wasn’t Mary just following directions?
There’s Lazarus back from the dead, kind of a sideshow in this whole story. It’s unclear whether he ever changed clothes from his sojourn in the tomb, but for reasons unknown he’s apparently still enough of an attraction to have people flocking to see him: “Step right up—here he is, the Man Here From the Other Side! Step right up!” In fact, the crowd is thicker around Lazarus than around Jesus, and the Temple authorities figure they need to take out both of them. But wasn’t it Jesus who said that death was not the last word?
Finally, there are the Temple officials, who cannot afford for people to get all worked up over an itinerant preacher and guy who probably just convulsed and came to several days later. They are between a rock and a hard place. They are responsible for order among the people. If there is disorder, their heads are on the Roman block. But because they are smaller in number than the people they govern, they know how tenuous their own grasp on power really is. No amount of stature or authority can protect them from an angry mob—and they know it. If Jesus is not the revolutionary that everyone hoped for, isn’t it their job to secure a fragile peace?
I’m looking for the liar in this story—someone who maliciously dissimulates, who tells falsehoods knowingly and compellingly. I’m looking for liar —but I can’t find him. Rather, the problem is that everyone has a piece of the truth, which he or she mistakes for the whole thing.
And so we are left with the jar, which holds the perfumed oil Mary poured all over Jesus’ feet. Mark’s gospel gives more detail: it was alabaster, and it had to be broken apart to get to the oil.. When it was whole, precious ointment was sealed inside. Sealant protected the oil from contamination or dilution, but it also prevented the jar from being easily opened. The only way to open the jar was to break it—and now shards of precious alabaster lay scattered on the floor, fragments of the original whole. Where the original was smooth, almost translucent in the light, the pieces were sharp, jagged, and dangerous.
As Jesus himself proclaims in every Gospel account of this incident, the oil anoints his body for burial (Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13). But even Jesus has only a fragment of the truth. In ways that will become tragically transparent, the jar itself represents Jesus’ body. The only way to use it was to shatter it, break it apart, and share it among the gathered disciples.
Now, however, it is as if everyone in the story has scrambled for a piece of precious alabaster, just as everyone has a piece of Jesus’ truth. That piece is true—no doubt about that, but it is only a part of the whole story. Martha has the service piece right, and her life has been the model for the active life, the truth of Jesus’ directive to be in the world and helping the neighbor. But Mary holds the truth of contemplation, the receptive counterweight to service. Judas fights for a preferential option for the poor and the truth of Jesus’ solidarity with outcast and sinner, a truth he speaks with passion. Lazarus points beyond himself to resurrection which is not mere resuscitation, but the opening to a new life in God. Even the Jewish leaders, who come off so poorly in John’s Gospel, stand for the truth of order in the midst of chaos—and the truth of what can happen when order becomes confused with control. All of these folks possess a piece of the truth, for Jesus stood for all of these things: action and contemplation, solidarity with the poor and friendship with the wealthy, order and creativity. Yet each of these characters sins in believing the piece they have in their hands to be the whole of Jesus’ ministry.
You could write the history of the church out of this story: the social justice types, the order and organization types, the mystics, the seekers, the peace protestors. Each has a piece of the whole. And so long as each hoards their truth, jealously guarding it from the others and believing their piece to be the whole of Jesus’ ministry, these shattered pieces will never come together again, and the body will never be made whole.
A good friend had a piece of pottery commissioned for her in Greece in honor of her tenure as president of the American Academy of Religion. It was a beautiful large bowl, painted in blues that are manufactured only in the Greek islands, blues that the people there paint on their doors and dye into their fabrics. They were blues of the Aegean sky and blues of the Aegean sea. She knew each one of these blues, because Greece was a place she loved and had visited many times. She mounted the bowl on the wall. She looked on the bowl in the cool rain of a grey West coast winter and the softer grey of a summer fog, and she remembered the blues of the Aegean and the warmth of sun on sandstone cliffs. Then a cleaning lady knocked the bowl down, and it shattered in a dozen pieces.
At first, my friend swept up the pieces and packed them away, judging the bowl damaged beyond repair. But then she was stuck with the blank space on the wall, the presence of an absence. In time, she had the bowl repaired, the scattered shards carefully glued together. Finally, she restored the bowl to its lace on the wall. “And now,” she said, “the bowl has a larger story, because it not only reminds me of Greece, but of broken things that come together again.”
It’s a fitting message for the season, as we move towards Holy Week and the events of the passion, where Jesus’ body is tortured and spat upon, scourged and crucified. Jesus’ body is broken for us. We each have a piece of this body—and each piece is the true body of Christ. We would be wrong to hoard what we have been given, feeding from it on our own. But Christ’s body comes together when we do, here around a table, for we are broken pieces coming together. Christ’s body comes together when we do, when we gather to worship and scatter to serve.