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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

Mark 14:3-9 – Will You Let Me be Your Servant?

3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 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. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 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 tackled huge sociological issues of his day, issues that we still face in our own communities. Jesus addressed the issue of the poor with a call to servanthood.

While Jesus visited the house of Simon the leper in the city of Bethany, he was approached by an unidentified woman who possessed an alabaster jar filled with nard, a costly perfume procured from the Himalayan Mountains in India. The unnamed woman could be Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus as noted in the Book of Matthew recounting the same story. Regardless, the use of the expensive perfume disturbed several of the guests who rebuked the woman.

The argument of the guests included selling the nard, worth approximately 300 days wages, to provide for the poor. Jesus reminded the guests that the poor would always be with them, which is difficult to read. For all the energy devoted to solving the poverty issue, we have failed to eliminate the devastating effects of growing up poor. Jesus deliberately connected the issue of servanthood with poverty in this passage, which challenged their thinking about poverty, and should challenge ours.

Addressing the needs of the poor is still a relevant conversation. However, because Jesus connected the issue of poverty with servanthood, we must rethink our approach to eliminating poverty. Jesus didn’t say, “Don’t take care of the poor,” or “Don’t worry about the plight of the poor.” The fact that Jesus acknowledged the poor in this passage showed his concern about their circumstances. What Jesus lifted up in this moment was the woman’s gift and her willingness to be a servant (a devoted and helpful follower or supporter). She gave Jesus something that no one else in the room had given, the anointing of his body prior to death. She understood the significance of her actions, but the others in the room could only see the waste. Jesus declared that no action, when taken with sincerity, is a waste.

Isn’t this the point of being a servant? We are called to serve God by serving others. Imagine what it would be like if we committed our entire lives to serving others as a devoted helpful follower or supporter. If we performed our work for the benefit of others rather than our own selfish gains, how would that change our attitude at work? Doing for others in this way opens up new possibilities at eliminating poverty. Together we collectively address the issues of poverty from a place of servanthood. Over time, the need diminishes because of the provision provided on an ongoing basis from everyone. This only works, though, if everyone gives.

The unnamed woman reveals the most valuable lesson of all—the costly perfume can do no good as long as it stays in the jar. Whatever resources we possess can only do good if we engage them in actual activity. It is in the using of a thing that the thing derives meaning. The perfume becomes an issue because it is being used, not because it is sitting in a jar. Jesus exalts the woman for bestowing such a gift to Jesus, the one who gives freely to others. It is the relationship and the exchange of gifts that opens space for us to address issues like poverty. It is by becoming a servant that we are able to fill the need.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

12 Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so, it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally, he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this scripture:

‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

12 When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So, they left him and went away.

Our passage this week begins a new chapter in Mark’s gospel, but it could easily be a continuation of Jesus’ encounter with the Chief Priests, scribes, and elders in the previous chapter. In Mark 11:27-33, the Temple leaders challenge Jesus’ authority in the Temple. Here in Mark 12:1-12, Jesus uses the story of the wicked tenants as a direct attack on the Chief Priests, scribes, and elders. They have no idea of Jesus’ real role as Messiah.

Jesus makes a direct comparison between the wicked tenants who occupy a property that they do not own and the religious leaders who occupy the Temple that they do not own. Reading this passage carefully shows us that Jesus paints the wicked tenants as the kind of individuals you would never want to meet. The Temple leaders were so corrupt that their actions were the equivalent of assaulting and killing others.

To make our present passage even more salient for the Temple leaders who were already plotting to kill Jesus, Jesus inserts himself as the heir, the son who the landowner sends to interact with the wicked tenants. The heir is killed along with others. Jesus predicts his own death and then asks a critical question, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” and goes on to explain that the landowner will destroy the tenants and pass the vineyard on to others. In other words, “Priest, scribes, and elders, do not think you are so special that God won’t remove you from your positions of power and hand the reins to someone else.”

Once the religious leaders realized that Jesus was actually talking about them, they wanted to retaliate immediately by arresting Jesus. But because of their fear of the crowd, a crowd that had recently welcomed Jesus into the city, the crowd that listened to every word that came from Jesus’ mouth, they left Jesus and went away.

The kind of entitlement that we see in this passage is a specific kind of religious entitlement that we rarely talk about. Religious entitlement removes God from the equation and places self at the center. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day allowed their pride to ease God out of the picture. Everything they did was in service to themselves and their occupiers, the Roman Empire. The remedy for such behavior is as follows:

1. Grace and Mercy – When we are compassionate toward others, showing them grace and mercy, we are putting ourselves in the shoes of others and are able to feel with the other.

The leaders did not care for orphans, widows, those in prison, resident aliens, or the most disenfranchised in the city.

2. Gratitude – When we are grateful for what we have, we can receive and accept the gifts of God as precious things to behold. It is our gratitude that allows us to accept life on life’s terms, to be okay with what we have, and to not be focused on what we don’t have.

The leaders weren’t grateful for the “priestly gift of servanthood,” instead they wanted to lay claim to the Temple and all that went with it.

3. Responsibility – When we can accept responsibility for ourselves and fulfill the obligations of our positions, especially our roles in the church, then we become trusted servants of God. We are able to recognize the hard work required to be fully present for others and to do what is necessary to keep people connected and to know they are seen and heard.

The leaders did not fulfill the obligations of their trusted position, but instead were lazy with their efforts while still expecting God to bless them.

God is calling us to be more like Jesus. Our lives are to mimic Jesus’ life, to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Jesus didn’t hesitate to call out the religious leaders of his day. He made a point of showing them their hypocrisy. We must be careful, though, to not use our own religious entitlement as a weapon, especially the kind of entitlement that says I am right, and you are wrong. Jesus calls all of us to check our privilege and entitlement. The more we understand who Jesus was, the more we can understand how we are to live.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

27 Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him 28 and said, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” 29 Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.” 31 They argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 32 But shall we say, ‘Of human origin’?”—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. 33 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Chapter 11 of the Book of Mark is critical to the plot that plays out at the end of Jesus’ life. It opens with Jesus coming into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey while onlookers sing Hosannah in the highest. Jesus cursed a fig tree, which feels contradictory to how we see Jesus. Then Jesus entered the Temple, flipped over the money-changer’s tables, and disrupted the commerce that was taking place in the common area—the area designated for all the nations as a house of prayer. Jesus left the city with his disciples and explained his reason for cursing the fig tree. But Jesus returned to the city in the morning and went straight back to the Temple, this time being confronted by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, who asked Jesus “by what authority are you doing these things?”

The religious leaders who approached Jesus want to know why he thinks he can get away with teaching, preaching, and disrupting the daily activities of the Temple. Jesus, recognizing the intentions of the religious leaders addressed them by asking a question of his own, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it from human origin?”

The exchange between Jesus and the Temple leaders centered on everyone’s understanding of the word “authority.” The religious leaders believed that John was a holy man who had a divine mission to preach repentance, which was a common theme in Jewish history. John’s baptism, or ministry, however, operated outside of Jewish religious authority, as did Jesus’, and Jesus made it personal by acting out in the Temple.

So, who did have authority to teach, preach, and disrupt the temple?

Traditionally, religious authority was given to those who were descendants of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. God specifically set the tribe of Levi apart from the other eleven tribes of Israel for the sole purpose of teaching the law and performing the ritual sacrifices in the temple. Jesus and John were not descendants of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, but were both descendants of David in the line of Judah.

The religious leaders didn’t challenge John, who was heralding the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, because he didn’t bring his message into the Temple. Instead, he lived in the wilderness, preaching, and teaching outside of the city. Still, Jesus’ question puts the religious leaders in a bind. So, they do the next best thing, they say rather boldly, “We do not know.” This is probably the most honest statement any of them had ever made to Jesus.

In that single moment, Jesus accomplished two things. First, he challenged the authority of the religious leaders who taught the law but did not live it; and second, Jesus asked his followers to think more deeply about how they experienced their relationship with God.

We can ask or ourselves, “Are we willing to admit we just don’t know?”

Jesus tells us in this passage that we don’t have to know, but we do have to keep searching. John didn’t know who the Messiah was until Jesus showed up to be baptized. He was willing to walk in the unknown, to be drawn into the mystery of God, a God who defies religious traditionalism.

In this season of Lent, where we rethink our own relationship with God and how God works in and through us, we, too, are being invited to know the God who defies religious traditionalism. The historical faith of the Israelite people had always been steeped in mysticism, but they developed a kind of certainty about God that made them blind to the fullness of Jesus. We see the same kind of certainty blinding us today. Being able to say, “I don’t know,” is one way of setting us free from this trap. There isn’t anything about God that we can be certain of, not even God’s existence. It is our faith that calls us to make a commitment to the God of creation, the God who desires to know us and to be known by us. It is this God that we claim, but it is also this God that we can never fully comprehend or understand.

Finally, we come to believe that it is okay to say, “I don’t know,” even while stepping out on faith as if we do.

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