Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Broken and Beautiful Thing

She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head (Mark 14:3).

By Tuesday Jesus needed a break. He found what he needed in the little village of Bethany.

A traditional chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life tells us that the days played out as follows: Sunday was the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, praises shouted, branches waved, cloaks spread out like a rug, expectations running high. That parade was soon forgotten. On Monday Jesus cleared the temple of money changers and animal vendors, quoting the prophet Jeremiah and chastising those who had turned God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers. Things were getting tense. By Tuesday Jesus needed a break from the noise and clamor of Jerusalem at Passover.

The respite Jesus needed was found at the home of a man known as Simon the Leper. We have no idea who this man was. His name never appears again in the pages of scripture. The simplest explanation was that Simon was a man who had suffered from leprosy until Jesus healed him. Now, well and whole and restored to his home in Bethany, he hosts a meal for Jesus.

While Jesus was reclining at the table “a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume” (14:3) Sound and scent were almost simultaneous, the shattered vessel releasing an aroma that quickly filled the room. And almost as quickly, the murmuring started.

The presenting issue was the waste of such a valuable and precious commodity. That’s what some of those present complained about. It isn’t clear if they were sharing the meal, involved in the intimacies of table fellowship with Jesus and others, or if they were religiously curious spectators. Gossip mongers making nice until they could find something to talk about.

The unspoken issue, the deeper issue, might have been the woman herself. A female had made her way to the place where Jesus reclined – highly unusual in that cultural setting. As Luke tells the story, the woman had a reputation that should have caused a truly righteous man to recoil. That Jesus didn’t flinch caused tongues to wag.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus said as they unleashed their harsh rebukes at her. “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (14:6). Beautiful indeed.

All of the beauty in this Holy Week drama is seen in broken things and broken people. The meal is hosted by a man who still lives with the moniker of his former life: Simon the Leper. While possibly used affectionately by neighbors who marveled at his healing, the nickname evoked his broken self. A man once diseased and feared and rejected now made well, hosting a meal for the one who touched his shredded flesh and made him whole again.

There is beauty in the broken jar, a delicate rounded vessel with a long neck, holding expensive perfume. Once a vessel like that was broken, everything in it would flow out, completely emptied, nothing held back. And that act of devotion came from a woman who very likely knew her own brokenness.

The people who missed entirely the beautiful that happened in that room in Bethany were the competent people, the smart people who knew the value of a dollar. They were superficially devout people who spoke loudly abut the poor but were strangers to mercy. They might not have been hostile to Jesus, but they didn’t quite get him. Those words about anointing and burial sailed right by them (14:8). They missed the beautiful thing.

Holy Week won’t mean much to those who avoid their own brokenness and despise it in others. That’s true for the simple reason that Holy Week is taking us to a very broken place – the place of crucifixion and death. Apart from that Resurrection is thin and Easter becomes little more than “cute.” Settle for cute Easter, and you’ve missed the truly beautiful thing.

But seeing the beauty means getting close to the broken things and broken ones: a leper, a questionable woman, a shattered jar – all broken. And then there’s Jesus taking the image to himself. “This is my body . . . broken.”

He has done a beautiful thing for us. Beautiful indeed.

We work hard, O God, at concealing the broken pieces of our lives. We mask them with our charisma and the trappings of a successful life. Teach us to see the beauty in those broken places of our own lives – and also in the brokenness of our neighbor. Save us from the kind of competence that distances us from you and the beautiful thing you want to do in us through Jesus our Lord. Amen. .

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