Slut Shaming and Virtue Signalling at the Quiet Heart of Holy Week (Mark 14:1-9)

There’s a lot of shouting in the Easter story, a lot of people thinking they’re right and making it known. We have parades and lynch mobs and debates and screams and mockery, a cacophony drowning out the truth of the situation. At the eye of the storm is Jesus; no-one seems to understand him, no-one seems to truly listen. Everyone seems convinced by the rightness of their position that the man who’s on a journey towards torture and death is almost hidden in plain sight.

At the quiet heart of Holy Week, one person seems to get it, one person seems to understand. Interrupting a meal between friends, she breaks open a jar of expensive perfumed anointing oil and pours it over Jesus. In many ways it’s a shocking moment – the unexpectedness, the scent permeating the house, the inappropriateness, the expense. The woman is immediately the victim of virtue-signalling, the disciples protesting that the perfume was expensive, that it should have been sold to help the poor. But we know that one of them had his hand in the common purse, and you wonder if they would have had a similar reaction if they hadn’t been scandalised by this woman and her actions.

In Luke’s gospel a similar incident occurs, but at a different time. There the woman is identified as sinful (and it’s always assumed that this sin was sexual in nature, when for all we know she stole stuff), and we tend to conflate these stories, pushing them through the grinder of tradition until the woman is depicted as a prostitute. There’s no evidence for this (and even if she was, what would it matter at the heart of a story of grace?) but it fits a narrative, and it’s another convenient excuse for the men to reject her act of worship.

But Jesus doesn’t reject it – he’s thankful for it. It’s a moment of intimacy, sure, but the intimacy that comes from him and the women being the only two people who know what’s going on. She knows he’s a king, she knows he’s going to die, and Jesus seems grateful for that acknowledgement. We read the Easter story as Jesus saving us from our sins, but here’s someone who’s more concerned with looking after him and his needs. On the eve of a great sacrifice, the woman ministers to Jesus and in doing so secures a place in history.

But in the moment there’s ‘slut shaming’ and virtue signalling and a criticism of her ministry. And even though she’s the one who gets it right, who helps Jesus, who worships and honours and anoints while everyone else argues and jostles for position, she’s still dismissed, her ministry and her act of prophecy devalued. That happens to women in the Church far too often, even though here the women carries out a pastoral act of worship, even though later Mary becomes a preacher of Jesus’s resurrection.

At the quiet heart of Holy Week, an unnamed woman understands what’s needed and does something about it, sacrificing her money and her reputation and her investment in the process. And in doing so she becomes a model of discipleship for us all. Maybe that, and her act of grace, is why Jesus said she’d be remembered.

Turning the Tables (Matthew 21:12-17)

We’re into Holy Week now, the journey towards Calvary becoming more and more inevitable. There’s a moment, during Palm Sunday, when everything feels a little more triumphant, but 24 hours later, the fate of Jesus is sealed.

This is what happens when you challenge vested interests – the powerful bite back. The Temple in Jerusalem was, at the time, dominated by the family of Annas and Caiaphas, two men who became bywords for corrupted religion. They’re often described as ecclesiastical gangsters who own the lambs to be sacrificed and the money to be changed. The Temple had become a giant, exploitative ATM for a single family, an early example of the 1%.

Enter Jesus, who immediately causes chaos. He stampedes the animals, he throws around tables, he breaks down the walls that confined people so that the blind and the lame are entering parts of the Temple from which they’d previously been banned. And then kids start singing, which really seems to scare the gangsters, because this is more than just a protest, this is something far more earth-shattering; this is messianic, and there’s suddenly a risk that the tables of society may all be overturned. Jesus’s actions are disruptive and confronting, deliberately so; when a centre of faith works to drive people away from God, then something needs to change, and Jesus rains down condemnation on toxic religion.

There’s a warning here; Caiaphas wasn’t some anomaly, a pawn in the plan of salvation. Caiaphas and his cronies were just the local iteration of a corrupt religious class that gets reborn in every faith and every generation, and if Jesus were here today, someone would have him down on a list while others call him a heretic. The Church is capable of accumulating riches and spitting out the bones of its own people, and we kid ourselves if we think we’re not vulnerable to the temptations of power and money, sex and violence.

So maybe Holy Monday offers us an opportunity.  We know Jesus would be more than willing to clear out our own Temples,  so maybe we need to get in there first, aligning ourselves with Christ so that our congregations look more like his Kingdom than they resemble Caiaphas. And where we’ve served as a barrier between God and those around us, we need to repent, publicly, and open our gates. We need to ask forgiveness and to confess our sins; sometimes the tables that need to be turned are our own.

Stations: Terror (Matthew 27:27-31l

It may be a plane crashing into a tower block or a car driving through pedestrians. It may be a fanatic with a gun or a suicide vest, it may be waterboarding in a rendition centre, it may be a burning cross erected on someone’s lawn. Whatever form it takes, we’re never free of violence in the name of politics and religion and ideology.

Jesus is in the hands of the authorities, and he needs to be shown his place – or rather, everyone else needs to be shown their place. That’s what this is all about – crucifixion is the Empire’s ultimate deterrant, a public spectacle to quash rebellion. The vicious, inhumane torture received by Jesus was all part of the branding, all part of the theatre. This is tantamount to a lynching, a state-sanctioned act of terror.

There’s an issue of identity here. The violence is to demonstrate Jesus’s weakness, his impotence in the face of power. It’s intended to subvert the values of the people watching, to take control of the narrative. Jesus isn’t tortured to get a confession or to extract information, he’s tortured to stop his ideas taking hold and to demonstrate the superiority of one worldview over another.

The violence isn’t just physical – Jesus is mocked mercilessly, in an attempt to break him before death. That’s why he’s given a purple robe, a symbol of royalty. That’s why a crown of thorns is forced onto his brow, piercing in both pain and mockery. They think they’re undermining his whole message.

And yet that message endures, because the mockery points to the truth, and in doing so reveals a king who stands alongside the abused, the broken, the wounded and the terrorised. He stands not with the executioners but with the crucified, and through the mystery of the Trinity, God lies beaten, mocked, bruised and scarred and yet not beaten, healing in the heart of the agony.

As I write this, a terrorist attack has taken place in London and people have died. And there’ll be many voices shouting how to respond and about how to exercise power. And while these questions need to be asked, pause a moment: pause and remember those killed, and in the midst of those thoughts and those prayers, see Jesus alongside the bleeding, the wounded and the dying. See him there and remember how the Kingdom is shaped by its wounded King, our God-with-Scars, not by terror, not by fear, not by hatred, not by rage.

And now Jesus picks up his cross and in agony sets out upon his final walk.

The other posts in this series can be found here.

Always Listen to Old Ladies (Acts 6:1-6)

So, the early church – shining example of ecclesiastical perfection or not?

It’s easy to romanticise those first few years after Pentecost, but chapters like Acts 6 point to a far more complex situation. Here we read that, while the Hebrew speaking widows in the church were being looked after, Greek widows were getting overlooked in the distribution of food. This cultural faultline was a problem that festered away under the surface until eventually the apostles had to jump in and sort things out. But why did it get to be a problem in the first place? Because no-one was listening to the Greek speakers? Because no-one was listening to the women? We can admire how the apostles dealt with the situation, and that’s fine, but why was no-one talking to each other in the first place? Why were vulnerable people being overlooked over something as important as food?

Maybe this particular organisational problem was caused by everyone taking their eyes off the basics; no-one was looking out for a whole group of Christians, part of their own extended spiritual family. There were hungry people out there who weren’t being fed, and it seems that even the apostles had been dropping the ball. You’d’ve thought they would have been on top of things – after all, these were the guys who had picked up leftovers after the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand. But hey, even then they only counted the men who ate; They weren’t so accuate about the women and children.

So yeah, the apostles eventually sorted out the logistics of distributing food to a whole bunch of widows who were at risk of starving. They had fixed an important problem, but take a step back: someone had to listen to those widows. Someone had to be relationship with them, someone had to advocate for them. I don’t know, this may be heresy, but I reckon the apostles found out about this problem because of some old lady, who’s already sorting out all the church’s cooking and cleaning in the first place, finally cornered Peter at the end of a meeting and wouldn’t let him leave until he promised to get the whole thing sorted.

(Always listen to busy old ladies. They know more about what’s going on than you do.)

(Don’the you think it’s odd that one of the people chosen to distribute food while the apostles focus on preaching the Word is, in the very next story, arrested and executed for preaching the Word? Maybe it’s harder to separate all these things than we might think.)

Problems begin when everyone’s busy having debates about, say, the mechanism for feeding vulnerable elderly people, but no-one’s actually doing the cooking, no-one’s loading up the van, no-one’s getting the food out there, no-one’s in relationship with the people they’really serving, no-one’s even doing the washing up. And by the time the gears of bureaucracy finally turn, there’s already been too many scared elderly people wondering where their next meal is coming from.

For the church to truly be the church we need to constantly have our fingers on the pulse of our communities. We can’t get so caught up in theological debates and organisational maintenance and political campaigning that we miss when someone living next door doesn’t have enough to eat. Because that’s where Jesus wants us to be, and sometimes the first to realise that aren’t priests or CEO’s.

It’s all those busy old ladies.

Feeding the Five Thousand: What happened to the leftovers? (Matthew 14:13-21)

So the feeding of the five thousand is a pretty well known story: Jesus miraculously multiples five loaves and two fish to feed a massive crowd. It’s a Sunday School classic. But here’s my question: what happened to the leftovers?

We learn from the story that, after everyone had eaten their fill, the disciples collected twelve baskets of leftovers. But even if those baskets were lunchbox-style things, that’s still a lot of food going to waste. Those leftovers may have been binned, I guess, or the disciples might have dived in next time they felt peckish. Or, as I’d like to think, they took those baskets into town and helped people out – after all, there were plenty who lived hand to mouth at the time. The same conversation can be had about a couple of other miracles: John 21’s miraculous catch of fish, for instance, or the feeding of the 4,000.

That last one gives us a hint as to where we can go with all this. It’s a parallel story to feeding the 5,000 but this time there are seven baskets left over. This isn’t a coincidence – the twelve original baskets represent the tribes of Israel, while the seven baskets represent the gentile nations. These miracles are royal metaphors, the Messiah inaugurating a different Kingdom, a Kingdom in which, among other things, the hungry would be fed. These baskets existed because everyone had eaten their fill.

So. Today millions face starvation in South Sudan in a world where obesity kills more people than hunger. It’s a problem if you retrieve perfectly good food from a dumpster but we accept it being thrown away in the first place. Food waste is something we need to tackle; what we eat – or don’t eat – is a justice issue. From a Christian prespective, the blessings we receive should always be used to also bless those around us; the edges of our harvest should always be up for grabs. It’s one of the ways we show which Kingdom we’re living for.

It’s easy to hear the great old stories of faith and miss the finer details, details which nevertheless point to how applicable they are to life in the here and now. We ignore them at our peril; we’re blessed to be a blessing, and even our leftovers can be sacred.