Reprise of a Homily
At home last week we were going through and throwing out some old papers when Jonnie Sue ran across this homily that I gave at the early morning mass on the Monday of Holy Week in 2001. There might have been 6 people there. It seems worth sharing with you, dear readers, even though we are not in Holy Week now.
“Well, that woman certainly knew what was about to happen, didn’t she? I mean the one in the story we just heard who broke the jar of perfumed ointment costing about $20,000 at today’s minimum wage and anointed Jesus with the ointment
“In reflecting on this story for today I asked several people if they knew when in the life of Jesus this incident occurred. Everyone I asked knew the story, but no one knew whether it was early or late in Jesus’ ministry. We hear these stories often, but usually not in context. Of course, as a reading in Holy Week those of us here today we would suppose that it occurs around the Holy Week events.
“I calculate this incident in Mark’s Gospel to be three days after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which we celebrated yesterday at the beginning of the Palm Sunday Liturgy and two days after what has long been for me the most daring ... most dramatic ...and most dangerous of all of Jesus’ acts.
“Mark describes it this way: ‘...he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying ..., and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves ... He was teaching and saying: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? But you have made it a den of robbers.’”’
“The Gospel account of the day of triumphal entry tells us that Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple and looked around at everything until it was late and then left and stayed the night in Bethany. The next day though he comes back, and this so-called ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ takes place. He must have worked up quite a rage during the night over what he had seen. Over what? Changing money? Selling doves? Well these were not just fair-and-square commercial transactions that he was objecting too. These are references to a system of extortion run by a gang as corrupt and oppressive and vicious as you would ever fear to meet. This was a cynical selling of salvation such as the world would not see again until the selling of indulgences was devised.
“To what can I compare these Chief Priests and their thugs? Here’s an image that works for me. Imagine the Chicago of Al Capone, and imagine Al Capone being not only the crime boss but also the mayor and the head of the church. Now comes this Jesus. He has been denouncing them out in the country-side. Now he brings the war right into their living room and hits them right in the heart. Right in their money making racket. There is a comparable scene in American history. It is the scene where Al Capone’s nemesis, Eliot Ness, and his men enter one of Capone’s liquor warehouses and smash all the whiskey barrels. Up until then Capone had a cozy relationship with the authorities. But Ness thought the law meant something --- and that someone should enforce it --- and that he was that someone. And here, in Jesus, was someone who read the law and the prophets --- and who thought that they meant something, --- and who saw them being used only as instruments of oppression. No wonder his cousin John called them a brood of vipers.
“The Chief Priests know now that this guy is not going to go away. Everyone who witnessed or heard of this event in the temple would know what’s coming next. These Mafia dons will not – they cannot – let this pass.
“The incident of today’s Gospel reading about the woman and the ointment happens just two days later --- and one day before the Last Supper. She knows that Jesus is as good as dead; that it’s only a matter of time and not much of that. Of course, dining there with his friends, he knows it too. He’s known a long time. He’s been telling his disciples this was coming.
“Well, this homily today is supposed to be a witness talk and not just a commentary. So what does this story mean to me, and what might it mean for you? One lesson is that those who challenge the structures and institutions of society that oppress people will meet stringent resistance from those who profit from those structures and institutions. And if those doing the challenging start to have an effect and are not just a nuisance -- a cost of doing business -- then they can expect character assassination at the least, and real assassination is a possibility.
“Sometime when I start down this line of thought I get a little depressed. Here I am, 62 years old, and no one is trying to kill me because I am having such a devastating effect on the forces of evil. A couple of things help me when I get in this place. One is the lives the saints. They are a diverse lot -- from hermits in the desert to kings and queens. And they’ve all done their part to advance the kingdom given the circumstances of their time and place. Many of them died peacefully in their beds. Another thing that helps is St. Paul’s analogy of the church to the body. We are not all supposed to be the eye, or how would the body hear. It is a wonderful analogy. Or consider a wartime analogy. Some are called to the front lines. Some are called to defense plants. Some are called to roll bandages. Some have to care for the children. Some are called to stay on the farm. All are essential. Or there would be no ammunition. Or food.
“Some of us are called to be Martin Luther King Jr, and some of us are called to help him by making his travel arrangements.
“In this Parish, some of us are called to administer the sacraments and pronounce God’s forgiveness of sins. Others are called to keep the account books. Some of us are called to teach, and some to vacuum the carpet, open the doors, and turn on the lights. Some of us are called to make sandwiches to feed the homeless and some to plan improvements to the buildings and grounds. As such we are all parts of this body. Some of us are called to occupations in business or in government. I was for 34 years. Then, as now, I tried -- as we all try -- to always see it as an arena for living out our common ministry as set forth in the Catechism and the Baptismal Vows: to represent Christ and his Church – to carry out Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world – to resist evil – to proclaim the Good News – to love our neighbors as ourselves – and to respect the dignity of every human being.
“Not all of us are called to cleanse the temple and be crucified for it. Some of us may be called -- like the woman in today’s reading -- to just demonstrate our devotion and support through some extravagant act of pure love and kindness. That, too, is being a member of the body of Christ.”
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 23 May 2016.