Monthly Archives: May 2024

Scripture on Sunday – Mark 14:1-11

This is surely one of the most poignant stories in Mark’s gospel, even more so given its setting. In this passage we see again something common in Mark’s gospel: one story inserted into another. Mark uses this ‘sandwich’ technique to highlight a common theme between the two stories, or alternatively, a contrast between them. In this instance, the beautiful story of a generous act of devotion (vv.3-9) contrasts with an overarching narrative of vicious conspiracy, hate, and betrayal (vv. 1-2, 10-11).

You can read the passage here.

We are in the final days of Jesus’ life. His religious opponents want to kill him, stealthily, for they are afraid of the people (cf. 11:32). The people considered that John Baptist was a prophet; they seem to have a similar or even higher regard for Jesus, especially as we consider their response to his entry into Jerusalem (11:1-10). The chief priests and scribes are pursuing their own agenda, one not shared by the people. That they were determined to act in secret should have been a warning to them that their intent was not ‘above board.’

Jesus was at the home of Simon (the leper!), reclining at table in the company of others. Mark does not say who these others are, though Matthew states quite plainly that it was the disciples (Matt. 26:8; cf. Luke 7:36ff). Perhaps Mark wanted to avoid this since he has already noted that the disciples have ‘left everything’ to follow Jesus (10:28).

(I prefer not to harmonise the accounts in the four gospels since they seem to have a different context and content, especially in Luke and John. This may reflect variance in the oral tradition or the gospel authors’ editorial purposes. Although an interesting question, it is one to explore some other time!)

During the meal an unnamed woman approached and poured expensive perfume over his head. We are given no motive for this act in Mark, no context. What has she done and why has she done it? What led to this? What was she seeking to express or communicate? What was she saying—for herself? What was she saying—to Jesus? Why here, why now? How did she have access to so great a treasure? Was it a spur of the moment act, or something well-considered? Will she, did she, later regret it? How would she explain it?

We don’t know. The woman never says a word. Others around the table, however, have plenty to say. They are indignant and critical:

“Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her (vv. 4-5).

We now see the extent of the woman’s act: 300 denarii was a year’s salary for the common labourer. This is an extraordinary, an outrageous, act; such a fortune, simply poured out! How much good this money might have done! How noble it would have been to give the money to the poor! How practical, how necessary! What a waste simply to pour it out!

And how virtuous the critics appear, quite prepared to do something with someone else’s money! It is too easy to sit in the critic’s chair, comfortable and uncommitted, non-participatory and non-productive. It is too easy to sit in the critic’s chair and to launch barbs at those who are active, who are committed, who are doing something. Such indignation and criticism provide a false sense that one is ‘doing’ something. It betrays a sense of superiority, of finer judgement, of better knowledge.

The critics perhaps feel secure, knowing that they are criticising someone socially inferior, a nameless woman, a ‘nobody.’ But Jesus defends the woman saying,

Let her alone. … For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have me (vv. 6-7).

Is this a veiled rebuke from Jesus to the critics: “If this is so important to you, don’t just talk about it, nor criticise this woman: go do it!” Whenever you wish you can do good for the poor!

The story of the woman’s act stands in contrast to that of Judas, the chief priests and scribes, and the ‘others.’ Judas values Jesus as having some worth: he could be betrayed for some money. The chief priests and scribes ascribe ‘negative value’ to Jesus: he is a worthless person, a threat to be eliminated. The ‘others’ consider the woman’s act a ‘waste’ though Jesus says that she has done him a good deed (v. 6). She has, in a public act that appears to spring from gratitude and devotion, given him an outrageous gift, perhaps all she possessed (cf. 12:44)—and he has with gratitude received it and honoured her.

Nothing given to and for Jesus is ever wasted.

Baptism and Identity

These days, it seems, we wear our identities on the outside, writ large. We proclaim and display them, manipulate and manage them. It’s become very important to carve out a space for ourselves, to be the somebody we are in such a way that, for others, there’s no mistaking it.

Is this so very different from the way things have always been? Maybe, maybe not. Who we are, as well as our sense of who we are, have always been important. Especially when we’re young and ‘becoming,’ or, ‘discovering,’ who we are.

In the present cultural moment, these things have become more prominent, and curious. On the one hand, a person’s identity in modernity has become a project of the autonomous self, and the technological and cultural milieu encourage the development and display of one’s unique identity. On the other, we’ve seen in the last several decades, a resurgence of ‘group identity’ where belonging to – identifying with – one’s tribe has become increasingly foundational, and thereby a cornerstone in one’s personal uniqueness.

But this, too, is probably the way it has always been: identity as an interplay of the intersecting aspects of one’s life, personal attributes and experience, community, and so on. Perhaps one factor in the present moment is the degree of independence one has in choosing their tribe and identity. Again, this is a luxury not everyone has equally.

Does becoming a Christian complicate or simplify one’s identity? I suspect that this is not an easy question to answer. For some people it will be the former, for others the latter. For many, perhaps, first complication before things becoming simpler. But it could go the other way as well, with the nature of a person’s Christian experience resembling a lifelong wrestle.

Nevertheless, it does appear that Christian identity is ‘a thing’: that, ideally, some features of Christian identity are discernible across time and tradition. To speak like this is to speak normatively rather than with reference to the diversity of Christian experience. It is to suggest that there is, in fact, a Christian ideal to aspire to, in spite of the great and often legitimate diversity of Christian experience and expression that has existed and continues to exist.

More precisely, we can speak of Jesus Christ as he is set forth in the Scriptures of the Old and the New Testaments as the archetype and exemplar of Christian identity. He is the pattern, the standard, and the goal. A Christian is one called to follow Jesus, to be conformed to Christ. It is evident that this will involve a hermeneutical exercise—who is this Jesus to whom I am called to conform?—and therefore inevitable variety and diversity in Christian experience and identity formation.

Yet such variety will occur within a somewhat bounded field: while many forms of life and identity may find their place within the field—from ancient Christian asceticism to modern evangelical Christianity to forms of Christian mysticism—not everything will. The New Testament writers clearly saw some forms of life and identity as contrary to life in Christ. It is also the case that we cannot always discern where the boundaries lie, or to shift the metaphor, what distinguishes the wheat and the weeds. Careful theological reflection and pastoral discretion are required, along with humility and generous hospitality as the posture we adopt when considering these matters and engaging in dialogue.

These days, it seems, we wear our identities on the outside, writ large. Hopefully this is the case with Christian identity, that we might truly be the Christian we are in such a way that, for others, there’s no mistaking it.

I have reflected on some of these issues in a new article recently published at Religions entitled “The Role of Baptism in Christian Identity Formation.” The abstract for the article is:

The construction of one’s identity in late modernity is sometimes viewed as a project of the autonomous self in which one’s identity may shift or change over the course of one’s existence and development. For the Christian, however, one’s identity is both a divine gift, and a task of ecclesial formation, and for both the gift and the task, Christian baptism is fundamental. Baptism represents the death of the self and its rebirth in Christ, a decisive breach with the life that has gone before. Baptism establishes a new identity, a new affiliation, a new mode of living, and a new life orientation, direction, and purpose. This paper explores the role of baptism in the formation of Christian identity, finding that Christian identity is both extrinsic to the self and yet also an identity into which we are called and into which we may continually grow. The essay proceeds in three sections. It begins with a survey of recent philosophical reflection on the concept of identity, continues by reflecting on the nature of Christian baptism in dialogue with this reflection, and concludes by considering in practical terms how baptism functions in the process of conversion–initiation toward the formation of mature Christian identity.