Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” —Matthew 26:6-13 (NRSV)
We are in the Holy Week. This week has always had great meaning in the Middle East, since pain and struggle has always been a vital part of our Middle Eastern identity. Many of us were born at the time of war and were raised in struggle. This is the situation of many of our churches in the Communion and around the world who are struggling with daily suffering.
But this week is totally different this year. There is a different kind of challenge, pain and struggle. I tried to understand why we are troubled in a special way? What causes our pain as individuals and groups?
The story of the women who came and broke the alabaster jar of very expensive perfume on Jesus’ head is a key story as we meditate on Jesus’ journey towards the cross and resurrection—since what she did for Jesus was an act claimed by Jesus as preparation for his burial. “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” We find in this story a strange attitude from Jesus. He preferred that the expensive perfume be poured on him rather than giving the money to the poor. Jesus turned things upside down. What he said here sounds not consistent with his regular teachings to the disciples. It is a stand that in not in harmony with what we expect from Jesus.
Jesus poses a difficult question, just in his last days on earth, a question about what is the most valuable at the time of pain? As if lessons that we learned and lived in the life of the church are subject to question when people are suffering. Jesus in his answer invited his disciples to think in new terms when faced with suffering, to rethink and be renewed on the way to the cross. As if Jesus was opening their eyes that living our faith is not an easy equation that applies for all, but rather to take the challenge and try to discover the good news in the middle of suffering.
In reading this story, it is important to note that the story happened in the house of Simon the Leper. It says, “While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper.” We usually read this story focusing on Jesus and the women, undermining that Jesus was in a house of a leper. We do not focus on how Simon was reacting with all that was happening. In these days a leper was marginalized in the society; no one dared to get close to him; when present in public, people will shout, “A leper! A leper!” so no one draws near to him. Jesus was ready to challenge the isolation that the society imposed on the leper.
Whether the leper was healed by Jesus, as some commenters claim, or not, in Jesus visiting Simon he was healing the society from prejudice and judgmental attitudes. Just as the coronavirus patients are facing today. The struggle that patients of coronavirus face is not merely related to their fear from death, but rather how will they be received by their neighbours and society when they can leave their home. In Jesus visiting Simon, Jesus was retaining his dignity.
The challenge that we face today with the coronavirus lies in the fall of many values that we tried to build in our ministry. We have long called to cross the border to our neighbor. We are learning to love our neighbour by staying away. When we used to close our worship services by asking the people to go out. Today, we ask them to stay in. We are not as appreciative to the good Samaritan who took risks.
For sure, to be wise in the time of coronavirus is needed, and safety measures are inevitable. But I believe that our struggle today relates to the new shaping that we are going through as individuals, churches and organizations, where we are called to discover anew the good news with new imagination and new strategies. It is not a time of simple answers but new equations where we discover how to be like Jesus for the people today. It is a time for new answers; our eyes will remain on the difficult question, “What matters in the time of pain?”
At this difficult time as a Communion we remain in solidarity together to answer the question together and revisit our commitment to communion and justice with a renewed mind. We all will come out of the struggle not the same, but pray that this time of isolation has given new insights, new longing to each other and firm commitment that we will overcome.
At this Holy week, we know that what makes it Holy is not the pain, but rather that our Lord is journeying with us towards resurrection, and our Lord will heal all the hurt and will renew us in a special way. We continue the journey in hope, and I wish to meet again, not virtually but face-to-face.
He is risen, let us wait in hope.
Image: “Journey with Jesus” by He Qi: www.heqiart.com