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Moral Compassion and The Virus

By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
Moral Compassion and The Virus

Exodus 16:4-8, 13-21, 27-30   Luke 4:1-4, 13-15   Galatians 6:1-10

I am truly thankful for the capabilities of technology which allows us to reach out to each other across the barriers we have imposed upon ourselves in order to stay as well as we can and not to add to the number of our fellow citizens who have become sick.  Mary and I are fine as we hope all of you are. 

If you crave human connection, this social isolation becomes a bit of a challenge.  I heard of a guy who managed his problem by starting up a conversation with a spider.  He found out that he was a web designer. 

Humor aside, there is a sickness we all are fighting right now, beyond the scourge of the virus.  There is a shredding going on, a choking, of the bonds of community and trust.  That’s what pandemics do.  In an opinion piece David Brooks said it well: “Dread overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.” He provides some descriptions from history.

Consider this comment made by Giovanni Boccaccio from his book The Decameron about the plague that hit Florence in 1348: “Tedious were it to recount how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbors was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinfolk held aloof, and never met…nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”

Daniel Defoe, well-known author of Robinson Caruso, also wrote A Journal of the Plague Year, on the 1665 London epidemic.  This is what he reports: “This was a time when every one’s private safety lay so near them they had no room to pity the distresses of others….The danger of immediate death to ourselves, took away all bonds of love, all concern for one another.” 

Recent studies of the aftermath of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 underscore the way people emerged from it physically and spiritually fatigued because of what harsh things they had to do to stay alive.  It was a shameful memory that had a sobering and disillusioning effect on the national spirit.

This pandemic is forcing us to realize how just little we control our lives.  The coronavirus is like a giant mirror held up to let us see who we really are.  How will we behave in the situation of possible imminent death?  Will our behavior come with a double wallop of fatalism that paralyzes our moral compassion?  Will be become abusive, greedy, or downright evil?  Or will our behavior show just how much we need one another?

The Bible welcomes us coming to it with these questions.  The stories of the Bible are there to speak to what is on our hearts.  They want to be interpreted to help us see that our situation, however dire it is, is still answers to the sovereignty of God.

Look at the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. You could say that social distancing was the way Jesus started his public ministry.  After his baptism, Jesus spent almost 7 weeks in seclusion.  He was led by the spirit into the wilderness for his 40-day withdrawal from society. 

He ate nothing in his period of self-exile.  How he survived, I do not know.  But it is plain to see that when the time was up, he was at his wit’s end, he was crazy with hunger, and he would do anything to find something to eat.  Satan reminded him that he had the power to create bread from stone.  That he could turn all the rocks in the wilderness into loaves of bread.  That he could become known as the Mrs. Baird’s Bakery of the world. 

Why didn’t he do it? we want to know. Jesus fends off Satan’s temptation by saying, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus, of course, is using “bread” in its most generous symbolic meaning of all the stuff that we must have for our livelihood.  Even in the pangs of desperate hunger, Jesus will not make bread—all our stuff—take the place of God.  Jesus answers to God. 

This painful decision has real time consequences for us.  There are preachers in our day who want to make a buck off the virus.  They preach a prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel puts stuff in the place of God.  One of the most prominent preachers, Paula White, who leads President Trump’s Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is now linking her prosperity gospel with our pandemic.  She asks followers to send her “seed” money of $91, promising that a prosperity harvest will then be returned to the giver.  “Maybe you’d like to send a $91 seed,” she suggested, “that’s just putting your faith with Psalm 91.” Look it up and you’ll read in that psalm a promise to be saved from “deadly pestilence” and “plague.”  For $91 given to Paula White you can buy a charm, a fetish, an amulet.  Is this the way the Trump administration has chosen to send a message of comfort to a scared American public? 

When Jesus emerged out of the wilderness from Satan’s temptations he had a clear vision that God is sovereign and will not let any one of us become lost.  In our wilderness, this is the Jesus we need to hold on to with both hands.  As this pandemic is making unmistakably clear, we just cannot know and control and expect.  To privilege God over bread is to embrace the uncertainty of our days under the certainty of God. There’s a strange uptick that comes with that recognition.  David Brooks comments insightfully, “There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life.  When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.”  When plans are ripped away, there remains you, a beloved child of God.

As this pandemic stretches on, more and more temptations will present themselves promising a quick fix, or a spell to ward off the contagion.  We will be egged on to go rouge, to take matters into your own hands.  To stop thinking about your neighbor.  We will be beset by beguiling conspiracy theories; fingers will be pointed at our political opponents in order to help us escape from taking responsibility. Telling the truth in the time of the pandemic will struggle against the desire of looking good.  Moral compassion will be discarded.

All of this tears at the fabric of our already highly polarized country just at the very time we need solidarity.  And we are going to get solidarity whether we want it or not.  The pandemic is the giant leveler, it is the great income transfer agent, it is the respecter of no one’s station or age.  Is this the way God is saying to us how much we need to do the right thing by each other, how much we need to be in solidarity even as we are in solitude? 

Think about it!  How downright silly and pointless are our pompous polarities!  How absolutely essential are the establishment folks, the deep state folks, the institutional folks, the experts to combat this disease!

The tribes of Israel certainly had to learn this lesson of solidarity.  Israelites entered into a massive social distancing in the wilderness as they were escaping Egypt under Moses.  They ran out of food—something that scares the be-jesus out of each us and drives binge shopping and hoarding.  The Israelites were all reduced to one level.  God gave them food in the form of manna.  God gave them food under very careful restrictions.  The purpose was to make them learn to operate in solidarity. 

How did they behave?  Most did what was required for all to stay alive.  They took only what was they could eat that day.  But some tried to hoard their manna.  Maybe they thought they had to take matters into their own hands.  Maybe they thought they could corner the market and make a lot of money.  What their surplus did, though, was to rot in their manna bowls, and the stench revealed to their neighbors just how anti-solidarity they were.  Most did what was required to stay alive.  They gathered on the sixth day double portions and it lasted throughout the next day, the Sabbath.  But some went out to look on the Sabbath.  Maybe they could get a little more.   Sabbath shoppers stuck out like sore thumbs, and they were scolded.

There is only one outcome to this story.   God is sovereign and no one will get lost.  Therefore, take your share, look-out for your neighbor, and stay in solidarity.  And finally, rejoice and take your rest on the Sabbath as we move through this wilderness.  Prepare to be a changed person when we emerge from this wilderness.  God will still be in charge, and we will have a renewed sense that life really does depend on our being morally compassionate people.    

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Isolation, Fear, and the Future

By Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey
A Lenten Meditation

John 20:19-23

We are all pretty much in lock-down.  With movement severely discouraged and the chance for interaction within our communities reduced to almost zero, we are left pretty much to our own devices.  If we do not like to be alone, if we are not comfortable in our own skin, if “bowling alone” doesn’t scare us, this can be a terrifying time.  Being quarantined, either voluntarily or forced, can seem like solitary confinement. 

The futures we had planned all out in front of us are now either wiped out or seriously impaired.  It looks like there won’t be that long-anticipated graduation on Mother’s Day week-end.  It looks like there won’t be that looked-forward-to cruise.  It looks like the place where I have a good job may go out of business.  It looks like I won’t be able to retire as I had planned or sell my home.  It looks like…but we really don’t know what it looks like, because the situation keeps getting worse by the hour. 

The virus has swept away our futures and rendered us immobile, unmoored, and off-balance.  Nobody likes this.  But our Bible provides a way for us to engage our situation and use our experience to understand the message of Scripture like we have never done before.  I invite you to look at your self-quarantineing in the light of that first Easter Sunday evening.

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (NIV)

Before Jesus died his disciples had heard him say, “Let not your hearts be troubled….I will come again and take you to myself that where I am you may be also….I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you….The world will see me no more, but you will see me.”  (John 14.1ff.)  Why, then, did they not remember and trust his words?  Why were the doors locked that first Easter evening?  Why would they want to sequester themselves? 

Well, you remember the reason why.  The text says that it is because they feared agitated religious rulers who strong-armed the Romans into killing their leader.  What was to keep those rulers from coming after them, now? Fear kept them from remembering what he had promised.

With the head cut off, the body is for the pickings.  With the head cut off there is no more future.  There are only memories to mull over, but these memories are of events and experiences that were building step-by-step toward an outcome which seemed reasonable, attainable, doable, within our control.  So, even when you go through the act of reminiscing, when you go through the act of rehearsing or reliving what’s gone before, all you are left with is the bitter taste of a hoped-for future that just will not be. You are locked inside an emotional space where the blinds on all the windows are pulled down tight. 

Night was beginning to fall that first Easter day, and the shadows were extending themselves over the holy city by the time ten men arrived at the upper room and the door was bolted for the final time.  But now shadows were not only stretching over the holy city.  With the fall of night each man came up against the shadow-side of his own soul.  These leaders—smothered up in a fog like a bunch of turkeys, with doors bolted, shades pulled, wagons circled.  It was like they were in a submarine resting on the bottom of the ocean where they sit very still and talk in hushed tones, and they have to put a name on what it is that they fear. 

Imagine with me that in our quarantine we are in the room with the disciples. This virus creates insecurity about who we are and what we are worth and where we are going.  It is a shadow that falls darkly over our lives.  We are locked in with fear.

  1. When we are convinced that the world in which we have made our way is essentially hostile to us so that we cannot trust anyone—that’s enough to make us bolt the door.
  2. When we are haunted by the ghost of shame for looking bad when we fail because we believe that it all depends on “me”, we run and hide like pathetic creatures who can create but cannot control. 
  3. Any thought of having to re-write our business model, of having to shift the paradigm, of having to own up to a mountain of lies and deception and face a future unknown and chaotic brings out in us the urge simply to go limp.   

Jesus comes through locked doors.  He steps into the midst of his fearful disciples and says, “Peace is with you. Do not fear.”  He keeps his promises that he will return.  He knows that for the sake of avoiding their own crucifixion his disciples are hiding.  So he shows them the marks of his death, proving that he is living despite his dying. 

Nothing can stop Jesus from being present in our sheltering-in-place.  We may be prevented from coming to church, we may be prevented from coming to partake of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood, we may be prevented from singing God’s praises, we may be prevented from being strengthened by the fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Nevertheless, nothing can stop us from hearing his command, “Peace be to you; do not fear.” 

Welcome this time of self-imposed solitude in the spirit of “an open heart and an appetite for the liberation that will surely come,” as a wise friend, Teresa Argenbright, wrote.  She explains, “What if we used this quiet time to play games with our children, send hand-written notes of gratitude and encouragement, take inventory of our blessings and rid ourselves of literal, psychological and spiritual clutter?  What if we balance every aggravation with a prayer for those who are truly struggling?”  In a word, even behind closed doors Jesus leads us to put into practice the potentialities of his words, “Peace be to you; do not fear.” 

One day this home-bound exile will be lifted.  Jesus will call us out again into the world.  It undoubtedly will feel like a different world than what we have known.  We will be different persons.  It will be scary in that it will be unfamiliar.  But we follow the One who said, “Behold, I make all things new.”  We follow, trusting that he will show us how to put into practice his words of peace and confidence.

  • We will take up again the stewardship of a good creation.  We will create

sturdy and buoyant families that pulse with the glad give-and-take of the


  • We will take delight in our lives in all their irony and angularity; we will make something sturdy and even lovely of them.
  • We will be even more keen to show hospitality to strangers and to express

gratitude to friends and teachers.   

  • We will take up our assignment to seek justice for our neighbors and wherever we can, to relieve them from the tyranny of their suffering.

The presence of Jesus in our quarantine brings the beginning of a new future.  Even now in isolation we can feel and express joy.  Our story concludes this way: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”  Easter re-writes our definitions of joy.  That Jesus should materialize in their presence was incomprehensible but true. Though he shows them his hands and side to prove that they are seeing a body of substance and not a ghost, he is no longer bound by the rules that govern the rest of us.  Joy that’s worth talking about happens when you are in the presence of the incomprehensible.  “It is the incomprehensible and yet the true, the real, the alive that ignites joy,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  May that kind of joy well up in the place where you are waiting behind a closed door and make you ready to act in peace and confidence.

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Who Only Stand and Wait

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch


John 9: 1-41

“They also serve who only stand and wait.” John Milton, 1608-1674, English Poet and Civil Servant, from the Poem “On His Blindness”

Somebody contacted me the other day and asked, did I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic was the fulfillment of Revelation 15, which predicts the coming of seven angels with seven plagues, a sign of the coming of the End Times. I wrote him back, no, not at all. There are have been terrible plagues in history than COVID-19. Think, for instance, of the Bubonic Plague, the Black Plague which killed some 50 million people in Roman times, and which occurred again in the Middle Ages, decimating half of Europe’s population. In the 20th Century, the world was devastated by the Spanish Flu. Twenty-seven percent of the world was infected and the dead are estimated anywhere from 17 million to 100 million. Admittedly, it’s hard to know what the ultimate outcome of the COVID-19 crisis will be. But science is far advanced from the time of the Spanish Flu, and governments cooperate more than they ever have before. My hope and prayer is that those things—with our cooperation—will keep the coronavirus far short of those disastrous numbers.

My point is, if a plague predicts the end, any one of those earlier plagues could fit the bill at least as well as coronavirus. Think too of the ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl and the Depression. Those events, too, were viewed by some as the sign of the end of time. I hope and pray this is a different situation. According to the scientists, it could be very different, if we all do what we’re supposed to do—social distancing, washing our hands, avoiding groups. We have to take this guidance very, very seriously, no matter how much it hurts. If we don’t, well, all bets are off.

When large scale disasters strike, we often go to large scale explanations, like God bringing judgment on all humanity. But that may be using our faith the wrong way. Could there be another way to have faith in the face of COVID-19?

Jesus is in Jerusalem and he meets a man blind from birth. His disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was blind from birth?” They’re standing the presence of the blind man saying this, the way we often do; people who are in wheelchairs often complain that people talk right over them, as if they weren’t there. I can just imagine this man yelling, “Hey, I’m right here! I’m blind, not dead!”

Jesus tells his disciples that neither is true. Sin didn’t cause the blindness. This terrible natural disaster, this poor man blind from birth, or this new and dangerous coronavirus, is not meant as judgment. It is meant that “God’s works might be revealed through him.”

Now that sounds awful, like God causes suffering just to test us to see how we’ll respond. That would be despicable. So, are those our choices? Either that God is punishing us or God is testing us? Either makes God look manipulative and cruel.

But let’s step back for a minute. The fact is that, whether we are good people or bad people, whether faithful or unfaithful or somewhere in between, which is where most of us are, we all have to deal with suffering. It’s a part of life. Ultimately we have to give up on looking for an explanation or an answer because any explanation is unsatisfactory and also quite shallow. Asking, “Why?” when it comes to suffering is what theologians call “theodicy.” Past a certain point, theodicy is pointless. It’s chasing rabbits. Suffering simply is. Why did God allow COVID-19 to happen? Why will some die and some live, some suffer and others not? What does it matter? It’s what we do about it that counts.

And that is Jesus’ point. I’m going to call the blind man “Frank” so that I don’t have to keep calling him “the blind man.” When Jesus says that Frank “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” what he means is that God will be glorified in how Frank will respond to the crisis he faces. His blindness is not a punishment and his healing will not be a sign of God’s special favor. It’s how Frank responds to those facts that will determine whether he will glorify God or not.

On the tenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, a radio reporter interviewed two Merrill Lynch employees who had narrowly escaped the collapse of the World Trade Center. They were in a bar remembering the 10-year anniversary. The two of them told the story of how they escaped disaster; how they helped one another out of the offices, down the interminable flights of stairs, and out of the building. It was a moving story.

But it was also ten years later. Since then the 2008 Stock Market crash had happened. The government had bailed out Merrill Lynch and whole lot of other financial industry big shots. The reporter asked them why Merrill Lynch had survived both 9-11 and the stock market crash. “Because we’re better and we’re smarter,” they immediately said. But, the reporter asked, isn’t it true that Merrill Lynch tanked in 2008 because of high risk housing loans that led to a $15 billion loss when the housing bubble burst? And isn’t true that your losses then nearly brought down Bank of America when it was trying to buy you out, and the only thing that saved either institution was the US government’s $45 million bailout? So isn’t true that it wasn’t your smarts that saved you, it was the US government?

The men shook their heads and argued. “We’ve survived because we’re smarter than everybody else,” they stubbornly asserted.

It left me with a question: how can people who’ve experienced so much disaster on the one hand, and blessing on the other, not look at life with more humility? How can they not take more responsibility and do more with their gratitude than just go out and celebrate at a bar?

One hopes that these gigantic moments in our lives would affect us deeply. They should humble us. They should call us to accountability and responsibility. As much as anything, they should be a big billboard dropped into the middle of our lives that reminds us that we are not the center of the world. When we’re confronted with these events, they are a question that life is putting to us: how will you live in this new reality?

Whether God intends them as a test I can’t answer. But they are a test, regardless. How will our faith sustain us in this hard time? How will we live faithfully in this hard time? How will we show Christ to the world in this hard time? How will we trust Christ in this hard time?

Or is our faith only good as long as the good times remain good?

Our friend Frank responds to his healing with extraordinary bravery and courage and gratitude. The pharisees confront him about his claim that Jesus healed him. Frank sticks to his guns. Here is something interesting to note. Though Frank had no control over either his lifelong blindness or his unexpected, and by the way, unasked for healing, he is now claiming full responsibility for his own life. He is not a helpless victim of circumstance. His gratitude has given him agency. It’s spurred him to take a critical stand, to speak out when it is clear that the authorities want him to shut up. This man who once begged for his living now demands the respect of those who used to give him alms. This man who was once talked down to now speaks with authority to those who think of themselves as his superiors. We don’t know if he had faith before, but he sure has it now. he is that all-important figure in the Gospel of John—someone who gives testimony. Someone who bears witness.

Witness is a funny word in Christian parlance. We talk about witnessing to other people and what we mean is telling or showing them the truth of Jesus Christ. It’s a word from the legal world. If one is a witness, if one is giving testimony in a trial, they are not supposed to be telling people their opinion, but simply reporting back to the court what they saw or experienced. It is in many ways a passive thing. You didn’t do it; you’re just reporting it. And that’s what we mean by witnessing. We are reporting the mighty acts of God. We are reporting the grace, love and mercy of God through Jesus Christ. We’re telling the world not about what we have done, but what God has done, and what God is continuing to do.

I don’t know that any of us have experienced anything like this pandemic. I wonder if anyone has, exactly the way we have. Unlike those other pandemics I spoke of earlier, we live in an age of science and global networking. We know what it is that we are supposed to do in the face of this menace.

And what we’re supposed to do is nothing.

We’re supposed to sit around the house. Not go to work. Not go to restaurants. Not travel. Not get closer than six feet to one another. Not go to church or women’s circle. Not go to your gym or your tennis match. We are called to do nothing. Nothing could be so against our nature—as human beings, as Americans, as Texans! And even as Christians, because Christians tend to be doers, because as James says, “Faith without works is dead.” We like to do.

But now we have to wait. Nothing could be harder. But waiting is one of the most important of the biblical virtues. How many times does the Bible say wait? “Wait for the Lord; be strong and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” “My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” “Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…”.

Wait. Waiting for God takes faith. It takes confidence that God will act. It takes the humility to recognize that I have to resist the temptation to do something, because if I do something, I might actually make things worse. So like it or not, I am in a situation where I am a passive participant. There’s just not much I can do. I have to trust that while I am waiting, those who know what they’re doing will be acting; and more to the point, God will be acting. And so I have to wait.

So what I hope we will all do is take responsibility for our waiting. Let’s not view this as something enforced on us from the outside. Let this be a faith choice, a choice we make from within, a deliberate, responsible choice to trust God and to love our fellow human beings by waiting—by doing nothing. Don’t view this as a burden. View it as a responsibility. No, more than that—view it as a blessing: it is a way that we can participate in what the Jewish tradition calls the tikkun olam, the healing of the world. How often do we get such an extraordinary chance? And all we have to do is the hardest thing in the world—we have to wait. So rather than feeling burdened by waiting, let us choose it. Let it be an act of faith and Christian discipleship.

Right now waiting is the most responsible thing we can possibly do. Because if we wait, we will save more lives than we would if we were superheroes. If we wait, our health infrastructure will not collapse, but will be able to manage the threat of this pandemic. If we wait, we are doing the most important thing not just for our own health, but for the health of the whole world.

Though our whole nature rebels against it—though we have legitimate long-term fears about how this crisis and our inability to act will affect the economy and our own personal plans and goals—we have to wait. And so this calls for a huge amount of faith. It is a huge test of our character. It challenges us to do the things that Christians are called to do when we wait: to pray without ceasing—to engage in self-examination—and most of all, and most importantly, to remember the many times in our lives when God has been there for us when the chips were down. Read your bibles. Re-read the story of the Exodus. Think of other crises you have experienced in your life and how you weathered them—personal crises like a death or an illness or national crises like 9-11 or the Kennedy assassination. In this season of Lent remember that when the chips were down, Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again. Think about how the greatest crisis that humanity faced—the death of God—was miraculously turned into the salvation and hope of all humankind. Take some time to journal and consciously reflect on the ways that God has blessed you unexpectedly, and think about how you can live with gratitude for God’s grace.

And at the end of all this waiting, we will be able to be witnesses to future generations of the way that God sustained us in this pandemic. We saw science at its best, we saw governments and leaders and our neighbors respond with patience and self-sacrifice. And we saw suffering too but in spite of it we maintained our hope. We will tell future generations that, like those who were in the Exodus, like those who witnessed the resurrection, during the COVID-19 crisis we were witnesses to the mighty acts of God.

A Stranger’s Love & A Friend’s Betrayal

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch


Mark 14:1-11

“Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.”

—John Le Carre (David John Moore Cornwall)1931-present, British Spy Novelist

It was Tuesday of the week of Passover in Jerusalem, probably in the year 30 CE.  That past Sunday Jesus had overturned the tables of the money changers in the Temple and seized the Temple grounds—an outrageous act. Since then he had been preaching every day at the Temple, drawing huge crowds. Jesus’ enemies, mainly the Jerusalem religious leadership, were caught between a rock and hard place. They had to stop him. In fact, many agreed, though not all, that they had to kill him. The Gospel of John tells us why they thought this was important:

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11: 47-50).

And so, Mark tells us in our Gospel today, “The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”

“By stealth”—that was the key. The problem was, Jesus was too popular. They didn’t dare arrest him in public for fear of the crowds. So they needed a spy—an insider—someone who knew Jesus’ routines and could help them intercept him in a private setting where no one would see. But where would they find this spy? Where would they find this betrayer?

The chief priests and scribes were not the only ones upset with and confused by Jesus. So were his disciples. It appears that none of them really had a clue what Jesus was up to. Why was he talking about dying in Jerusalem? If he was afraid people would kill him in Jerusalem, what in the world was he doing there? What’s all this business of “I will be handed over to the Gentiles and crucified?” Why did he ride into town unarmed? Why isn’t he leading a pious rebellion? It appears that at least some of them thought that the Messiah was supposed to lead an armed insurrection against Rome and the Jewish Temple elite.

Jesus had not been very patient with them about their misgivings and misunderstandings. He’d grown tired of their complaining. But the disciples were disgruntled, confused, and a bit bitter. They were beginning to wonder if they’d bet on the wrong horse. And soon all of that would come to a head.

Jesus spent his days in Jerusalem preaching on the Temple steps, where huge crowds would come to listen and to seek healing. In the evening, he and his disciples would walk back to the home where they were staying in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. One particular night he was dining at a friend’s house in Bethany and a woman, perhaps a woman Jesus didn’t even know, came into the house with an expensive cut crystal jar filled with nard, a rare perfume. She poured it over his head.

It was a shocking, disconcerting moment. The disciples present were outraged and berated her for her foolishness: “You could have sold this for almost a year’s wages and given it to the poor!” They exclaim angrily. But Jesus comes to the woman’s defense. “You will always have the poor among you, and you can always help them,” he says pointedly, “but you will not always have me. She’s done what she could: she’s anointed my body beforehand for burial.”

And there he’s hit on the problem. Jesus understands that his main reason for coming to Jerusalem is to die. Think about that very carefully. If you were the disciple of someone whom you thought to be the hope of the world, how would you feel if that person told you that his plan, his expectation—that God’s plan—was for him to die rather than do all the things you thought he was supposed to do? You might think he was crazy. You might think he was misled. You certainly would think, what will happen to me? And that’s where the disciples’ heads are: What will happen to me if Jesus dies?

But this woman!—This wonderful, mysterious woman! She isn’t thinking about herself and what will happen to her. She’s thinking about Jesus and what will happen to him. And she’s not so distracted by self-concern that she can’t listen to Jesus, because clearly she has listened to him. In fact, Mark wants us to understand something amazing about this woman, and to honor it forever. Scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it the most clearly:

She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’ three prophecies of his death and resurrection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion. Since (not if) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you [for death] beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward. She is, for [the Gospel writer] Mark, the first believer. She is, for us, the first Christian.

The disciples, caught up as they are in their own preconceived notions of who Jesus ought to be, tied in knots because they can’t separate their own self-interest from Jesus’ destiny, getting their priorities confused with Jesus’ priorities, may actually be too close to Jesus to really see him. But this woman, this unnamed woman, is not confused by her own priorities and not so caught up in thinking about herself. And because of that, she can hear what Jesus is saying and see what he is doing. In a lot of ways, she believes the same thing that the High Priest Caiaphas does: That it is better for us to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed. But she doesn’t believe it with the cynical realism of the lifelong power broker. She believes it with the unabashed optimism of a woman of faith: Jesus’ death will save the nation. Jesus’ death will save us all.

Jesus’ disciples are terrified because Jesus has warned them of the cross of crucifixion that awaits him. And they are also terrified of its implication: that a cross awaits them as well. As Jesus had told them—and us—many times before, “If anyone wants to come after me, let them take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). If Jesus has to make a sacrifice, then certainly Jesus’ followers have to make a sacrifice.

But this same cross that terrifies Jesus’ disciples is the very cross that gives this unnamed first Christian her hope. She believes that Jesus’ death is for all of humanity and his resurrection will save the world. Her expensive ointment is the only embalming Jesus will receive: remember that Jesus’ women disciples were on the way to the grave to embalm Jesus when they found the tomb empty and received the news that he was risen from the dead. But this ointment is also the oil that was used in the ancient world to anoint a king or a queen. She is proclaiming that Jesus’ death is what confirms him as the true Sovereign of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So this woman believes in Jesus’ death and resurrection even before they happen. Talk about a person with great faith! As Jesus says later, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe” (John 20: 29).

To this day we who follow Jesus struggle between the anxiety and doubt of the disciples and the faith and the hope of the woman who anoints him. The death of Jesus, Paul reminds us, is foolishness to the wise and a stumbling block to the pious. The wise think, to sort of quote George Patton, that no one ever won a war by dying for his country, but by making the other guy die for his country. But self-sacrifice and service to others at cost to one’s self, even making sacrifices for the sake of your enemies, are the unique and truly difficult hallmarks of the Christian life. Those of us who believe know this is true, but we tippy-toe around its implications for our lives. We try to avoid the hard part of being a Christian, and in doing so risk also avoiding the most important part.

On the other hand, we join with the mysterious anointing woman in celebrating the wonder and sacrificial love of Jesus who died for us and rose for us, and whose death and resurrection are the salvation of the world and the source of our own personal hope. When we find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, we know that Jesus is with us, because he’s been down that road and knows firsthand what it’s like. We know that his resurrection promises us eternal life. We love Jesus because he has loved us so much. And maybe this is real reason we aren’t told the anointing woman’s name: Because she is you and she is me. Just like her, we worship and love and honor the crucified and risen Christ.

But as we will see, love is a two-edged sword. The disciples loved Jesus, too. And, as a character in a John LeCarre novel once observed, “Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love.” The unnamed anointing woman and her faithfulness is a foil for the disciples’ lack of faith, but especially one disciple in particular: Judas Iscariot.

We don’t know what finally motivates him to go to Jesus’ enemies and betray him. But we do know that “betrayal can only happen if you love.” Jesus loved Judas and all his disciples so obviously Judas is betraying him. But we need to note that his disciples were feeling betrayed by Jesus—that perhaps they’d put their love in the wrong place and were soon to pay the price for it. In which case, Judas is just acting on what all the disciples are feeling.

But remember: just as the anointing woman is you and me, so is Judas you and me. We too, have felt that sense that God has betrayed us and disappointed us. That God wasn’t there for my friend who died, or for me when the bottom fell out of the market, or for my kid struggling with addiction, or for my marriage when it fell apart. We love and trust Jesus, and so we feel those betrayals more deeply than the people who don’t believe. And that sense of betrayal can lead us to do stupid and dangerous things, to act out our bitterness through rejecting the values of our faith or taking terrible risks or simply turning inward into ourselves, becoming selfish and self-involved.

These bitter betrayals are human and understandable, but they take their toll, making us more distrustful, more negative about the world and about people in general, eating away at our souls. When that sense of betrayal comes, it’s time to remember the anointing woman and her faith. She believed without having to see it. We don’t always know the answers to the problems of life, but we know that Jesus suffered those problems the same as we do, including death itself, yet overcame them all. After every death, there is resurrection. After every Good Friday, there is an Easter day. Even in the midst of suffering and hardship, there is hope. And just when it seems that God is dead, God turns out to be more alive than ever. That’s what the anointing woman believes.

Remember the anointing woman, because her faith is our faith.

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