What you will find below is the Introduction and one story (The Woman with the Alabaster Jar) from a book I have been imagining and writing for over a year now. Writing, as any writer will tell you, is hard work; writing that reimagines what so many hold sacred is, for me, work that is done in prayer and with empathy. I invite you to read and wonder and share your responses.
I wonder about Scripture. I have been wondering about it ever since I was a little child and I first heard the stories of angels at the manger, loaves and fishes being multiplied and the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The stories I learned in Catechism told me who Jesus was according to the Roman Catholic Church and I accepted them as truth. That I was baffled by some and comforted by others, that there were inconsistencies between the same stories in different gospels never troubled me (details rarely trouble me which explains my life-long struggle with math and my predilection for adding context around sacred stories).
As an adult, and practicing spiritual director, I still wonder about Scripture. My wondering now leads me to questions of relevancy. I believe that the stories told in the Gospels point to great psychological and spiritual truths. It doesn’t matter so much if the stories are true in their particulars (most Biblical scholars would say they absolutely are not). What matters is that the stories told in the great traditions are true in their essence. So far as we know, human beings are the only life-forms that tell stories and we’ve been telling them for a very long time. We tell stories about God and nature, heroes and villains, history and possibility. We use stories to explain what is known, to explore what is unknown and to express our hopes and fears. The stories we tell explain a lot about who we are; especially those we tell about the Divine.
The Christian scriptures tell stories around the life of Jesus of Nazareth and they tell them in ways that would speak to their intended listeners. Matthew’s gospel, referring often to “the law” and to Jewish prophecies, was written primarily for the Jewish followers of Jesus. In its original form Mark’s gospel, written when the early Christians were being persecuted and executed by Rome, ends with an empty tomb and frightened disciples. Luke, whose author also wrote The Acts of the Apostles, speaks to the disempowered with a message of love and justice. The fourth gospel included in the Canon is John’s. John’s gospel is a mystical text written for believers of the Risen Christ. That the stories differed in content and context did not seem to bother the church fathers who set the Canon in year 393 of the common-era. The stories were meant to convey meaning, not history or facts.
I would argue that there are many things decided by the “Church Fathers” that keep us from deep relationship with God, but their understanding of story is not one of them. Stories point to something bigger than themselves; they are not a recitation of factual details. When we insist that a story be true in every detail it becomes isolated in time and place; it loses its life and loses its relevance in our lives. I find it interesting that those same Christians who insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible have no trouble proclaiming a Messiah who used parables and metaphors to describe who God was to him and how we could know when we’re close to what he called “the kingdom of God.”
Just as Jesus used story to help us comprehend God, we need story to help us understand ourselves, to understand what is possible. If ever there were a time when human beings needed to understand how to live compassionate, aware and just lives it is now. If ever we needed a Christ whose humanity could be understood we need him now. The unemotional, detached, stained-glass window representations of Jesus make for fine stories of the transcendent, ineffable, unreachable God. God is these things.
God is also immanent, imaginable and waiting to be invited into our lives. This is where the Gospel stories come in. This book contains some of those stories retold in ways that have helped me to see Christ’s life journey as a roadmap to be followed; exploring what he might have thought or felt so that we can relate to his story and better understand our own. I start with a quote from the gospels from The Inclusive New Testament followed by a retelling of the story and ending with a few thoughts or questions meant to invite you to deepen your own sense of the text. These writings are not a recreation of history, nor are they meant to argue one or another theological point; they are simply prayerful wonderings around the stories told of Jesus’ life.
It is possible to worship the Christ and never know the Jesus who invites us to be like him; to never know ourselves as beloved, and to love God, ourselves and our neighbors as ourselves. Not only is this separation possible, I believe it is common. Indeed, a look at human history would communicate rather emphatically that we have not understood the one who calls us to love our enemies, and to be gentle and generous with ourselves and others. Our history of war and oppression and the injustices inherent in the hierarchies of government and religion show that what we have understood all too well is the christ we have made in our own image – a christ of harsh judgment and imposed order. A christ meant to keep us in line. A christ who is not Christ at all.
Jesus’ stories and the stories of his life are meant for us to emulate, not just read. He would not have said “follow me” if we could not do it. We can. Indeed we must if human beings, and perhaps even life itself, is to continue on this little blue planet at the edge of the universe.
The Woman with the Alabaster Jar
While Jesus was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon, who was afflicted with leprosy, a woman entered carrying an alabaster jar of perfume made from expensive aromatic nard. After breaking the jar, she began to pour the perfume on his head.
Some said to themselves indignantly, “What is the point of this extravagant waste of perfume? It could have been sold for over three hundred silver pieces, and the money given to those in need!” They were infuriated with her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you criticize her? She has done me a kindness. You will always have poor people among you, and you can do them good whenever you want, but you will not always have me. She has done what she could. She has anointed my body and is preparing it for burial. The truth is, wherever the Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told in her memory”
– Mark 14: 3 – 8
Such a long day; he is tired and hungry and longs for nothing more than a meal and sleep. Sleep, he knows though, is still far off. He feels the eyes of Simon’s other guests upon him, waiting and wanting; always wanting – a sign, a healing, a story to upset the authorities. So many eyes: some loving, some questioning, many hostile. How long has it been since I was just another man at his meal? Too long, he thinks.
His teaching and healing have taken on a new urgency in these last weeks, his followers feel it, though only he knows why. He’s tried desperately to get the message of God’s love across to the people and found himself resisted and reviled by the very ones the people turn to for spiritual growth. He’s tried just as desperately to prepare his friends for what he feels sure is coming, but they refuse to understand and their fear is one more burden he bears.
He reaches for another piece of bread, warm and fresh, baked that day by Anna, Simon’s wife. He dips it into the dish of spiced oil at his elbow and takes a bite, savoring the simple flavors of wheat, salt and rosemary. A commotion at the doorway draws his attention. A woman enters the dining hall uninvited, a woman he recognizes but does not know. He’d first seen her on the temple grounds with them a few days ago. She had sat close enough to hear while he taught near the collection boxes; he’d noticed how intently she’d listened to his words, soaking them up the way dry earth drinks in the first rain of autumn.
The men in the room step away as she passes, murmuring at her impropriety, waiting to see what Jesus will do. He’s got a reputation, he knows, for breaking the laws of purity and the priests and scholars cannot abide his freedom. It threatens their hold over the people. Their curiosity has got the better of them tonight though, as they stand in the house of a known leper. They’ll stand there to be a part of things, but won’t deign to eat with Simon or Jesus and his notorious friends – tax collectors, women, Romans.
The woman, wrapped head to toe in costly robes, stops beside him and takes a small jar, gleaming white, from her sleeve. Without a word, she breaks the seal, opening the jar. The aroma of nard floods the room; nard, perfume of love, incense of the Temple. The woman raises the jar and pours the thick oil over his head. He closes his eyes, feeling it soak his hair, run around his ears and down his back. He sighs deeply, accepts this gift of loving care, letting it refresh his soul until the flow of oil stops.
He opens his eyes and looks into hers, sees the brimming tears, knows she has seen what waits for him. “Thank you,” he says. She nods, still silent, staying by his side.
Looking away he sees his follower’s confusion, always confusion. For three years he has taught them and still the light has not dawned! He feels the anger coming from some of them, knows them so well he can practically hear their thoughts. Their words burst forth, biting and hard, “Stupid woman, what a waste! A year’s wages – think what we could do with that! Think how many we could feed.”
He feels the woman shrink beside him. “Stop it!” he says, just loud enough to be heard over their complaints. “Why are you criticizing her? Don’t you remember the teaching from the other day?” They turn to him, angry but silent, uncomprehending. “We were at the temple; this woman was there with us.” Exasperated, “Don’t you see who is around you?” Blank looks are his response. He takes a breath, pushing back his frustration, knowing he must explain again, must make the connections for them.
“We were by the collection boxes watching as the wealthy and the scholars came to put their money in. They made a big show of it. Then the poor widow came and gave her gift – nothing compared to the others, yet everything for her. What gift was more precious than hers? To God it was more precious than all the rest combined. Remember? This woman, too,” he says, turning again to the woman at his side, “has given a precious gift. You all come here in need, with empty hands ready to take my words away for your own salvation or political advantage. Those in need will always be among your numbers, and that is as it should be for God’s love does not favor the rich over the poor. Neither does it favor the poor over the rich. Here is this woman, a woman of wealth, a woman in need of nothing but the love of God. She understood the teaching better than any of you. Look, she came here with full hands, broke open her heart, and poured out her gift of kindness. We have all benefited from it.” He pauses, and when he resumes his voice is only a whisper, “I most of all, for she has anointed me for my own burial.” Shaking his head to clear his thoughts he addressed his companions again, “Remember the parable of the talents, remember the story I shared at the house of Zacchaeus? These are all the same stories told in different ways. What gifts God has given you, multiply and give back to God through intention, kindness and generosity to others. No one is exempt from this teaching. Everyone has something to give; and everyone who gives must also receive. Soon I will no longer be with you. You will be the ones teaching about God’s love, but you will not be able to do it unless you can receive that gift for yourself. You cannot have one without the other.”
The room is silent. He stands and turns to the woman. “Thank you. Your gift has joined our lives. Whenever people tell my story, they will tell of what you did for me this night.” Walking from the room he feels their discomfort, their stubborn adherence to rules and roles that keep them from the One who holds out new life to every soul. He leaves them with their questions and breathes in the clear air of evening, searching out a quiet space to ponder and pray in the Presence.
So often Scripture is read in bits and bytes; little stories disconnected from previous or later lessons. As I prayed and wondered around this story I began to see it in the context of other lessons around money and spending. Indeed, this story directly follows Jesus teaching about the widow’s mite, Jesus sat down opposite the collection box and watched the people putting money in it, and many of the rich put in a great deal. A poor widow came and put in two small coins, the equivalent of a penny. Then Jesus called out to the disciples and said to them, “The truth is, this woman has put in more than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have put in money from their surplus, but she has put in everything she possessed from the little she had – all she had to live on.” – Mark 12: 41-44
If you look at all of Jesus’ teaching around giving and receiving, what do you learn?