“Reaper” by Billy Collins
As I drove north along a country road
on a bright spring morning
I caught the look of a man on the roadside
who was carrying an enormous scythe on his shoulder.
He was not wearing a long black cloak
with a hood to conceal his skull–
rather a torn white tee-shirt
and a pair of loose khaki trousers.
But still, as I flew past him,
he turned and met my glance
as if I had an appointment in Samarra
not just the usual lunch at the Racoon Lodge.
There was no sign I could give him
in that instant – no casual wave,
or thumbs-up, no two-fingered V
that would ease the jolt of fear
Whose voltage ran from my ankles
to my scalp – just the glimpse,
the split-second lock of the pupils
like catching the eye of a stranger on a passing train.
And there was nothing to do
but keep driving, turn off the radio,
and notice how white the houses were,
how red the barns, and green the sloping fields.
Let’s go for a moment from the sublime to the ridiculous and return momentarily to the sublime.
A man went on vacation and arranged for his mother to stay at his house and take care of his cat. And, just to be sure, he asked his next-door neighbor if he would look in on them every day and make sure they were all right. “No problem,” said the neighbor. The man flew off to Mexico and after a couple of days, he called the neighbor to ask how things were going.
“Well,” replied the neighbor, “Your cat died.” “Geez,” the guy said, “You have to come right out and tell me like that? Couldn’t you have a little more consideration? I’m on vacation. Couldn’t you have broken it to me a little more gently? Like first telling me that the cat was on the roof, then that the cat fell off the roof, then, maybe the next day telling me you had taken the cat to the vet — like that, not, boom, all at once!
“So how’s mom doing?”
“Well,” said the neighbor, “she went up on the roof . . . ”
Of course, nobody likes the news. We do what we can to avoid being direct. We protest against death’s intrusion into our lives. We treat our appointment in Samarra as a secret.
We’re not alone — there’s some cold comfort in the gospels that the twelve named disciples, the men of the crowd that is, all have a difficult time with this too. Despite the fact that all along, Jesus has been clear that his words and his actions, in short the things he’s interested in are getting him into trouble. Our story today is the remarkable story of one disciple who was able to process and accept what was very likely going to happen. And who then reacted in a way to garner Jesus’ high praise — that what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
Before we talk about her and her actions, though, I want to remind you about an important historical fact that has theological implications for today. For hundreds of years, it was said in the church that Jesus was killed by the Jews and offered that historical fact as proof of a twisted and damaging theological claim that God was done with the Jews and was now offering to the rest of the world the greatest gift of all time — the sacrifice of his son.
This theological reading back onto an historical event is simply wrong, and has been the source of untold misery for the Jews through the centuries.
A clearer historical reading needs to be garnered before we make claims about the truth of God’s purpose in Jesus.
We can begin simply by noting that in all of Jewish history there is no record of the Judeans using the cross as an instrument of state torture. It was very clearly used over and over again by the Roman Empire.
We can begin to understand why, when we understand that the Empire was built and sustained through a caste system called patronage. A patron is a top dog — someone who has wealth and power and the ability to use it, often gained simply through birth. To hold on to that power the patron uses other people called clients who have something to offer him, who work from below to support his interests. In return the patron offers access to the power and wealth he holds.
Patronage as the glue that held the Roman Empire together and sustained the great Peace of Rome. It all worked because the Emperor’s clients, those who supported him, where themselves patrons and had for themselves clients who gained access to wealth and power, through their patrons, albeit a lower level. In this way the pyramid descends until the people left at the bottom had nothing to offer to those below them, for there were none. These were the expendables. Jesus was an expendable. As were women who were somehow cut off from the patriarchal source of power, as were the peasants and subsistence farmers and fishermen.
It is no surprise that Augustus called himself god. Demanded to be worshiped as god. It made the whole thing even more secure for the privileged.
Crucifixion was Rome’s response to anything that threatened this pyramid of power. One of the things we have been doing throughout Lent has been exploring how Jesus and his cohorts challenged this patronage system and began to be charged with sedition. For, as one historian put it, “Why, after all, speak of another empire, an empire as God [not Augustus] would have it, if there is not something wrong with the empire?” Such language threatened the whole system and could not go uncontested. So Jesus was crucified.
It is one thing to state, from an historical perspective that Jesus knew this would happen. It is another to say from a theological perspective that Jesus “knew” it would happen. There is a difference of intention. Jesus had no intention of dying, but every intention of challenging the claim of the Roman Empire to be the only true Empire.
To understand from the historical perspective that Jesus knew it would happen, is discomfiting to disciples, ancient and modern, for such knowledge demands an ethic. To accept Jesus’ appointment in Samarra means that one takes upon oneself the call to refuse to bow to the empire of this age. To trust in God means to run a great risk to one’s own life, for such trust cannot be separated from loyalty to God’s empire, and that loyalty will run afoul of the empires of our world.
It can be no surprise then, that even while for the first time during this final week the action is not in Jerusalem, but in the nearby town of Bethany, Mark begins the story of this unnamed woman with a reminder — Jesus has made serious enemies in his single-minded witness to a kingdom other than the so-called peacable kingdom of Rome. And those enemies will eventually kill him.
It is after this dark reminder, that the short episode that concerns us begins.
Whatever else we might make of the story, we should begin by noting the high praise Jesus gives her:
By my word of honour, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her (Verse 9).
It ought to intrigue us that this highly praised woman remains nameless. It can hardly be the case that her name was unknown to those present, or accidentally got lost in the re-telling of the story. For one thing she was likely not a no-name expendable. Nard is an expensive perfume, and the alabaster jar, while not particularly expensive it is a thing of beauty. Biblical scholars agree, this woman was part of the upper class. Was her identity not revealed to protect her safety? Does she pay for her devotion to Jesus with her life on the same weekend? Historically, it is unusual to crucify just three criminals, many more would likely have died that weekend.
Perhaps her name is forgotten because the story is written by the very men who exclaim — “What a waste!” when she pours out her wealth. They tell her story, but so embarrassed are they by the way she has shown them up, by the fact that she has not only understood what Jesus was about, but was able in the face of the dark and somber warnings, to risk her own life by appearing with this band of seditious upstarts and do something beautiful for him, that they consciously or unconsciously, forget her name.
These men know that this kind deed comes with a price — a price even greater than the price of the nard she poured out. The price she paid was the willingness put herself on the line with Jesus — to engage him where he was. The others cowardly refused to believe that Jesus would carry it out. They were breathing a sigh of relief that Jesus had retreated to Bethany from Jerusalem. He would not, they think, press the authorities any farther. Their fear rises as a wall between them and Jesus and he is alone in this circle of friends.
Until this wealthy woman walks through the door Jesus faced his troubles alone. It is no surprise then that Jesus responds to the criticisms of the disciples sharply — “Leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing.”
There is no way to know who this person was and why she remained anonymous. I’ve posed a few ideas. But the important thing is simpler.
She begins where she is. She did not rush about to get the right gift. She did not apologize for her actions. She did not let fear keep her from behaving out of anything other than love.
What she did was spectacular and memorable and beautiful because she broke the wall of silence about the risk associated with hanging out with Jesus. The others called themselves his faithful friends — she took the risk of faith and acted as a friend. She would not deny Jesus’ appointment in Samarra, she would not cover up the truth they all knew about him, she too would put her life on the line.
Doing as she did, where she was, and at ease, puts her in the company of the Little Shepherd Boy who played his drum for Jesus or the Clown of God who juggled to make the Baby Jesus smile. The train of bearers of the beautiful stretches out into our own stories—the one who gathers flowers from the garden to bring color to the drabness, the one who offers clean sheets and a well-lighted place to the traveler, the one who sings lullabies to tiny ones for their comfort and rest, the hospice workers who tend to the dying with candor and love.
Her story gives all of us anonymous disciples permission and courage to begin where we are with whomever it is claims our attention.
We too can, in the moment, bring beauty to a life shrouded in fear, aching in pain, worrying about loss.
To be that way with another, even when, as the poet Collins symbolizes it, the reaper is present, is to break past the normal limitations of the empire of this world, and see again, as though for the first time, how white the houses are, how red the barns, and how green the spring fields. It is simply to glimpse the what the other empire is about.
May God grant to us the courage of this extraordinary disciple. Amen