Introduction to the Gospel of Mark Online Commentary Series:
I think that the Gospel of Mark is a dramatic narrative, by which I mean not simply that the content is dramatic, which it is, but that Mark has constructed a Gospel which is in essence a play, a drama, albeit divine and cosmic in its implications. This does not mean that I think that Mark is ahistorical, only that each Gospel author had to make choices in how their Gospels were constructed and Mark functions as a natural dramatist in how he presents material and how he structures the events in Jesus’ life. As the first written Gospel, and with the oral tradition more apparent on the surface, Mark is sometimes seen as simplistic and even shapeless, but I will argue that the Gospel of Mark is formed with great care, shaped by a series of six Acts, with many scenes, naturally, comprising each Act. Each Act is at the service of Mark’s overall purpose, to explain and unfold not only the identity of the Messiah, but the destiny of the Messiah and his followers. Mark draws the reader into his narrative, so that the reader himself becomes one of the disciples following along the journey with Jesus, a point that will become more apparent as we move deeper into the Gospel.
This is the fortieth installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 1, chapter 14:1-2, Scene 2, chapter 14:3-10 and Scene 3, chapter 14:10-11 in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the thirty-ninth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 1: 14:1-21 It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; 2 for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people."Scene 2: 14:3-103 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." 10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.Scene 3:14:10-1110 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him. (NRSV)
Act 6, Scene 1 is an essential transitional scene following Jesus’ long monologue with his Inner Circle, to which Mark invited us to listen in, in which he unravels the cosmic implications of the events about to unfold in Jerusalem. It is necessary that Mark return us to the local events and place them in the concrete context of Jesus’ life and mission on the ground. He does so by reminding us that Act 5 was almost entirely, except for Jesus’ entry into the city, about conflict with the religious authorities. Mark now sets the stage, both chronologically –“it was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread”(14:1) and dramatically – “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (14:1) – with one sentence. He also adds yet another reminder as to why Jesus has not yet been arrested, for the question arises, if they desire his downfall and his behavior continues to threaten and irk them, why not do away with him now? Mark has the chief priests and scribes explain, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people” (14:2), which is similar to statements made in Act 5 in 11:18 and 12:12. The crowds are the unwitting protectors of Jesus.
Scene 2 draws us even deeper into the nitty-gritty of the final events of Jesus’ life. This scene introduces us to a number of the tensions which lie under the surface of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is in the village of Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, at the house of “Simon the leper” when an unnamed woman approaches him with “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head” (14:3). The woman is not named and her presence is not explained. Suddenly she appears and commandeers the scene. We know nothing from Mark if she has been a disciple of Jesus, or if Jesus knows her name. How has she gained access to nard, which is so expensive, and why has she brought it to Jesus? Mark explains nothing of her actions. The Oxford Dictionary of the Bible says that nard is “an expensive Indian plant; the value of the amount poured over the head of Jesus by the woman of Bethany (Mark 14: 3) was equivalent to wages for almost a whole year.” And yet Mark allows the woman to stand as mysterious, unknown, her act the impetus for a discussion of wealth, Judas’ decision and Jesus’ interpretation of what she has actually done.
The initial discussion is fueled by anger, underscored one must think by the disciples' interpretation of Jesus’ own teachings on poverty and by the recent scene in the Temple with the widow. “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor” (14:4-5). Those around Jesus “scolded her” for her wastefulness, thinking certainly that they are defending Jesus’ own position about the use of resources and wealth. It might also be a clue that she is a friend of the disciples and Jesus that they feel comfortable enough to scold her, someone who is known to them, who they feel confident enough to challenge her behavior. Jesus, however, defends her: “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (14:6-7). Jesus’ focus in his response is not to categorize “the poor” as a perpetual social reality, but to contextualize the act of the unnamed woman as something done for Jesus not against someone or some group of people. While his reply to his disciples might be confusing for them, Jesus is not minimizing the plight of the poor – the task of caring for those in poverty remains with the followers of Jesus – but drawing his disciples’ attention to a reality they have struggled to understand: his life is coming to an end.
Does the woman understand the spiritual and religious significance of what she has done? Jesus explains it for all of them. “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (14:8-9). The purpose of anointing with oil was to establish kings, prophets and priests. But a body was certainly covered with oils, resins and spices after death, a preparation and anointing of the body prior to interment and this is how Jesus explains it to his disciples. Both elements are in tension in this verse: Jesus, the Messiah who must die and be buried, prepared for death; and the king who is recognized and anointed with expensive perfume only by an unnamed woman, her purposes unexplained. Mark desires this drama, not just to explain the confusion of those present with Jesus, but to challenge his readers and hearers dramatically: What is this event? What has taken place here? Who is she? She is unknown, but Mark says “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” This act of generosity is also an act of kindness prior to Jesus’ death and an act of faith, whether she comprehends the fullness of that faith yet: he is anointed not just for death but more importantly for his life and the life of the world.
Scene 2 transitions into Scene 3 with the same verse: “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (14:10). This verse ends Scene 2 with a shock of reality and sets in motion with Scene 3 the last days of Jesus’ life. Why does Judas betray Jesus? The rapid narrative turn, so common in Mark, suggests that the woman’s action, Jesus’ interpretation, or both, have turned him finally from his Messiah. But there is hardly enough information that Mark gives us to allow us to speculate on why he turns on Jesus to betray him. Did he care for the poor and believe Jesus had acted foolishly and rashly in welcoming the behavior of the unnamed woman? Does he think that Jesus is not the Messiah he thought or had hoped he would be? Does he think Jesus is a misguided fool misguiding his own disciples to their deaths too? Does he believe, finally, that Jesus is not the Messiah, a king anointed only by a nameless woman in some two-bit village? Mark leaves us with so little data on Judas, but this might also be the genius of Mark as a dramatist: What are the reasons you have for rejecting Jesus?, he is asking the reader. Project them all on Jesus here and now. Judas might be rejecting Jesus because he is angry, as the disciples were earlier with the woman, dismayed at Jesus’ actions, or because he feels it is the right thing to do. Judas becomes the cipher for all the doubts about Jesus. Whatever his motivations, to protect or to destroy him, he has had it with his Jesus.
Scene 3 begins and ends, then, with Judas’ act of betrayal and with the joy of the chief priests when they meet with Judas. Mark says, “When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him” (14:11). Here, Judas’ motivation seems to be money. Whether that was his initial goal or hope, though, remains unclear. It might just be a bonus for whatever else is motivating him. Money is rarely a reward in and of itself; it is all the things that money represents, power, wealth, honor, success, approval, which fuels the desire for it. The betrayal, of course, must consist of setting Jesus up away from the crowds, privately, when he can be taken apart from the Passover throngs. That Judas must return to Jesus to carry out his act of betrayal is obvious for Mark tells us that Judas “began to look for an opportunity to betray him.” He must return to his Master and Teacher. The cosmic drama is getting down and dirty, entering the human arena of personal enemies, friends, and a friend who stumbles. Human relationships in all of their messiness are where the cosmic drama plays itself out.
John W. Martens
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 This scene also has parallels in each of the Gospels, though it is not the purpose of this commentary to examine these parallels historically or at the level of source and redaction criticism. I simply want to draw your attention to Matthew26:6–13, John 12:1-10, and Luke 7:36-50. Matthew’s scene is a close parallel, but neither John nor Luke are exact parallels which is what makes this scene so fascinating in the memories of the Gospel authors and the early Church.