Commentary on Mark 11:1-11 or Mark 14:3-9
Familiarity breeds complacency: the challenge facing the preacher this Sunday.
If we read Mark carefully, the evangelist himself restores to these texts a sense of mystery and surprise.
Jesus’ entrance to Jerusalem (Mark 11:1-11) seems straightforward, but the evangelist implants some twists. The significance of securing “a colt that has never been ridden” (11:2) is obscure. A young donkey suggests a humble king’s conveyance (Zechariah 9:9); its never having been ridden is reminiscent of unyoked beasts consecrated for God (Numbers 19:2). Congruent with Samuel’s commission for a pair of asses to confirm Saul’s anointing as “ruler over his people Israel” (1 Samuel 10:1-8), Mark 11:2-4 suggests an acknowledgment of Jesus’ authority and prophetic prescience. In verses 3-6 all unfolds as Jesus predicted. When Israel’s hidden Messiah enters the royal city, he does so in a manner no one would expect unless they were tuned into a particular scriptural frequency. Apart from that, a simple act is clothed in secrecy.
A family of ancient Jewish stories details the arrival of a heroic figure following military victory (1 Maccabees 4:19-25; 5:45-54; 13:43-51). Details vary, but the format is the same: after conquest, a military champion enters a city, joyously acclaimed, then offers cultic thanksgiving. The Messiah’s entry to Jerusalem warps this pattern. In place of military conquest is Jesus’ ministry of peace (Mark 4:39; 5:34; 9:50). While a festive aura surrounds the spreading of cloaks and branches (11:8; cf. 2 Kings 9:13; 2 Maccabees 10:7), in this Gospel no adulation is heaped upon Jesus himself (cf. Matthew 21:9; Luke 19:38; John 12:13b). In Mark 11:10 the object of praise is general: “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” — a kingdom Jesus has proclaimed without bellicose connotations (Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30). The sucker punch lands in Mark 11:11: instead of performing a customary ritual, Jesus strolls around the temple but does nothing more than “look around at everything” before exiting. Far from flexing his royal muscles, Jesus acts like a tourist. On close inspection Mark has not narrated a “triumphal entry”; he has lampooned it. Such narrative subversions match the character of the gospel Jesus preaches (Mark 10:13-31, 42-45). God’s reign is erupting with Jesus as its matchless vanguard — but neither that kingdom nor its Christ is at all what we expected. (For further discussion of Mark 11:1-11.)
More surprises pop from the tale of Jesus’ anointing (Mark 14:3-9) in Bethany, two miles southeast of Jerusalem (John 11:18). As in the present day, benefaction in antiquity was publicly venerated. Rare is the philanthropist who refuses credit for the foundation she has established or for the buildings he has funded. Mark 14:3-9 upsets the way its listeners evaluate fame. Bethany’s most generous of women is forever remembered, although she remains anonymous. She was an object of scorn, not because she was presumed louche (cf. Luke 7:37), but because of the wealth her onlookers believed her to have squandered (Mark 14:4-5). The estimated value of her balm would have covered a day laborer’s wages for nearly a full year. Defending the woman’s gift, Jesus interprets all she has done for him: anticipating his burial (14:8), a beautiful thing (14:6) that will endure in memory (14:9).
Neither here nor in Mark 10:21 does Jesus dismiss the needy poor (cf. Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Psalm 82:3-4; James 2:5-6). He qualifies that imperative by coordinating its practice to primary recognition of himself as the kingdom’s herald in a unique time: “You will not always have me” (Mark 14:7). Every moral injunction in this Gospel is subject to deeper penetration of God’s intent (Mark 3:1-6; 7:1-13; 10:2-9). It is fitting that the bridegroom be so honored, for he is soon to be taken away (Mark 2:18-22). The horrible irony is that Jesus’ anointing is embedded inside a conspiracy for his arrest (Mark 14:1-2, 10-11). At the very moment that Jesus commends this female disciple, reproached for her extraordinary generosity, one of the Twelve is bribed into a murderous plot against his teacher that delights his conspirators. She is embalming the body that Judas will deliver.
The woman in Mark 14:3-9 is a spiritual sister of the nameless widow in 12:41-44, who “put in more than all [others] contributing; … out of her poverty [she] put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Not merely are both incredibly benevolent. The causes to which they committed themselves — Jerusalem’s temple and God’s Messiah — will soon appear irretrievably lost (Mark 13:1-2; 14:8; 15:37). Nor is there the slightest indication that either woman is conscious of the full import of her donation. Both have done what they could (14:8); in both cases only Jesus can assay the gift’s genuine value and interpret it for his followers.
So it goes in this Gospel. “What are you [disciples] doing?” (Mark 11:5)? “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” (14:4)? In Bethany, as in Jerusalem, “They may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand” (4:12). The throngs who shout “Hosanna” (“Lord, save”) and “Blessed” (11:9-10) are the same that, in a matter of days, will cry for crucifixion of the one who has come in the Lord’s name (15:13-14). Though we never learn the name of the woman who did for him “what she could,” Jesus declares that what she has done will be remembered wherever the gospel is preached (14:9). Because of Mark, it has been. Judas also did what he could. For that, neither has he ever been forgotten.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Hosanna! King of all, you reign over all. Reign in our lives, triumph over evil, and teach us to follow in your footsteps. Amen.
Hosanna, Randall Thompson