About 388 years ago a large and motley group consisting of Plymouth colonists and Native Americans of the Wampanoag peoples, gathered together around tables. These tables groaned beneath the weight of a feast of waterfowl, cod, wild turkeys, eel, venison, pumpkins, Indian corn, onions, chestnuts and things we probably can’t even imagine. These people gathered to give thanks for a harvest—certainly not for the first time in human history, and not even for the first time on what would eventually be known as American soil. Nevertheless, their Thanksgiving gathering became iconic: it is the one we recall when we gather around our own groaning boards. And it is good for us to remember, on this day when our observance of Thanksgiving converges with that of the Reign of Christ, that the reason for the feast had to do with a particular group of people resenting the intrusion of a king in their lives.
The Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth were convinced that the Protestant Reformation had not gone far enough. Because they did not wish to be a part of a church that was far removed from their understanding of scripture, they became religious separatists, and because of their separatist views they attracted the wrath of King James I, and because they attracted his wrath, they found themselves, eventually, eating venison and eel on a very stony patch of beach on what would eventually be known as Cape Cod.
About 388 years ago, a group of people said, “Thanks be to God, we are rid of that king.”
The American psyche is no more comfortable at the thought of bowing to royalty today than our forbears were 388 years ago. Just this week our president was chastised in some quarters because he bowed deeply to the Emperor of Japan on a visit to that country. The word “groveling” was used. The argument was, Americans, especially American presidents, should not go around bowing to foreign rulers, foreign kings. We, as a nation, are so over kings.
About 1981 years ago, a motley group of people gathered around a table in Bethany, a village on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, about a mile and a half from Jerusalem. This table was in the home of one Simon the Leper, but Jesus knew lots of people in Bethany, including his friend Lazarus, and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Perhaps they were there. The table was groaning with… we know not what. Felafel? Fish? Figs? Hummus and pita bread? Wine, of course. And the motley group gathered, two days before the Passover. Perhaps it was a reunion… Jesus had just returned to Jerusalem, after a long journey with his friends. Perhaps he was giving thanks for the presence of those he loved around him in the midst of what he knew to be the last week of his life.
As they sat at table—really, the idea that they “sat” is anachronistic; they would have reclined around the table, a low table, supported by cushions and rugs on the floor. As they reclined, then, a woman approached the table with an alabaster jar filled with costly perfume, oil of nard. Alabaster is a white material, a kind of stone, translucent when cut into thin sheets. It was highly valued in Jesus’ day as a material for perfume jars; one of the original meanings of the word may have been “vessel of the goddess.”
A woman approached Jesus, carrying an alabaster jar. We don’t know who the woman was, though Mary of Bethany is a good candidate. In another story, in the gospel of John, she is the woman with the oil of nard. The woman did not uncork the jar, or remove a wax seal. Rather, she broke the precious jar so that the even more precious oil might flow out of it and onto Jesus’ head. And by that bold and audacious action, the woman—whoever she was—sparked a debate among the dinner guests.
The intention of the woman was unmistakable. Everyone seated at that table would have understood anointing with oil as a sign that Jesus was being recognized as a king. But, curiously, those gathered that night were silent on that topic. No one said, “Hey, why did you just anoint Jesus king?” Instead, a debate ensued on the proper use of resources in providing assistance to those living in poverty.
A woman boldly walked up to Jesus and anointed him king. But that action made the dinner guests of Simon the Leper almost as uncomfortable as our president’s bow to Emperor Akihito made the folks at Fox News. Who wants a king? Who needs a king? In particular, who wants to bow to a king, to kneel before a king? Don’t we have more dignity than that? Aren’t we freer than that?
Mark’s gospel warns us from the very first chapter, with John the Baptist’s ecstatic proclamation: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” And he is talking about Jesus. There is something about Jesus that is going to usher in the very reign of God on earth. Jesus is the king he is talking about.
But what an odd king, what a peculiar king. A king who hangs around with a ragtag group of friends… fisherfolk, tax collectors. A king who breaks all the religious taboos by touching women and children as he heals them. A king who would eat dinner in the house of a leper, for heaven’s sake… and we know all about lepers and the chart of “Who’s Who” in ancient Palestine. Lepers aren’t even on the chart. What an odd king Jesus is.
There are all kinds of monarchies, all kinds of governments in which royalty figures, so coming up with hard and fast rules is a challenge. But there are a few things we can say about kings with some confidence. First, kings usually acquire that title by inheritance. In order to be king, your father must be king, or, as in the case of our friends across the pond, your mother. You are born into a family of royalty, and you are prepared your whole life for your rule.
Again… Jesus is so peculiar, when we hold this lens up to him. As Mark begins to tell the story of the good news, there is Jesus, coming up out of the water, the heavens being torn apart, the voice coming down from the clouds, “You are my Son, the Beloved…” There is no finer pedigree. But still… as our mothers used to say when they were mad at us for not closing the door behind us, he was born in a barn. He was born to parents of modest means at best. He was raised to be a son of the Law. All the preparation he needed to become king, Jesus must have acquired at his father’s side in his woodshop, or at the rabbi’s feet studying Torah, or somewhere deep inside where he communed with the Spirit of God.
The other thing we can say about kings is that they are in some way symbolic of their kingdom. “L’etat, c’est moi,” said Louis XIV. “I AM the state.” This has caused kings no end of problems as their personal lives have clashed with their public role as stand-in for their countries. When John yelled, “The kingdom of God is at hand,” he meant to let everyone know that Jesus was both king and prime exemplar of all that kingdom stood for.
Jesus is such a strange and unexpected king. A king who welcomes children rather than letting his lieutenants shoo them away. A king who hosts large picnics on a shoestring budget. A king who is willing to die an ignominious death out of his love for his people.
This is the aspect of his kingship Jesus seized upon at that table at Simon the Leper’s house. When wagging tongues complained about the waste of that alabaster jar of oil, Jesus admonished them. Don’t pretend, my friends, that this one flask of perfume will solve the problem of poverty in this or any day. Don’t pretend that you are not called upon to work for the poor every day, but today you are using it as a distraction. This good woman has perfumed me, anointed me for my death. And wherever the good news is told, she will be a part of the story. Wherever the good news is shared, people will give thanks for her, for her prophetic action.
At the heart of our faith is a king who doesn’t look particularly kingly according to the expectations of either his world or ours. And yet, he pushes us to ponder what his kingship could mean for our world, if we were to really let loose his reign. One writer puts it this way:
In its simplest terms, the kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. Imagine if God ruled the nations, and not Obama, Medvedev, Kim Jong-il, Mugabe, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Every aspect of personal and communal life would experience a radical reversal. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless—peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion, etc. The ancient Hebrews had a marvelous word for this, shalom, or human well-being.[i]
Shalom. Well-being. Peace. If every person who bowed their head over a meal this week—whether they sit at a table alone, or with one other person, or in a room crammed full with extra chairs and tables to accommodate the extended family—if every one of us could recognize within us God’s desire for shalom, peace, and well-being for our world—well, that would be quite a Thanksgiving. That is the Thanksgiving Christ our King wants for us, and with us, and in us. That is Thanksgiving as a call to action, to service of our brothers and sisters in the name of our servant Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Daniel Clendenin, “Can a Good Christian Be a Good Citizen? The Reign of Christ the King,” in The Journey With Jesus: Notes to Myself, Essay November 16, 2009. http://www.journeywithjesus.net.