Paul’s daunting promise to the Romans haunts me: “Suffering produces endurance,” he assures the Romans and us, “and endurance produces character and character produces hope.” Recently I stood in the pulpit of my church and looked over the top of a white, 32-inch-long casket at a young couple from my congregation. Their six-month-old son, who had been happy and healthy just days before, had died in his sleep. The unfathomable suffering of the family was shadowed by a church filled with mourners for whom the scene enacted their most dreaded fears.
Each of the four Gospels tells about the woman who anoints Jesus while he is at table, and in each Gospel someone sharply rebukes her for her action. But Luke is unique: unlike event as told the other three Gospels, the act of anointing as told in Luke does not portend Jesus’ death. Instead, hospitality and table fellowship are the recurrent themes, and they are a clue to the meaning of this parable.
George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community, said that in order to form community, people must be engaged in a “demanding common task.” In his case the task was to rebuild the accommodation areas of Iona Abbey. The group that he led included people with considerable formal education, as well as people with little education. These men and women formed community out of purpose and in difficult conditions; they shared what they had and learned from each other. They built with stone and with their lives, even though they could not know what the results of their work would be.
How do you say goodbye? It depends, I suppose, on the relationship—what it has grown to and what it will become. For Jesus, preparing to leave the close society of his disciples seems to have been a long process. Almost from the beginning he gently, or sometimes in exasperation, explained that the course his life was following would lead to profound changes in their lives. So he began saying goodbye early.
Medieval mapmakers, with their limited knowledge of distant lands and uncharted seas, sometimes depicted dragons on the far edges of their maps. Hic sunt dracones (“Here be dragons!”), they warned. Dragons do not appear on our modern maps. But bodies on the rail lines of Madrid and the streets of Fallujah leave no doubt that Something Ferocious stalks the edges of our political and religious maps. Nationalism, tribalism, empire and religion mutate in draconian forms, and we sometimes fail to recognize the beastly genes in our own DNA.