Massaging the text

It doesn’t help to get tendonitis in my arm in the middle of a Canadian winter. Especially when you rely on arm power to shovel snow.

It does help a bit if you live next door to a massage therapist who is willing to offer free advice and treatment!

My neighbour held my sore arm with one hand, and then began kneading the palm of my hand with the other. “But that’s not where I hurt,” I protested. “It’s my forearm that’s the problem!” He smiled and continued massaging the palm of my hand.

He went on to explain his strategy: “In order to maintain the nerve sheath’s integrity, I used the sustained pressure of gently squeezing your arm to prevent one layer of muscle from moving. At the same time I rubbed the palm of your hand to restore the relative movement between the muscles of your arm thus revitalizing blood flow and neuro- vascular health.”

I pressed him for a lay person’s translation, which goes as follows: An indirect contact must be located to allow for full restoration of the affected area. In order to heal a distressed part of your body you have to access not only the area directly affected (my forearm) but an area indirectly connected (my palm) as well.

When people engage me in bible study, often what they question or query are the difficult verses in a text. It’s those lines that cause confusion, that appear contradictory, that simply do not make any sense on which we first tend to focus.

It’s not different in our Gospel text for the fifth Sunday in Lent — John 12:1-8 — when Mary pours expensive oil on Jesus’ feet wiping them with her hair. When Judas objects for the perceived waste, Jesus accepts Mary’s extravagance and concludes the passage with a statement that has been often misinterpreted: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (v.8).

This is the verse that tends to get traction in conversations. What does Jesus mean?

Employing the massage treatment methodology here, we have to address both the direct and indirect areas of the text. First, the direct. Let’s simply apply a gentle squeeze on the first part of Jesus’ statement: You always have the poor with me.

Most biblical scholars will suggest Jesus is doing here what he often does throughout the Gospels — quoting the Hebrew scriptures. Someone counted 78 times that Jesus cites verses from what we call the Old Testament. So, it follows that here Jesus is citing Deuteronomy 15:11 — “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.'”

Contrary to what sometimes is interpreted as a justification for ignoring the needs of the poor, Jesus’ words are actually an injunction to continue serving the needs of the poor, not to give up this good work:

Open your hand to the poor. Be generous in response to the needs of others. Be generous as Mary was in spilling a year’s wages of expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus.

But how can we continue this work when we know the needs will always be there? How can our spirits be sustained in serving the poor when it seems our efforts will never eradicate poverty, slavery, or any other social illness. Despair is a hairline step away from futility.

Let’s now apply the indirect method of dealing with this challenging text, as we look at the second part of Jesus’ response to Judas — “… you do not always have me.”

Like peripheral vision, in bible study we need to look at the broader context of the passage in question — the before part, and after part. Sometimes by looking to the side, we can see better the area in question. If we look only at the point in question, we might not see it. We must shift our gaze to the side in order to get a clearer vision of what is before us.

To be continued in the next post …