On Being the Anointed One
On Being the Anointed One
Dmitry A. Medvedev would seem to have it made. A recent edition of The New York Times headlines him as "Putin's Anointed Heir." Mr. Medvedev is a shoo-in to be the next Russian President. The last one, Vladimir Putin, now something of an autocrat, has blessed him as his successor. Russia may not be what it used to be, but it still possesses the largest land mass and untold riches of oil. It will be Dmitry's to command.
With far less to command, but an eternal history to shape, little shepherd boy David, Jesse's son, is anointed heir to Israel's throne. A priest of the Lord, not the king of the realm, does the signal pouring of the sacred oil on the child's brow. In your favorite Psalm, one of the lections for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, ascribed to the shepherd and harpist who became king, David sings,
Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Exactly what we would expect from God's favor, right? That whatever the anointed one plants will come up roses; that however circumstances unfold he will always get the sunshine; that his days will be blessed with prosperity and a goodly posterity and he will die in his sleep of old age.
You know, like Marlon Brando's Don Corleone, the godfather going to his eternal rest (?) kneeling in his tomato garden with the happy chatter of his grandchildren serving as earth's voiced goodbye. Which departure, considering the life that preceded it, suggests not an example of Psalm 23's concluding verses but Jeremiah's complaint, "Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper?" (Jer. 12:1 KJV)
We would be hard pressed to prove that the Deuteronomist has it right when he insists that the reward for a good life, lived according to the will of God, is the open, generous hand of God, providing a cornucopia of benefits. The best I can muster from the years I have lived and observed the ways of heaven with earth is the old saw I am too fond of repeating in the face of untoward circumstance: "All things happen to all people." Jesus, of course, of course, reads that observation positively, that "God makes his sun to shine on just and unjust alike." To wit, the extravagant graciousness of the almighty God's mercy is God's evenhandedness, if not God's justice; and Don Corleone gets an easy passage from this life to the next, although what awaits him there may be a different story.
But there's another theme lurking in these considerations, one we should be able to perceive more clearly in this Lenten journey toward a cross. Being anointed means being picked out from the rest, but for what? In the Bible it usually means service and that usually means trouble.
In "Fiddler on the Roof," the poor Jewish milkman Tevye puts being the "chosen people" into the perspective of two thousand eight hundred years of persecution. He asks God, "Once in a while can't you choose someone else?" Isaiah pictures those millennia with plenty of power and glory, not suffering and humiliation; and he does the prophesying in one of Israel's darkest moments, the Captivity in Babylon, as dark as the Holocaust:
Here is my servant [Israel], whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights… I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
"Servant," "a light to the nations," and "my chosen": sounds grand, important, lofty, fulfilling, glorifying, doesn't it? But consider the cost Israel incurs in fulfillment of this mission: ghettoization, bigotry, and gas chambers.
An individual life well-known to everyone parallels Israel's experience of being anointed, that being chosen by God may bring big trouble. In the New Testament lection for the fourth Sunday in Lent, John 9, the writer suggests that it is being noised about that a certain faith healer is identified as The Messiah. And "messiah" means literally, "the anointed one." That's right, Jesus. Any loyal Sunday School child should be able to repeat that verse from Luke that sums up Jesus' childhood: "the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him." "Favor" is the give-away, the worrisome chosenness.
You know the story, where that favor leads the "anointed one." I intend to retrace the final chapter of his life in a couple of weeks in various worship venues, waving palms, partaking a Passover Last Supper, witnessing the washing of feet, and walking behind a shouldered cross. The Passion is not a pretty story, even without Mel Gibson's bloodied-up version of it. Jesus employs an unusual verb to describe these final and horrific events of his life: "glorify" (see the high priestly prayer in John 17, KJV or NSRV), which at first glance seems sardonic; but on further consideration it becomes clear Jesus means it literally, as we are wont to sing in Lent, "In the Cross of Christ I Glory," those two beams of wood hewn for the salvation of the world.
Those of you who memorize these essays (!) will recall a recent quote from Paul Scherer on target too for elucidating what it means to be anointed, that God's reward for work faithfully performed is to assign more work to do.
Lest I leave you with the impression that there is no gladness whatsoever in being anointed, let me quickly add to this meditation the observation that it's the only route in the pursuit of happiness sure to get you to your goal. Not just in heaven when you "lay your burden down"; but here now in the valley of shadows, in the rough and tumble of this mortal life, where shades of gray trump every absolute, where frustration exhausts patience, where the bills must be paid and did you know gas will soon be $4.00 a gallon... The anointed one's final word on Good Friday, "It is finished," should be read, is meant to be heard, as a benediction upon a purposeful and complete life. Unlike the first word from the cross, the cry of desolation, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," this last of seven (well, sometimes it is the sixth) should be named the shout of satisfaction. He has done what he comes to do. The message has been broadcast. The cross has been lifted. Humankind's bloodline has been transfused with a redemptive flood of compassion and healing.
And those of us who have never felt the royal oil on our foreheads, but who look on in admiration at those who have, can take heart. Yeah, yeah, often it seems "no good deed goes unpunished." Maybe so, but when you've paid your dues, raised your family, tried your best, wandered away only once or twice from the straight and narrow, made peace, stood up for what is right, been generous with your wherewithal, laughed with the celebrant and cried with the mourner... well, you know all that good stuff, and, if you don't, get reacquainted with Matthew 5, 6, and 7... you can go to your rest every night and forever with a smile (muted, to be sure) of satisfaction on your face.
I wish Dmitry well.