[Note on Context: This post is based on a sermon I’ve been delivering in a few settings this last semester. Readings 2 Sam 21 and Matthew 26:6-13. Many will be familiar with the Anointing at Bethany, however the story for Rizpah has been new to many in the congregations. The story takes place after David has ascended to the throne, and amidst a 3-year famine. David, in an attempt to rid the land of famine seeks to make right with the Gibeonites (whom Saul had tried to wipe out). The Gibeonites point out to David that the matter isn’t one of gold, but of blood: to make amends David must deliver them seven sons of Saul to be executed. David does so, the sons are publicly executed (impaled) and their bodies left to the elements and the beasts. However, Rizpah - concubine of Saul and mother to two of the boys - “took sackcloth, and spread it on a rock for herself, from the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.” David hears of the act of grit and care and is so moved that he goes and gathers the bones of Jonathan and Saul (which had been stolen after David left them lying about) and the bodies of those impaled and he restored them to each other and to the earth, “After that, God heeded supplications for the land.”]
I have three musings on the readings, which find their ground in the idea of tenderness, particularly tenderness for the dead, or those marked for dead.
The Care for the Dead Imbuing Life with Value
Rizpah’s sons (and the other sons of Saul) are pawns given up in a political arrangement aimed at overcoming the violent sins of Saul. It is the business of men of war, which has no regard for the bodies of young men and the women that will mourn them. Rizpah’s act ensures that their dignity and personhood is not part of the bargain.
Rome has no care for the body of Jesus; another dissident who will be put to death on the march for ‘peace’. His body will be subjected to brutality and humiliation, but here it is treated with honour, tenderness, and abundant care.
Our care for the bodies of the dead, those approaching death, or those burdened by the existential deaths our society deals in, is a way of reflecting the careful attention paid to our bodies by a God who formed the human body out of the clay of the earth, who knits us together in our mother’s womb, and who will raise us bodily in the resurrection.
The Impact of the Women
Whether or not the woman at Bethany understood her act as preparation for burial, the tradition has received it in such a way. It cannot be overlooked that it is a woman who both prepares Jesus for death, and women who go first to the tomb to tend to his dead body. From cradle to tomb, Jesus’ body relies on the work of women. If we take the Johannine account of this story, this act (attributed to Mary) seemingly inspires Jesus’ own symbolic act of care and servanthood when he washes his disciples feet (even the feet of those who will betray and deny).
Rizpah’s impact is twofold. 1) David is moved to restore the bodies of Saul and Jonathan, restoring the family to each other and to the earth. 2) The nation is saved for God heeds the supplication. It is not the blood deal of David, but Rizpah’s tender grit that moves the heart of God. The fate of Israel, the Davidic monarchy, and we might even say the salvation history so faithfully preserved in Holy Scripture is indebted to Rizpah who modeled the care of God which does not forget those discarded by society.
Amidst all the toing and froing of the gospel, it is this extravagant act, by this unnamed woman that is commended to the memory of the church. Amidst all the political drama of the story of David, it is this act of grit, performed by a grieving mother, that is commended as moving the heart of God. Even from the periphery of patriarchal societies, the priestly work of women has left enduring fingerprints on the story of God and the human person.
Caring for those in front of you
The woman who anoints Jesus is criticised for an inefficient use of resources, and a narrow view of care. Her act is commended by Jesus because there is an immediate and intimate need, which she has rightly identified and addressed, which in this case trumps a broader ethic of charity.
There were many in Rizpah’s day, living in suffering due to the continued famine, yet she spends the season ensuring dead bodies were not eaten by the beasts and birds. Her action is inefficient and non-strategic; but commended and impactful, because of its intimacy, and abandon.
The quiet good work of tending to bodies in need should not be seen as lesser than the big work of charity (not to dismiss the latter in any way). Christians are drawn to the bodily, the intimate, and the immediate. By doing so we honour the deep richness of the incarnation and honour our claim to be disciples of a God who was crucified, lay dead, and though raised to glory, bore the scars on his eternal body. Our care for the bodies of the dead, those approaching death, or who are burdened by the various existential deaths our society deals in - is it’s a way of anticipating and participating in the promise of God, that though we lie at rest, we will be raised by a God of abundant tenderness who stays close through the seasons.