I saw a movie on late night TV a few weeks ago. It’s an old, old movie, produced in 1947, so, we’re talking right after WWII. It’s in black and white. It stars Gregory Peck (heart throb) and Dorothy McGuire in the lead roles. The movie is entitled Gentleman’s Agreement. It was nominated for 8 academy awards and it received three. Strange I had never heard of it.
In the movie, Gregory Peck is a young widower, the father of a young son, and a journalist—seems like he always plays a journalist, doesn’t it—Roman Holiday, comes to mind; well except when he is playing a lawyer, To Kill a Mocking Bird.
When we enter the story of the Gentleman’s Agreement Gregory Peck is just starting a new job as a journalist at a big- name magazine in New York City. His first assignment is to write an article on New York City’s anti-Semitism. He doesn’t want to just spout off a lot of statistics in his article, though. He decides he wants to learn and then write about anti-Semitism from the inside out. So, he pretends he is Jewish. His name is Phil Green, which can go either way, right—Jewish or Christian. When he is introduced to his new colleagues at a staff meeting he manages to slip in a clue as to his new feigned identity. “Oh, yes, well, I can’t come to the party on Friday night—that’s our Sabbath.” Word spreads quickly. Soon he and his young son are on the receiving end of prejudice. Nothing major. The Ku Klux Klan doesn’t burn a cross on Gregory Peck’s, aka Phil Green’s front lawn, but people make comments, you know? When someone throws him a party, certain people don’t come. When he tries to get a room at a hotel, he is told it is “restricted.” Hard to believe these days, but back in 1947 hotels could legally turn away Jews and also African Americans. Gregory Peck’s son gets in a fight after school with someone who calls him derogatory names for Jews.
What is most frustrating and hurtful for Gregory Peck and eye-opening for the viewers of the movie, though, is the non-action of Gregory Peck’s would-be friends. They don’t counter the prejudice. They shrug their shoulders, as if to say, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” —they ignore anti-Semitic slurs; laugh at anti-semitic jokes, attend social functions that would disallow Jews. Hence the title of the movie. The Gentleman’s Agreement—they have a Gentleman’s agreement with anti-Semites, to do nothing to stop their bigotry We might rightly call those who do nothing to combat the anti-Semitism as passive accomplices to the anti-Semites in their midst.
The movie was overly dramatic and way too preachy—and if I, a preacher can say it’s way too preachy, you know it must be true; “I am not sure that movie is deserving of so many awards,’ I thought to myself two weeks ago. But then I did some research. Its producer , Darryl Zanuck, was denied membership into the Los Angeles Country Club some time before the making of the movie. . He was denied membership because the Country Club’s owners thought he was Jewish. He was not. Sam Goldwyn and other Jews in the film industry at that time, advised Mr. Zanuck it would be best to “not make waves.” That’s how they dealt with anti-Semitism—by not making any waves. I also found out that when Gregory Peck was offered the role for the movie, his agent counseled him that the film would ruin his career. The message was too critical of people who were in important places in the movie industry.
In other words, the members of the LA Country Club, the Jews who did nothing to counter anti-Semitism and Gregory Peck’s agent—they were—well, they were passive accomplices to anti-Semitism. They had their own Gentleman’s Agreement.
The film, then, is really multi-layered, One story is about a journalist exploring anti-Semitism and finding himself on the receiving end of it; the other story is about anti-Semitism in the 1940’s in the movie industry.
Although I don’t know for sure, I suspect this underlying real life drama regarding the making of the film did as much for its winning those three Academy Awards, as did the film itself.
And now on to the story we read today in the book of John. I say it is in the book of John, but actually the story is found in all four gospel narratives—which means that this story was important to the early church—however, the characters are all slightly different, the place is different and even the thrust of the story is slightly different depending on which account you read. The authors of Matthew and Mark say that Simon is host of the dinner party. In Luke the host is an unnamed Pharisee. Here in this version, though, Lazarus is host. Jesus has just, a few chapters before, raised him from the dead, remember? And now he is eating and drinking and hosting Jesus and at least some of his disciples at a dinner party.
In Matthew, Mark and John the story takes place in Bethany; Luke situates the party in Galilee. In John and Luke a woman anoints Jesus’ feet, but in Mathew and Mark she anoints Jesus’ head. I will note only one other discrepancy, although there are others, you might want to find for yourself during your own Bible study. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t identify the woman who anoints Jesus, but John clearly states that she is Mary, Martha’s and Lazarus’ sister.
Do you remember playing telephone on the elementary school playground? You know, you get in a line with your friends. Then the first person in line whispers a story to the child standing next to him. That story then passes along the line of playmates. Along the way the story changes—a dog becomes a fierce dog or a wolf even, or a house becomes a castle or maybe a dark and foreboding cavern; likewise, our Bible stories, before they were written down, as they passed from believer to believer and from community to community. So you see how Galilee could have become Bethany. Mary could have become an unnamed woman; or was it the other way around? At this late date, who knows? Bottom line is, when we read our Bibles we can expect to receive an important faith lesson, but not necessarily, a detailed historical account. And that is why we read the Bible anyway, is it not, for its faith value?
So, on to the story. This woman, identified here as Mary, anoints Jesus. In John’s version of the story, as I just read, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. It would be wrong to imagine Mary crawling around under the table, though, her dress in a knot, maybe pushing aside a dog, or banging her head on a table leg. In those days, people reclined at table. So the men, here in this story, Lazarus ,Judas, Jesus and maybe others besides, would have been stretched out on benches. Women, whoever they may have been, but at least Mary, served the meal. At some point during the evening, Mary gets inspired. She takes a vial of perfumed ointment called nard, because it is made from a spikenard plant. Mary sits on the bench next to Jesus’ feet; or maybe she bends over him, or she sits on her heels squatting next to him. Mary wipes the perfume on Jesus’ feet with her hair, demonstrating her deep, abiding devotion to Jesus. I hope this explanation of how she anoints Jesus feet, then, restores some dignity to the poor woman.
In fact, Mary deserves all the dignity she can get. Although it is no where written in scripture, early stories about Mary circulating in the Christian church, referred to her as a woman of the night, a prostitute. You ever notice how many prostitutes there are in the Christian, and Jewish faith traditions? Some day I am going to devote a whole sermon to exploring why that is so. But not today. Enough to say here that actually, Mary, in this act of anointing Jesus’ proves herself to be a follower of Christ above all other followers of Christ.
Scripture says that she used 300 denarii worth of nard—300 denarii is a year’s salary for a day laborer, back in Jesus’ day. So what she did was lavish, some would say fool hardy, reckless. But Jesus recognizes Mary’s act for what it is. A costly act of love. The message of our story, then, is this: if you want to be a good Christian, don’t just lie on your bench, DO something bold. Peter remember, will deny Jesus three times; the rest of the disciples will disappear when Jesus is arrested, so fearful are they of the Romans. Mary stands at the base of the cross and watches Jesus die. She comes to the tomb to prepare his body for burial. She refuses to be part of any gentleman’s agreement—she will NOT let the Romans have the final say. In other words, she refuses to be passive accomplice where her faith is concerned.
Just like the movie, though, this story in John is multi-layered. The story was written a good 50 years after Jesus’ death. So the political situation had changed. By the time that John was written, the Christians’ enemy was not the Romans, but certain Jews. These certain Jews did not want Jewish Christians worshiping in the synagogue. That made for an awkward situation for the Christian Jews. Should they keep their Christianity secret so that they could remain in the synagogue? Should they stand silently by while other Christians were persecuted for their beliefs?
We know what Mary would do, don’t we?
Mary and Phil Green, or Phil Green—they are, as they say, cut of the same cloth, aren’t they? Thank goodness that in our country, at least for the time being, religious freedom prevails and religious bigotry is usually not tolerated. But of course, that could change, just like that. (Snap fingers) We are still today called to be suspicious of Gentleman’s Agreements. We fail God’s call when we remain passive in the face of bigotry. Am I being too preachy here?
I wanted to end this sermon with a quote by Martin Niemoller. Martin Niemoller was a prominent German Protestant pastor who began his career about the time that Hitler was coming to power. He eventually became an outspoken critic of Hitler, although not until Hitler had assumed complete power in Germany. After Reverend Niemoller discovered the errors of his ways and actively worked against Hitler, he was arrested by the Gestapo and spent seven years in concentration camps. Neimoller had this to say about his own actions, or shall we say his lack thereof, that is, for his early Gentleman’s Agreement with Hitler:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.”