I title this “the women” (plural) because of the four ways the four gospels tell the story of Jesus’ anointing. Let’s look at all four stories.
The gospel of John
In this week’s readings, Living in The Story focuses on John’s way of telling the story in chapter 12:
- The woman is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus
- The anointing oil is pure nard, “a costly perfume”
- Mary anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair, a provocatively intimate act
- The anointing triggered Judas and propelled the narrative towards his act of betrayal
- In John’s narrative, the story is placed just after John relates the death of Lazarus in chapter 11. He includes Jesus’ encounter with this same Mary and the strong confession of resurrection faith by her sister Martha.
- The story is set just before Jesus’ passion and so John’s Jesus says explicitly that the anointing has to do with “the day of his burial.”
- The story continues with this odd bit of information:
…the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
The gospel of Luke
Luke also tells us a story about Mary and Martha but it is not an anointing story. Recall in Luke 10:38-42, Luke’s Jesus gently chided Martha for her “worries and distractions” while the master affirmed Mary “sitting at his feet and listening” and reassured them that such a choice “will not be taken away from her.”
But when Luke tells the story of Jesus’ anointing, he makes no connection to Mary of Bethany. Instead this woman is a sinner who enters the home of Simon the Pharisee.
- The setting is not specified but the story does not seem to happen in Bethany.
- The unnamed woman brought an alabaster jar of ointment
- The ointment was mixed with the anointing of her own tears.
- She too dried his feet with her hair but she also kissed the feet of Jesus; even more intimate that John’s story
- Simon’s thoughts are revealed to us by Luke: “if this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is – a sinner.”
- The incident triggers a parable about a creditor who forgives his debtors. “So who would love more? The one forgiven a large debt or the one forgiven a small debt?”
- As parables always do, the answer creates more questions: is it the grieving woman or the judgmental man in this story who has the “greater debt”?
- Luke ends the story with Jesus’ words of forgiveness and blessing to the woman: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
- Unlike the other three gospels, Luke places the story early in the ministry of Jesus. He then follows it with a description of other women disciples who accompanied Jesus and provided for him as he traveled and taught.
The gospel of Mark
In Mark’s story, an unnamed woman came to the house of Simon to anoint Jesus’ feet but here, Simon is “the leper.”
- The story is set in Bethany, near the end of Jesus’ ministry
- The woman brought “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard”
- In Mark’s story, the woman anoints Jesus’ head
- Mark does not brand her as “a sinner.”
- Mark does not name Judas as the indignant one but rather “some who were there” were the ones complaining about the action’s wastefulness
- Jesus explicitly connects her anointing to his own burial
- And then these famous words of grace by Jesus:
Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.
The gospel of Matthew
Matthew’s version follows Mark quite carefully: a woman from Bethany comes to the house of Simon the leper.
- She “came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment”
- She anointed Jesus’ head.
- The ones who decried “the waste” were Jesus’ own disciples.
- Jesus scolded the naysayers: “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me.”
- Jesus made the connection between this anointing and his own burial.
- Matthew’s Jesus repeated the blessing: “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
- Matthew (following Mark) immediately segued into the story of Judas’ intent to betray Jesus.
Our Living in The Story effort often reveals these kinds of differences as we read through the Bible.
Different versions of the same story are not to be taken as contradictions.
Nor are they examples of different geographical viewpoints. (The famous four people standing on four corners describing the same accident. Or the popular blind men describing the elephant from their different places: truck, tail, legs, etc).
The four gospels reveal theological differences and varied understandings offered by thoughtful serious students of Scripture pondering the eternal mystery of the Christ event.
(These theological perspectives are similar to the experience of Church in our own day. Consider the range of theologies and Christologies among Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox; Southern Baptists and American Baptists; United Methodists and Pentecostals. The range is wide and perfectly understandable.)
One More Thing
I sometimes hear some Christians argue that our society is justified in its acceptance of poverty and homelessness by quoting Jesus’ words in this little story:
You always have the poor with you …John 12:8 (also Mark 14:7 and Matthew 26:11)
They take these words as sanctioning a status quo of poverty.
They argue that poverty is inevitable, part of the natural order, an unsolvable reality.
Some even claim that Jesus’ words prove that poverty is God’s will.
It’s a bizarre perspective.
Part of this understanding comes from a long tradition that has roots in a perverse prosperity gospel. As this reasoning goes: “God helps those who help themselves” and a person’s poverty only “proves” they are lazy with a lack of will power and character.
In American Christianity, the argument often is that charity is the responsibility of the Church and of individuals, not of government.
But this approach dismisses the societal structures and governmental policies that often create and perpetuate poverty. This approach focuses on individuality and downplays the power and responsibility of community.
The perspective of Scripture always assumes community; our modern way of reading it with a bias toward individualist rights and privileges has done deep damage to the authentic message of the Bible.
These women in our story are poor and yet their gift to Jesus is an opulent gesture.
Conventional wisdom labels it “wasteful,” foolish, senseless. But in God’s economy, abundant amazing grace is never wasteful.
- The women pour out their anointing with reckless abandon.
- They sanctify the moment with their lavish love.
- They honor Jesus with their bold extravagance.
It is the giving that creates the grace.
It is the giving to which we are called.
- We don’t control how the gift is received.
- We can’t know how the gift will be used.
- We mustn’t presume to judge worthiness.
We simply are called to give. To offer grace in abundance.
As God does.
God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.Matthew 5:45
And so our gifts given to God – and now given to others in Christ’s name – should reflect something of God’s own opulent, extravagant way of giving.
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these … you did it to me.Matthew 25:40
Living in The Story readings for Week 32