Lent 5: 7 April John 12:1-8
It was an old story. Both Mark and John link it to Jesus’ last days, Mark (followed by Matthew), in Bethany in the house of Simon, the leper, just after Jesus’ final arrival in Jerusalem, John, just before, in Bethany at the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. The allusion to burial probably helped make the connection. Luke has a similar story in the house of Simon the Pharisee, perhaps a variant, placed much earlier in Jesus’ ministry and apparently in Galilee (7:36-50). Something is happening wherever the story is told; and doubtless something happened to generate the story.
Last week we heard about sinners. One might imagine that originally it was such a woman. Would Jesus let his feet be caressed by one of those women? Was the perfume part of the prostitute’s tools? Perhaps it was as baffling as that. What was Jesus doing allowing himself to be treated like this? Did he not know what kind of woman she was or was suspected to be?
This is imagination. Neither Mark nor John indicates that this was the ground for the objection. Luke does. If it was as I suspect, then Jesus was having to respond to criticism again. Surely a woman like this was beyond the pale! Might we imagine also his response? That is difficult because it appears that we have a number of responses among which Jesus’ original response may be included - or perhaps, not. From other stories about Jesus we might expect a clever quip on the lips of Jesus. Did he turn the act of affection on its head and describe it as a burial anointing in advance? That would fit Jesus’ typical responses. Or was the allusion to the poor (Deut 15:11) his original response? It is a little bit like deciding whether in 2:23-28 (the controversy in the cornfields) the citation of scripture (David) in 2:25-26 was original or the punchline in 2:27, ‘The sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath.’
I think it likely that the scriptural responses are nearly always secondary and that before them is usually a clever response on Jesus’ part. So here, I think it likely that Jesus alluded to his burial. Unpacking it: this kind of acceptance without discrimination is dangerous and will lead to my death. Such reconstructions have to be tentative - could be quite wrong. They are called for by the evidence of such a variety of ways in which the tradition has obviously been reworked: in John it is a good woman; in Luke, a sinner; in Mark she anoints Jesus’ head; in Luke and John, his feet. The responses of Jesus in John and Mark are similar, with Mark looking like it has more expansions. Later generations imagined it was Mary Magdalene.
Perhaps Mark’s tradition wanted to hint at Jesus’ anointing as messiah, certainly a major theme in the passion narrative: Jesus dies as King of the Jews. Thus in Mark (and Matthew) the woman anoints Jesus’ head. John and Luke have the feet anointed, but in Luke the woman wipes away tears; in John she wipes the oil. Jesus will show (and model) such lowliness when he washes his disciples’ feet (John 13). In John Judas objects; he is the greedy one, the betrayer. In Matthew the disciples object; in Mark, simply those present; in Luke, Simon, the Pharisee. So for John there are two starkly contrasting responses to Jesus.
The objection in all the stories (except Luke) is now the waste of resources. People also knew about budgets then. Caring about the poor meant caring about the bottom line. It looks like Jesus is taking the side of the rich ornamented cathedral against those pleading for money for social justice. Some will be comfortable seeing here a Jesus claiming his worthiness to be the recipient of lavish expenditure: ‘you won’t always have me around.’ But the real focus is the woman. Can we not let her response stand? It is not that we should see it as stroking the ego of Jesus, but rather as indicative of her response, indeed, to God. A person is responding to love and acceptance. It is not the time to talk budgets, but to value the person. There is a lot we could say, also, about the prodigal son and how he might have made an even better response, but for the father now was the time for tears of joy, for running down the road and embracing. Here in our story, now is the time to be glad for human vulnerability. Such vulnerability is the other side of the compassion of Jesus. Jesus observes: such compassion and meetings of compassion and vulnerability invite death, a typically enigmatic response.
If perhaps not its original setting, now the story belongs in the last days of Jesus. The woman’s response stands in contrast to that of Judas, but also of Peter and the disciples. Both in Mark and in John, as in the common tradition which feeds them directly and indirectly, Jesus is pictured as abandoned by his inner circle of disciples. In the end it will be a few women who are left standing near Golgotha and who will venture to the tomb. The unlikely ones in Mark and John’s world, the women, become the models. This is deliberately subversive and reflects so much of the experience of Jesus’ ministry. Others were so good, so devout, and so busy being so, that they missed the point. This is grindingly obvious, when a woman like this inarticulately breaks the perfume container open and spreads the contents over Jesus’ feet. Mark even suggests that Jesus predicted how memorable her act would be. Let the memory live!
Epistle: Lent 5: 7 April Philippians 3:4b-14