All four of the New Testament gospels include an account of Jesus’ anointing, though they differ in details. John tells us that the anointing incident took place six days before Passover, and that the atmosphere was charged with tension: according to John’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents were already plotting to kill him, and pilgrims in Jerusalem were speculating with one another about whether Jesus would come to the city for the festival.
Mark’s accounts of events in Jesus’ life have the authority of having been, chronologically, the earliest recorded, though this isn’t a guarantee of accuracy. In his anointing story, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head with a costly perfume and the disciples, collectively, object to the gesture as wasteful. Jesus silences them, stating that “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” He then goes on to observe that “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Matthew’s account (Matt 26:6-13) is virtually identical to Mark’s.
Luke’s gospel includes an anointing story (Lk 7:36-50) but the details are strikingly different. For one thing, Luke doesn’t locate the episode in proximity to Jesus’ death, but rather, cites it as happening earlier in Jesus’ ministry. The most dramatic difference between Mark and Matthew’s version and Luke’s is that the anointer is described as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” Instead of anointing Jesus’ head, she abases herself, anointing his feet after bathing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. When the homeowner in Luke’s version criticizes Jesus for allowing himself to be touched by a sinner, Jesus responds by justifying her action as one of gratitude for the forgiveness of her sins.
Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Harvard Professor of Divinity, has written about this transformation in what seems to be a single memory from Jesus’ life: her analysis is pretty compelling. She observes that the anointing of the head is a gesture that has distinct and important symbolic meaning in Jesus’ culture.
Noting that in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures the prophet designates the king by anointing his head, as Samuel did with David, she interprets the anointing in Mark as representing the woman’s prophetic identification of Jesus as the Messiah. Just as Peter had SPOKEN his recognition that “You are the Messiah” (Mt 16:6, Mk 8:29), the anointing woman expressed the same recognition IN ACTION, actually taking on the role of the prophet.
Further, Schussler-Fiorenza observes, in pairing the action with oil used at the time of burial, the woman is alone among the disciples in understanding Jesus’ messiahship to be one of suffering and death.
“It was a politically dangerous story” for a patriarchal Greco-Roman audience, Schussler-Fiorenza contends, having the woman disciple in the role of prophet and having Jesus specifically lift her up for remembrance. Is it any surprise that her name is lost to us? The memory as told in Mark and Matthew was thus transformed by Luke, Schussler-Fiorenza suggests, into the more acceptable narrative of the woman as sinner.1
When John tells the story of the anointing decades after Mark, Matthew and Luke, as we have heard this morning, he seems to offer the compromise version. John agrees with the tradition that the anointing represents the woman’s preparation of Jesus body for burial, but tells the less controversial story that it is Jesus’ feet that are anointed. He also places the event at the home of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and identifies Mary as the anointing woman, making her attention is a gesture of support: during a week of tension and foreboding, she offers comfort.
Some undoubtedly conclude that the differing stories of Jesus’ anointing represent entirely different incidents. Some will choose to conclude that Luke’s version - the woman as forgiven sinner – is the true story. We’ll never know. I hope we don’t dismiss issue, however, as it raises the profoundly important question I began with, that of whose story we choose to hear.
Last Fall we selected as an “all-parish read” Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning. Similarly, a number of us joined in Sacred Ground “listening circles” in a curriculum prepared by the Episcopal Church. Both opportunities provided me with information about the complex realities of race and racism in the American Story that I did not encounter in my time spent in mainstream white American educational institutions. For the record, I do not accept every word Kendi wrote as “gospel”: there are points on which I reach different conclusions than he did. Kendi, however, and the Sacred Ground material and other resources I have sought out have certainly lifted a curtain that the culture we live in prefers for me not to peek behind.
It’s been said that “history is written by the victors”. I don’t think we can ignore the fact that those who hold the power and authority in a community shape the flow of information. We will always do well to seek out multiple sources so that we can make our own choices about what to believe and what to be shaped by.
But I want to return to John’s account of the anointing, because it also lifts up for us the hard question of the limitations of our seeing and hearing.
In all of the gospels, Jesus repeatedly informs the disciples traveling with him of what awaits him in Jerusalem. He is often very specific. Here’s one of many of Jesus’ predictions, from Luke:
Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” (Lk 18:31-33)
Repeatedly, as we know, the disciples could not hear it. Luke goes on in the passage I just read to tell us that “they understood nothing about all these things.” Peter, in fact, was vehement in criticizing Jesus for making such disturbing predictions, and was in turn rebuked by Jesus for doing so.
How often and how easily do we reject what others tell us about their realities, often enough because we don’t want to face the uncomfortable feelings their situations stir up in us? I have a childhood friend whose husband died a couple of weeks ago and this week she posted on social media a piece, versions of which I’m sure we’ve all seen, about what is helpful and what is not helpful to say to someone who is grieving. Her post spoke to the impulse we all have ask others not to feel bad, or at least, not to make us feel bad.
In the case of “the twelve”, it’s pretty easy to see that in their hope for a messiah who would be triumphant in conquering the powers that produced suffering for their people, they were blinded and deafened to the truth that Jesus was trying to teach them, that sacrificial love is the way to peace.
When we read and remember the accounts of Jesus’ Passion, I am always thinking about how lonely it must have been for him. But one of the disciples, whether it was Mary of Bethany or someone else, was able to hear what the others could not. She had heard and she believed that Jesus’ death and burial were approaching. She managed to get beyond “what not to say” when another is grieving, and she offered touch, and silent solace.
I am not inviting us to feel guilty for all of the times and ways in which we haven’t heard what we ought to hear, the times when we insist on imposing our version of reality over what we are told about another person’s more difficult reality.
I do invite us to work at being honest about our capacity to do these things, however. I invite us to examine our negative reactions when those resistant thoughts and feelings rise up in us in response to another’s sharing of “their truth”.
Let us move forward doing our best to walk in love.
1 Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, Crossroads; Introduction.
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