All of the Gospels tell a story of a woman anointing Jesus.
Matthew and Mark are very similar. They both identify the event taking place at a dinner at the home of Simon the Leper. Neither identifies the woman who anoints Jesus. She is only described as “a woman.”
They both agree that this unidentified woman pours very expensive perfume on Jesus’ head.
Nard is a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oil derived from a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas. The oil has, since ancient times, been used as a perfume, as a medicine and in religious contexts, across a wide territory from India to Europe. Her action speaks of the traditional anointing of kings. But in addition to this it fulfills the meaning of Messiah or Christ, the anointed one.
Luke tells a story about a dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon. In his story a woman from the unidentified town where the dinner is taking place; a woman who lived a sinful life, comes to the dinner. First she bathes Jesus’ feet with her repentant tears, dries them with her hair and then anoints them with expensive perfume.
Pope Gregory the Great used this scripture to declare that Mary Magdalene was this woman and therefore a repentant prostitute. Of course, Gregory had other problems at that time, like the rise of the power of women in the church.
But the way the author of John tells the story brings more depth for us to contemplate. In John’s story it is Mary the sister of Martha who anoints Jesus. And like Luke, it is his feet that she anoints.
We don’t know exactly where this dinner takes place, but it is in honor of Jesus, most likely because of his raising Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha from the dead. An act that endangered both Jesus and Lazarus since when the Pharisees heard about it they wanted to kill Lazarus to erase Jesus’ power and kill Jesus because of this great power he was exhibiting.
The other thing we notice about this event, Martha is serving. You remember that in a story from the Gospel of Luke, Mary is listening to Jesus while Martha serves. But John has moved the story as a follow up to his story of the raising of Lazarus, which appears only in his Gospel.
John calls these events in his Gospel signs. There are seven signs in the Gospel of John.
At the sign of the raising of Lazarus, both Mary and Martha proclaim that they know that Jesus could have saved their brother from his death, a bold statement of his divine nature.
But we know that he needed to show his power over death as a foreshadowing of what we would see in his crucifixion and resurrection. So he waits to arrive until Lazarus is dead four days.
After the perfume is used to anoint Jesus, there are different reactions. In Matthew disciples complain about it. In Mark the complaint comes from those who were “standing near.” Luke tells us that the Pharisee wondered to himself how Jesus could be associated with a woman of such low repute.
Meanwhile, John involves Judas Iscariot in the story. The Gospel tells us that Judas objects to the use of the perfume because he is a thief.
There is only one other place this Greek word for thief is used in John, in the story of the Good Shepherd. It is a way to demonize Judas both in the description as thief and in the position that description holds in that story as the one that does not care for the sheep.
Judas does not want to believe the signs that Jesus has performed and because of this he represents all of humanity that walk away from the Love of God and do not embrace it in their lives and in their relationships with others.
Then there is this much-misunderstood comment that appears in three of the Gospels about the poor. Many people think that Jesus is saying that the poor are not worthy of care.
It’s an example of dualistic thinking that has invaded our faith. This thinking comes mainly from the Greek culture and the use of their language, which is bound in that culture, in telling the story through the Gospels.
But in reality, he is calling the readers attention to the law in Deuteronomy 15:11 in which the Lord says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
Everyone listening would have known this law and understood that Jesus was calling everyone to observe it. Meanwhile his approaching passion and death are not opposed to this law, but are more important if they help all people to learn to live in ways that embrace resurrection and peace. This understanding brings us to a position of unity of concept and one-ness in our theology.
As a result we can begin to see that life is not about one thing against another, but rather a whole system of choices that we make to live meaningful lives. Christians navigate that system looking for the least disruptive entry point into a problem and seek the outcome that will have the greatest benefit for all.
We should not ignore the fact that this perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus was more commonly used to anoint the dead. That is why all of this has come together on this occasion in John’s Gospel. The dinner foreshadows the great banquet all will experience in the fullness of a relationship with the one loving God.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus foreshadows his own death even in the presence of Lazarus, the one he raised from the dead.
Of course it is impossible to ignore the extravagant nature of Mary’s act. She lowers herself to Jesus’ feet.
She is taking the position of a servant. In doing so, she is demonstrating her role as a disciple of Jesus. She is showing that she understands that to be a follower of Jesus, everyone must lower themselves to seek to serve all in need around them.
In anointing his feet she is prefiguring what he will do at the Passover Meal he shares with his disciples on the night before his crucifixion. As a matter of fact the exact same word is used to describe Jesus wiping the feet of his disciples with his towel and Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.
But there is another thing she is doing by wiping his feet with her hair. She is claiming her own anointing as a member of the Body of Christ. Her head is now anointed by the perfume on his feet. She is now an anointed one, a member of his body.
I was watching a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel this week. It was called, “Body and Blood, Decoding Christianity.
In it we are shown that in some places, specifically several locations in the Philippines, men undergo a ritual of being nailed to a cross for a period of time to atone for sins they feel they have committed and to draw themselves closer to Jesus.
I watched as they showed a man who has had his hands nailed to a cross and raised up above the crowd. They cleanse his hands with alcohol and pierce his hands with very fine nails; ropes that tie him to the cross support his body weight.
The year of the filming of the documentary, his thirteenth, he remains elevated for thirteen minutes before he nods his head and is lowered.
I kept thinking that I don’t believe that this is what Jesus had in mind, not to mention that it was not Jesus hands that were pierced, but his wrists, which is the only way to cause the loss of blood necessary to kill a man.
I also don’t think that Jesus is talking about a loving God that needs us to go to these lengths to be forgiven. He is calling instead for repentance, turning around, and changing our behavior. Maybe this is harder than being nailed to a cross.
As we approach Holy Week and our own journey to the foot of the cross, I’m hoping that what we will remember is that Jesus was not calling us to suffer with him. Jesus in his crucifixion was calling us to take bold stands for the welfare of all our sisters and brothers in this world, all of them, not just the ones who have the same last name, or call themselves Episcopalians, or Christians, or citizens of the United States.
When we find ourselves at the foot of the cross I’m hoping that we will see the joy in claiming our divine nature from Jesus the same way that Mary of Bethany did. That we will become anointed ones in the Body of Christ and that the world may smell the fragrance that was first proclaimed in the Song of Solomon.
In the context of that great book from the Hebrew Scriptures, it was about the joy of the bride and groom.
To us it is about Jesus the groom and the church his bride. The church, the Body of Christ is the source of the fragrance that will fill the house with a life-giving aroma of hope and love.
Can you smell it?