(Each Saturday, a religious leader offers a personal perspective in this space. To be part of this series, email [email protected])
The gospel text for this Sunday in many Christian denominations is John’s account of the woman who anointed Jesus. Like other texts for these days approaching Holy Week, it is dark in tone, and this story is particularly poignant. In this one, a woman anoints Jesus with perfumed oil (a rather shocking intimate gesture). Another disciple objects to the action as representing a waste of funds that could have gone to the poor, and Jesus defends the expenditure of oil as preparation for his burial.
I love this story not only for its emotional power and for its depiction of the humanity of Jesus in the days leading up to his death, but also because it provides a fascinating example of how the biblical narrative has evolved and been shaped by the dynamics of a young Christian movement struggling to understand a memory that did not fit their religious and cultural paradigms.
All four New Testament gospels include an anointing story, but they differ in detail. The account of Mark (Mk 14:3-9) is chronologically the oldest written. In it, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head, and the disciples collectively object to the gesture as wasteful. Jesus silences them, stating that “she has beforehand anointed my body for burial”. He goes on to observe that “what she did will be told in remembrance of her”. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26:6-13) is virtually identical.
The Gospel of Luke includes a story of anointing (Luke 7:36-50) but the details are surprisingly different. In it, the anointed is described as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” Instead of anointing Jesus’ head, she anoints his feet after bathing them with her tears and wiping them with her hair. When the owner rebukes Jesus for letting himself be touched by a sinner, Jesus responds by justifying his action as an act of gratitude for the forgiveness of his sins.
Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, professor of theology at Harvard, offers a convincing analysis of this change in history. Noting that in the Hebrew scriptural tradition the prophet points to the king by anointing his head, as Samuel did with David, she interprets the account of Mark’s anointing as representing the prophetic acknowledgment of Jesus’ wife as the Messiah. Moreover, observes Schussler-Fiorenza, associating the action with the oil used at the time of the burial, the woman is the only one among the disciples to understand that the messiahship of Jesus is that of suffering and death. “It was a politically dangerous story” for a patriarchal Greco-Roman audience, she argues, to have the female disciple in the role of prophet and Jesus lifting her up for remembrance. The memory was thus transformed by Luke, she suggests, into a narrative more palatable to the woman as a sinner.
John’s account of the anointing (Jn 12:1-8), written decades after Mark, Matthew and Luke, seems to be the compromise version. John returns to the tradition of the anointing depicting the woman’s preparation of Jesus’ body for burial, but tells the less controversial story that it is Jesus’ feet that are anointed. It also places the event with Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and identifies Mary as the anointing woman, implying that her attention is a gesture of support; in a trying week, she sees it.
The biblical story never fails to challenge us with its complexity, and it challenges us as often with its unwavering wisdom. A gesture of love and appreciation in a difficult time and place is a good idea for all of us.
The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew is an emerging church community in Greenfield. We believe that God calls us to cultivate a community of love, joy, hope and healing. Jesus is our model for a life of faith, compassion, hospitality and service. We strive to be assertive and accessible, welcoming and inclusive; we seek to promote reconciliation, exercise responsible stewardship, and embrace ancient traditions for modern lives. All are invited and welcome. We worship in person on Sundays at 10 a.m., and services are also streamed live on our Facebook page. 8 Church Street, Greenfield. 413-773 3925