Mary took a pound of costly perfume, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.
If you feel like you’ve heard this story before, you are not incorrect. The question, however, might be: which version of the story do you recall? You see, a similar scene occurs in all four canonical gospels. Only the Gospel of John, however, names this otherwise unidentified woman as Mary of Bethany (the sister of Martha and Lazarus).
All four gospels agree that, at some point, a woman anointed Jesus, but other details vary. In Matthew and Mark, for instance, the woman anoints Jesus’ head with costly oil. In Luke and John, however, it is his feet that are anointed. In all instances this woman’s lavish gesture elicits a sense of scandal amongst those gathered at table with Jesus.
Interestingly enough, only in the Gospel of Luke is this woman identified as “a woman of the city, a sinner,” and only Luke records that she wet his feet with her very tears. No other gospels mention those details.
There are striking similarities, and startling differences in each gospel writer’s telling of this tale. So, what are we to make of this mysterious woman and her extravagant act of faith?
Well, were we to bend over backwards to force these four versions to harmonize, we might insist that perhaps Jesus was anointed on more than one occasion. With all these conflicting reports, surely they’re not all talking about the same scene, right? One time it was his feet, another time it was his head, and it happened at two different locations. Mystery solved, case closed, right?
Well that’s one possibility. Possible, but not probable.
The multiple attestation of this story in all four gospels is no coincidence. And, ironically, the fact that they each report the scene slightly differently actually validates the likelihood that this was a very historical event, witnessed by many eyes.
For example, if each of us were to witness such an memorable scene, and were asked to recall it some years later, we, too, might remember the particular details differently. In some sense, we all see what we want to see, we each see this scene through our own bias and preference. We might each come up with our own version of the same event. This is most likely the case of what has happened here with the four gospel writers. They each knew the story of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, and they each retell it as they remember.
The point is not to stumble on the differences, or worse, to distort them into harmony. The point is to listen in, contrast and compare, be attentive to what each gospel writer wants us to notice about the anointing of Jesus by this woman. If this is to be anything other than a mildly interesting cross-referencing of texts, we’re going to have to sit in on the conversation and pay attention to where it might be speaking to us.
First of all, we should note that John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, and John is the only gospel that identifies her as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. Jesus is quite familiar with Mary’s family, and they are friends. In fact, in the scene immediately preceding this passage, Jesus had just raised Lazarus (Mary’s brother) from the grave. It had been Mary who had warned Jesus of the stench, seeing that her brother had already been in the tomb four days. As the venerable old King James Version puts it, “He stinketh.” (try teaching that lesson to middle-school boys)
We should also note the timeframe, which John provides as a preface to the story. Jesus was slowly, but surely making his way to Jerusalem, and the Passover was a mere six days away – the same Passover when his arrest, trial, and crucifixion will occur. Already the religious authorities had been plotting how to put Jesus to death, and this story begins the tale of this Holy Week, the last days of Jesus.
It would seem that here in this scene, the stench of death still hangs in the air. Jesus, fortifying himself for his own death in a few days time, knows that Mary knows what is likely to happen when he goes to Jerusalem. “She bought it,” he says, “so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” As they dine, death is very clearly on his mind.
And Judas – the treasurer for this band of disciples – Judas protests saying, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Ah yes, good ‘ole pragmatic Judas, always looking out for the little guy. He’s the perfect example of how we all, from time to time, use the very best of intentions to justify our greed.
Whether Judas is being pragmatic, deceitful, or resentful, we cannot readily determine from the text. The gospel writer certainly editorializes his distrust of Judas into his work, knowing in retrospect that Judas betrayed Jesus, and probably even stole from the common purse.
I wonder, however, if we were to take out John’s suspicion of Judas’ character, how many of us might identify with his pragmatism. Is his protest not prudent? Are we not called to be wise stewards of our treasure? Are we not, after all, reasonable, sensible people who don’t get too carried away with our faith? Are we not Episcopalians?
(As an aside, it is important to remember that the Anglican via media is not a vanilla, lukewarm faith. The via media – or middle way – is often called a “third way” or the radical way of Jesus. It is a worldview that is not to be mistaken as compromise, but rather a comprehensiveness for the sake of truth; a theology that resists either/or – black/white dichotomy thinking, and encourages imaginative both/and solutions). Okay, soapbox over.
So to return to our story, on one side of the scene we observe a pragmatic-resentlful-and/or-deceitful Judas contrasted with the extravagant generosity of Mary.
Mary, who knew so much about what Jesus had done for her family. Mary, who was accustomed to sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening attentively in the posture of a true disciple. Mary, who knew the one thing necessary to follow Jesus. Mary, who followed Jesus when others told her to go back to the kitchen. Have we somehow missed that the typical order of the world is being inverted as this holy woman anoints God’s messiah?
Consider how, typically, it was left to prophets and priests, popes and prelates to anoint and crown a monarch. But here we see, in the kingdom of God, a not-so-subordinate woman, in this simple act of extravagant faith, anointing Jesus – not merely for an earthly throne, but for his death, resurrection, and ascension as Christ the King. Mary’s singular act of devotion, her anointing of God’s messiah is costly in nearly every way. Not only does she pour out a costly perfume, she also risks her reputation, risks ridicule, risks embarrassing herself or Jesus. Everything about this anointing is costly.
It might cause us to pause and ask ourselves, “What do I hold so precious?” What costs a year’s wages that we’d be willing to pour out for the sake of Jesus? How might I pour out my wealth in an act of faith? What am I willing to risk?
We can see, quite clearly here, what Mary holds dear. We can see, also, what Judas clings to so tightly. What costly thing would you be willing to pour out to anoint Jesus as Christ?
In this story, John invites us into a remarkably intimate scene; an act that is so authentically whole-hearted that it causes some to squirm. It is a touching scene as Mary literally touches the feet of Jesus. She literally pours out her treasure for the person she treasured most.
I wonder…today as we recline, stand, or kneel at table with Jesus, what is it we are willing to pour out? What are we willing to risk to show our love for Jesus? This is not some theoretical question to be dropped at the door. This is a real world, real life matter of how we love Jesus in how we love one another. The offertory is not just a beautiful anthem by the choir, it is not just the presentation of monies, bread, and wine to be blessed in the Eucharist. The offertory is nothing short of our invitation to pour ourselves out in an act of faith.
Such an act of extravagant love can’t help but permeate the air, filling the room with the fragrance of faith. Certainly some may squirm or resent this oblation, but many others may be inspired to go and tell the story…to go and do the same.
As we gather, once again, at the table with Jesus what will you do to inspire others to love so freely? Forget your feet, how does your faith smell?