Wednesday, 16 March 2016
The Anointing of Jesus in Four Versions
Last Sunday I continued our exploration of spiritual practices as part of the Lenten series on Spiritual Renewal. I explored Centering Prayer in my sermon. Centering Prayer is the practice of silent prayer which has the goal of making space to allow us to be more fully aware of God’s presence in our lives. It also challenges us to put our egos aside and give control over to God. This is not something which comes easily or naturally to many, if not most people.
The Gospel for Sunday, the fifth and last Sunday in Lent, was John 12: 1-8. This is John’s account of the anointing of Jesus’ feet by a woman who extravagantly uses expensive nard for the anointing. This account is interesting for a number of reasons. It is particularly interesting in my view because it is one of the few events is Jesus’ life that occurs in all four Gospels. In addition there are some differences in all four Gospel accounts. These accounts emphasize the differences that can and do occur in all the Gospels. It is a good example of how each of the Gospel writers uses events in Jesus’ life for their own purposes. I do not mean to imply that they are changing the account for bad or nefarious purposes. Indeed it is just the opposite. In my mind it shows us how each of us can make the Gospels and indeed all scripture come alive and be meaningful in our lives today.
I will give a short summary of the differences in each account:
Mark, which is generally considered the earliest of the Gospels, places the event in the house of Simon the leper. The woman, who is not identified, enters and anoints Jesus’ feet with the nard. She is criticized by some of those present, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,* and the money given to the poor.” Jesus rebukes them and quotes the famous line which is often used as an excuse for not addressing poverty, “The poor will always be with you.” However, the focus is on the woman preparing Jesus’ body for burial as a foreshadowing of the crucifixion.
Matthew’s account is very similar to Mark’s. It also occurs in the house of Simon the leper. Matthew follows Mark in wanting to emphasize not only Jesus’ association with those in opposition to the law but also includes other people in this association. Matthew specifically identifies the others as disciples which, I believe, is important that they are close followers of Jesus and all followers of Jesus should do likewise. John has the disciples saying that the money could be used to support the poor but Matthew does not record Jesus saying that the poor will always be with us. Again the emphasis is on the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial.
Luke’s account of the event is much more dramatic that Matthew’s and Mark’s. Luke identifies the host as a Pharisee and later names him as Simon but does not identify him as a leper. Luke does not name the woman but declares that she is sinful. Simon criticizes Jesus silently for allowing a sinful woman—a prostitute by implication—to do such an intimate act for Jesus. Jesus is aware of Simon’s thoughts and in response tells him a parable of debtors and debts being forgiven. Jesus uses this to have Simon hoist on his own petard to condemn himself. Jesus proclaims that the woman’s sins are forgiven and declares she has shown greater love that Simon who was the host of the occasion. Luke identifies Simon as a Pharisee to emphasize, as he often does, the importance of love over the Law. Luke is also concerned for those on the outside; sinners, women, the poor and children and wants to show that Jesus came especially for them and not the self-righteous and self-satisfied.
John’s Gospel is considered the latest of the four and differs the most from the other three which are classified as synoptic because of their similarity. John’s account is the shortest on detail and perhaps the most difference as is often the case in John’s Gospel. He place is event in the house of his good friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. John identifies the woman as Mary and is assumed therefor to be the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with the expensive nard. But John adds to this extravagance by have Mary do an even more extravagant act of wiping his feet with her hair. John does not identify this Mary as a sinner but it is implied by this act of a woman letting down her hair for a man who is not her husband. John has Judas as the one who criticizes Jesus for this act but John declares he does this because he is the keeper of the money bag or the disciples i.e. the treasurer, and wants to steal the money. There is no other biblical evidence that Lazarus fulfilled this role as the purse keeper or embezzled money from the group. John does emphasize the act as a foreshadowing of the crucifixion.
There is also an interesting tradition that developed in the middle ages that the sinful woman who John identifies as Mary was Mary Magdalene. This led to the belief that and common misconception that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. However, there is no biblical evidence of this.