OUR BIBLICAL study for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is from the Gospel according to Saint John. Keeping with John's penchant for duality, in the reading for this Sunday we gain lessons on both the power of the divine, against the onslaught of human sinfulness. The gospel reading relates…
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it.
Jesus said, "Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." (John 12:1-8)
In this text we have the disciples described as gathered for a sabbatical from mission, in Bethany, which locates just outside of Jerusalem. Centered in the story is the living Lord Jesus, who raised Lazarus from the dead. The pivotal event is recorded in all gospel accounts. So, as we peruse the gospels, we find similar witnesses of this occasion in Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 26:6-13, and Luke 7:36-50. Given this wide citation, we wonder using comparative reading, what we may learn from the combined textual message, and the emphasis of each author. By this we gain a view of a wondrous scriptural tapestry that is missed by a more casual and singular reading, and so also it reveals the particular motives of John.
First, looking in Mark (c.65-70A.D.) we find that the event was not in the house of Lazarus, though he may have been present. The event was recorded as occurring in the house of Simon the Leper. For John’s later account, the name of Simon is omitted completely. It is as though, John wanted to completely ignore any emphasis on Simon and his heritage. Also, in this earlier account of the scene, the community of Mark related that the woman broke a jar of nard ointment amid the gathered… and “they” reproached her. So here we see a difference from John’s account, in that we see that initially more than one person voiced objection to the use of the ointment. In John, we read only that Judas objected. This raises the question about whether the omission of the other objectors was done by the later Johannine writer, so to affix all monetary hunger upon Judas alone… and highlighting his being money-compulsive... and his identity as a single, traitorous thief. If so, was this done to give greater status to the apostles, since they were long gone from the scene by the date of the gospel’s writing? Typically, the particular Markan view toward the disciples was that they were rather slow-minded, belly-button focused sinners. Thus in Mark they completely missed the nuance of his numerous death predictions. We also notice in Mark, the reading related that Jesus stated that the woman from the streets was accomplishing the anointing of him in preparation for his burial. This seems to lay evidence that the disciples missed the meaning of this anointing. They had to be told once again.
When we turn our attention to the Matthean account (written c.85-90A.D.), we notice no mention made of our Lord sitting at the table, but note that Matthew agreed that Jesus’ head was anointed. But, in agreement with the account in Mark, Jesus said in response..,
“Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."
We note that Matthew’s gospel was more comprehensive, in that it included the birth narrative and many other features that Mark did not. It seems parchment was more available for the church of Matthew than for Mark.
Finally, the Lukan gospel (written also c.85-90 A.D.) offers details that read quite differently. In Luke, the anointing occurred in the house of a Pharisee, much earlier in our Lord’s ministry. As well, the ointment is applied not only to Jesus’ head, but in agreement with John, Luke related that it was specifically applied to also his feet. As well, a question posed to Simon is nested into the account. Was this Simon the disciple? Or was Simon the Leper originally a Pharisee? Or has the author described a different household event?
Additionally, the Lukan account closed as the woman of dubious identity had her many sins forgiven. This last account was not mentioned in any of the other gospels, but may have been inserted due to pronounced Lukan preference for the sinful poor in the dispersed Roman Empire. Was this his favoring of those later Gentiles who were thought to be religiously deficient by the early church’s Hebrew members?
Also, we note that these deviations in Luke, from the other accounts... may be attributed to the fact that the writer was not directly interactive with Jesus and the anointing event. Luke’s gospel was therefore greatly reconstructed from predecessor materials, in that he received the gospel stories from Mark and a multiplicity of sources. He only remotely described geographic location and historical relevance in second-hand fashion. We yet note, while not in the same order, the story is told truly. We have the solid witness of this event in all gospels, which surely occurred through the miraculous prodding of the Holy Spirit.
How the Story Unfolds for John…
In the anointing of Jesus in Mark, we see the beginnings of the Hebrew’s priestly ritual pattern found within the tabernacle. In the temple cult of Israel, the ritual procession passed from the altar toward the Holy of Holies, as the oil laver was reached. Once associate priests were purified, the High Priest then entered the holy place. Entering the Holy of Holies alone, the High Priest interceded, but not for his own salvation. He interceded for the whole people of God; indeed for their keeping and blessing. Therefore, it seems that the anointing of Jesus just outside of Jerusalem by a sinner, and occasioned before his ride into the holy city… fitted the ritual pattern. The supper at Bethany was closely followed by the triumphal entry. The text is remarkable in Luke, because of the visit of certain Greeks to the disciples. It is apparent in this scene that John related strongly to his Greco-Roman roots. Why was this so important?
In answer, we note that Ancient Greek tales of warrior preparations came into play. In John, the woman from the streets in other gospels has the name of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus and all of a household in Bethany. She in near wifely-fashion, anointed Jesus. This follows the ritual we read about in Greek narratives concerning the war preparations of Spartan warriors. Spartan soldiers were anointed for burial before a battle… by their women, and sent off bearing shield, spear and armor. All this while hearing from their wives... “Come home carrying your shield or upon it!”
It seems that John's writing portrays for us Jesus Christ, the Divine Warrior. He was anointed in Greek fashion from head to toe. Jesus was prepared for battle unto death. His death would occur in the war against Satan, which frees us from the rule of evil worldly powers and punishment of eternal death. It seems to my reading that Jesus understood this mission in Greek warrior fashion, for when we read farther in the chapter we find…
“Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. So these came to Philip, who was from Beth-saida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’
Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus. And Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In the context of this scene then unfolding in the Johannine Greek world, Jesus was likely tempted by Greek proselytes in the faith to come away with them, to be regarded highly as a rabbi and spared any violence. Jesus refused the overture and revealed himself as being Christ, the Deliverer for all persons.
Why Now Do We Hear?
We may ask then, “Does our church lectionary reading do good to deliberately deviate from the previous week's Lukan narrative in order to bring us clarity from John? According to this text, I believe so. If we ascribe to John’s penchant toward the symbolic, we see that the woman in the text... though unidentified except as a sinner in some gospels... represents all sinners. She represents the church... we human sinners in both the early church and now… located in every land. Through her, Jesus is shown indisputably described as the Word of God in John's Prolog... located in the beginning of the gospel's first chapter.
After the woman applied the oil and spices, he stood like King David of old… and also as a dedicated Greek warrior. He carried scriptural prophecy into dramatic conflict for the souls of both Hebrew and Gentile, over against Satan and the demons of this world. Dying on the cross as the bearer and subject of the Law, he became the shield of salvation. You see, our Lord carved a new kingdom using the double-edged sword of Law and Gospel. Therefore John’s community, in the latter first century A.D. with Hebrew, Greek and Roman populations, accepted this grace and spread out very far in their day.
You see, the church was formed firmly in the knowledge of God’s plan… through relating the death and Resurrection of Christ our Lord. It is notable that in John’s gospel, both the head and feet of Jesus are washed and anointed, and he then in turn from the gospel account washed the feet of his disciples and anointed them with priestly oil. Just as Jesus did these things to the disciples, he also reveals himself to us also through the words of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, baptizing and anointing each person within the church for gospel proclamation. We who are those of his saving, stand now as baptized and anointed so that we may witness that our salvation comes through the faith given to us in the death and Resurrection of Christ alone! So it is written, and so it shall be.