A Prophetic Act to Remember

A Prophetic Act to Remember

Sun 27 Sep

Greg Jones, Professor of Theology at Duke Divinity School, tells how, years ago, he was invited to preach at a church in another city.  He decided to preach on Luke’s account of the anointing of Jesus.  They wrote to him and asked him to send them his title, which he did.  Sunday morning came and he sat up front, robed and ready to preach, reading through the church notices before the service began.  There he came across the following introduction: “This morning, we welcome to our pulpit our guest speaker, His Extravagant Holiness the Rev. Dr. Gregory Jones.”

‘Extravagant holiness’ is one of the ways this anointing episode is framed.  Alyce McKenzie calls the anointing an extravagant, loving gesture, “a sweet moment of stillness amid a gathering storm.”  According to McKenzie this is about a woman’s devotion to Jesus, nothing else.

This story of a woman touching Jesus, pouring perfume on him and reaching out to bless him [or is it to be blessed by him?], occurs in all four gospels.  The accounts though differ in their details and their purpose.  Did she anoint his head or his feet?  What did the anointing mean?  Was the woman a prophet or a sinner, a leader or a servant?

In Mark [14:3-9] the location is Bethany, the setting is the house of Simon the leper, and the timing is immediately prior to the Last Supper, trial and execution of Jesus.  In this telling an unnamed woman comes and pours very expensive perfume on Jesus’ head [not feet!].  A debate then arises about wastefulness and how money should be spent. 

Jesus affirms that those raising concern about the perfume’s price indeed have an ongoing responsibility towards the poor [“the poor are always with you”], but he carefully avoids endorsing the claim that almsgiving sufficiently fulfils this obligation.  Jesus’ argument distinguishes between the structural issue, namely how to eradicate poverty in a society, and the personal issue of an individual’s generous and politicised action of solidarity with him.

Mark’s Jesus concludes this episode by saying that the woman has anointed his body for burial.  And then remarks, “wherever the good news is proclaimed… what she has done will be told in memory of her.” 

In biblical studies most scholars give the priority to Mark, having being composed considerably earlier than the other gospels.

Matthew’s telling [26:6-13] follows Mark almost to the letter.

In John [12:1-8] the location is still Bethany, and the timing is still immediately prior to what the Church would later call ‘Holy Week’.  But the anointing is now in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  The perfume is poured on his feet, not his head, and she uses her hair to wipe them.  And Mary is the one doing the pouring.

Again the debate is about money, and the perfume is understood by Jesus as preparation for his imminent death.  There is no mention of this story being told ‘wherever the good news is proclaimed’.

Luke [Luke 7:36-50] takes this Markan story and changes it considerably.  The location is now unspecified, the setting is still a house – but this time of a Pharisee, the timing is now in the midst of Jesus’ ministry [not at its end], and the woman is not named but is categorized as a ‘sinner’.

Luke has the woman weeping, and she bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, as well as drying them with her hair and kissing them.  Then the perfumeis applied.

But the most significant difference in this telling is the controversy that ensues is not about wastefulness and money, cost and efficiency.  It is about the moral status of the woman, and Jesus allowing a ‘sinner’ to touch his feet.  Luke then tells a parable that seems to say the worse off you are when you experience forgiveness, the more grateful you will be.  [Hmmm…  Maybe, maybe not.]

Jesus concludes this episode by praising the woman for her great love towards him, and declares she is forgiven.  The lesson is that the woman is humble, grateful and extravagantly holy, and Jesus is compassionate, wise, and forgiving towards those ostracized from the mainstream of society.

It is Luke’s rendition that seems to be the more memorable for Christians.

What is also memorable, judging from Christian history, is the placement of this story before the list of women who accompanied Jesus on the road [8:1-3].  By some ‘imaginative’ exegesis, the sinner was not only assumed to be a prostitute, but decreed to be Mary Magdalene.

According to the ancient tradition of the East, Mary Magdalene was a wealthy woman from whom Jesus expelled seven ‘demons’.  During the years of Jesus’ ministry, she helped support him and his other disciples with her money.  When almost everyone else fled, she stayed with Jesus at the cross.  On Easter morning she was the first to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection.  She is called, in this tradition, “Equal to the Apostles.”

The Eastern tradition further says that after the Ascension, she journeyed to Rome where she was admitted to Tiberius Caesar’s court because of her high social standing.  After describing how poorly Pilate had administered justice at Jesus’ trial, she told Caesar that Jesus had risen from the dead.  To help explain the resurrection, she picked up an egg from the dinner table.  Caesar responded that a human being could no more rise from the dead than the egg in her hand turn red.  The egg turned red immediately, which is why red eggs have been exchanged at Easter for centuries in the Byzantine East.

This Eastern tradition about Mary Magdalene got ‘lost’ around the same time that certain male leaders in the Church, in asserting the dominance of their own gender, labelled Mary with the stigma of ‘prostitute’, and reduced the number of apostles to twelve and made apostleship a boys’ only club.

In the last 30 years Protestant liberal scholarship has consistently affirmed that a] apostles were both men and women; b] those who were said to witness the resurrection were accorded special leadership status; c] Mary Magdalene, along with Peter, Paul, and James, was among the foremost leaders of early Jesus movement; and d] Mary Magdalene, more than any other leader in the emergent church, was subjected to a smear campaign.

Unlike the history her detractors promulgated, Mary did not end her days as a penitent hermit in a French cave.  She traveled the Mediterranean preaching the resurrection.  And like Peter, Paul, and James, she died a martyr.

So Luke’s story of the anointing of Jesus became part of a deliberate maligning of women’s leadership in the early Church.

The deed of the woman in Mark and Matthew, pouring perfume on Jesus’ head, is the act of a prophet anointing a king [think of Samuel anointing David[i]], or a prophet anointing his/her successor [think of Elijah anointing Elisha[ii]], or a prophet anointing a priest [Moses anointing the sons of Aaron].[iii]  Note that the word ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ both mean ‘Anointed’. 

The specific practice of anointing by pouring oil on the head was used as a symbolic act for officially designating and setting apart a person for a certain public leadership function in the community.  It was a one-time event much like an inauguration or ordination.  Thus, an “anointed one” or mashiach was an authorized and empowered leader. The only agent of God’s anointing of Jesus in all the gospel accounts is this unnamed woman. 

In John’s and Luke’s account the feet get anointed rather than the head.  Normally feet were not anointed, save only when the whole body was anointed prior to burial.  Washing feet was an act of hospitality.  Kissing feet was an act of gratitude.  Unbound hair could indicate a ‘loose woman’, though in Corinth it was associated with women prophets. 

Unlike Mark and Matthew, in Luke it is Jesus who is shown to be a prophet, knowing the heart of the penitent and declaring the forgiveness of her transgressions.  In Luke the woman is a social outcast who takes on the role of servant in gratitude to Jesus.

In Mark and Matthew, keeping with the topsy-turvy vision of the Jesus’ movement, the prophet who anoints him is a person whom the Greco-Roman world sees as inferior: a woman!  One of the “least” is actually one of the “greatest.”  As Schussler Fiorenza[iv] says:

“Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus… [But] it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophet sign-action.  It was a politically dangerous story.”

Yet the anointing is not that of king before his triumphant coronation.  Rather it is of the upside-down king before he is crucified and buried.  The woman prophet’s action therefore is one of solidarity with the way of the cross, with what Paul calls the ‘foolishness of the cross’.  She understands the gospel, the good news.  She understands the good news is not the sovereign saviour ruling and demanding obedience from above, but the rebel suffering saviour who stands with and empowers those below.

Every time we preach the gospel we are to re-member, to bring back to our consciousness, the actions of this prophetess.  Think of the labels piled upon her for the purpose of reducing her power: sinner, prostitute, irresponsible waster of wealth, and grateful adoring servant.  Think of the times her action of going into a male controlled environment and taking courage to anoint the Messiah, to stand in solidarity with him, has been misunderstood.  Think too of other women throughout history and still today who by their faithful deeds and words hold to and promote a vision of mutually and justice in a world that usually promotes the reverse.  Let us continue to remember them, and honour them.

[i] 1 Samuel 16:13.

[ii] 1 Kings 19:16.

[iii] Exodus 28:41

[iv] As quoted in C. Myers Binding the Strong Man: A political reading of Mark’s Gospel, Maryknoll : Orbis, 1994, p. 359.