Friday, March 15, 2013

Mary of Bethany - A Preview of This Sunday's Gospel

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
The synoptic gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all tell a story very similar to this one from the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel. You can look them up in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 7. Clearly, the early Church felt that this story was important.

But it shouldn’t surprise us that the gospel writers disagree on some pretty important details. Memories are like that, and all four gospels were written decades after the events took place. For example, both Mark and Matthew tell us that this anointing took place at the home of Simon the leper. Luke says it transpired at the home of a Pharisee, and as we see, John is sure it happened at the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha in Bethany. All of them (except for John) forget the name of the woman, which is ironic since Mark’s version ends with Jesus saying, “truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  So the act is remembered, but her name has been forgotten, at least by the synoptic writers. Luke says she was a sinner. Maybe that’s because Luke had issues with women—or at least his Greco-Roman culture did. Or perhaps it is simply because Luke is really big on forgiveness and the claim that we are all sinners, male and female alike, allows him to remind us that God’s grace through Jesus is bigger than all of our sins. It is Luke, after all, who gave us that extraordinary story of the "prodigal" son who came home to a warm embrace and Luke who is pretty sure that one of the last things Jesus ever said was “Abba, forgive them, for they don’t understand what they are doing.

Unfortunately, however, once Luke turned this woman into a sinner it was only a short step from there before the tradition went even further and started saying she was a prostitute.

So it’s easy to get confused when we hear a story like this, and the disagreements among the four canonical witnesses make some people a little bit crazy. They may even serve as evidence to those who think the Bible is just a fairy tale that we Christians can’t even get our stories straight. And perhaps there is an inner Biblical literalist in all of us that wishes we could go back in time, behind the stories to what really happened. If we could just go back to that room and see for ourselves, then like Sergeant Joe Friday we could get the facts, ma’am, just the facts. 

I believe, however, that our work as a listening community - as a people called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture - is to chew on this word, this story. To lean in and listen to what John has to say. So it is worth meditating on this particular version of the story; not the composite in our mind's eye that has a bit of each but to really hear John's version. Try to see it, to imagine yourself there. What do you hear spoken - in the dialogue between Judas and Jesus? What is left unspoken? What does the nard smell like? What do you think Martha cooked for dinner? How does it feel to have your feet massaged after a long week by someone you trust? What is it like to anticipate the grief that lies ahead?

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