Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 11th: Psalm 36:5-11; Isaiah 42:1-9; John 12:1-11; and Hebrews 9:11-15. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
The account of the anointing at Bethany intrigues me. There are many interactions between today’s Gospel account and the anointing stories in the Synoptics that cause scholars to wonder what is going on. Whatever happened, it was deemed an important event that was a meaningful part of Jesus’ final week of life, and awkward or not it could not be ignored. The Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial and crucifixion are much more well known, but the anointing at Bethany should not be overlooked as an important Holy Week event.
In my NRSV Bible, 12:2 states that the anointing took place at the home of Lazarus in Bethany, but the original Greek does not say this. It only offers that “Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was.” In Mark and Matthew, the anointing takes place at the home of Simon the leper. It does not say that Simon was once a leper. It says, “Simon the leper.” This implies that Simon was suffering from this disease, and according to Mosaic Law this would have defined Simon as ritually unclean.
Additionally, anyone who came into contact with Simon would be judged unclean. Unclean means excluded from the people of God and also from the presence of God Himself. And yet, this is where Jesus dines only days before Passover. It is a beautifully symbolic gesture that speaks of inclusion rather than exclusion. It is a profound introduction to what will happen on Golgotha when Jesus becomes one who is unclean as He hangs upon the tree. (Deuteronomy 21:23) The cross is the costly proclamation of inclusion. Jesus suffers and dies as an outcast so that God can reveal that no one is an outcast.
In the Lucan account, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is offered in a completely different context. The text begins at Luke 7:36. Here the woman is defined as a sinner, (7:37) and Jesus explains that since her sins were forgiven, therefore, “she has shown great love.” (7:47) This occurs in the home of a Pharisee, a strict adherent to the Mosaic Law. In this setting Jesus explains that the gift of forgiveness precedes and actually enables the woman’s ability to love. Place this in the context of the cross, and we hear the profound message that its unmerited forgiveness offered to all demands our loving response. Forgiveness is granted so that love may be offered.
In another twist of the story, the oldest Gospel, Mark, tells us that “some” were displeased by the woman’s gesture, and in Luke it is the disciples as a group who are upset, but by the time the last Gospel is written, John’s, it is narrowed down to Judas Iscariot. John adds further that Judas was angered by the woman’s generosity because he held the common purse of Jesus and the Twelve, and Judas would steal from it. In the Synoptics, the reason for the displeasure is that the money could have been used to help the poor. Only in John do we read that Judas alone protested and that his motive was greed. Again, however, in my NRSV Bible, John 12:6 is in parentheses because this unique Johannine allegation is judged a later emendation not original to the text.
This may point to the later Gospel’s efforts to deflect attention from the original telling in which the opposition to the extravagance was the misappropriated but laudable objection that the money could have been spent to help the poor. John may be trying to protect Jesus’ closest followers for not understanding the unique importance of Jesus, but the truth may be that John, the latest Gospel, is searching for someone safe to blame. Maybe it’s difficult to get it right all the time in our faith, and maybe John thinks it easier to simply blame the villain disciple rather than the disciples who just got this one wrong.
The anointing happened, but the details have been managed in different ways for different purposes. What strikes me is that the historical Jesus right up until the time of His death was challenging the status quo and seeking to redefine what it means to be right with God. And even as the Bible was being composed, Jesus’ example, His lived gospel, remained a challenge, one that needed to be visited and revisited. Why should we think that Jesus has stopped confronting us with His new revelation? Even in these last days of Lent, this Holy Week, we should be humble enough to realize that to follow Jesus is a lifelong journey, but one worth every step we take.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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