Monday, September 18, 2006
Costly Perfume; Mistaken Identity; Scripture Abuse
My house is filled at this moment with the fragrance of the Body Shop Body Butter known, oddly, as "Hemp." I don't use this often, but when I do I find that the fragrance trails along with me for hours and hours. Today's gospel passage for the daily lectionary has to do with fragrance, among other things.
Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, "What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?" Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
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." John 11:55-12:8
First, in the name of Magdalenology, I need to offer some clarifications. Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are not the same person. One of the sources of confusion is the anointing of Jesus, of which there are four distinct accounts. The confusion stems from Luke's offering, which comes at the end of chapter 7. There, a "woman in the city, who was a sinner," anoints Jesus' feet with an alabaster jar of ointment, during a dinner held in the home of a Pharisee. Jesus has a dispute with those who question his actions (if he were a prophet, he would know that this action made him unclean). This gives Jesus an opportunity to ignore the purity issue, and to comment on gratitude ("...herefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little."). Note: the woman is not named.
But in the next chapter, Mary Magdalene is introduced as a character, as one from whom Jesus drove out seven demons. She is not identified as a sinner. She is also not identified as the one who anointed Jesus.
Which brings me to today's passage: a Mary anoints Jesus, Mary of Bethany. Again, this Mary is never identified in any gospel account as a sinner (she is mentioned in Luke and in John, both times as Martha's sister). She is also never identified as being the same person as Mary Magdalene.
The confusion is understandable, I suppose. There are lots of Marys, or "Miryams," as their name would have been rendered in Hebrew/Aramaic. Why so many Miryams? One of the Herods married a Miryam. Just as many "Dianas" materialized when Lady Diana Spencer became a member of the Royal family in England, so many Miryams were named for a member of that royal family.
Now that that is out of the way...
This is a really huge passage, with many things going on, and I would just like to highlight some of them.
Note the anxiety of the crowd... Surely Jesus will not come to Jerusalem for the Passover, seeing as there's a warrant out for his arrest?
Note the domestic scene of dinner at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Lazarus is identified in chapter 11 as "the one whom Jesus loved." Therefore, I nominate Lazarus as the "beloved disciple" who shows up throughout this gospel without being named.
More on the domestic scene, which strikes me as a little bizarre. Jesus is being hosted by a family for whom he has performed the ultimate miracle: the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is like a wake, only the corpse gets to be there... because he's actuallly not dead. I want to make my way imaginatively into the hearts of this family. They have experienced grief, and then the shocking reversal of the impossible. And now they are doing something ordinary yet extraordinary: hosting this dinner. I imagine them feeling like the families of those hostages who are released after being held in places like Iraq, or the families of prisoners released from the dark hole that is Gitmo. I can't imagine. I can't imagine.
The perfume... such a rich symbol, such an extravagant gesture of love and gratitude. The whole house is filled with the fragrance. A little unnerving for some, evidently.
Here comes the scripture abuse: no sentence of scripture has been more badly abused than Jesus' statement, "You will always have the poor with you." This one sentence has been used as an excuse to turn our backs on the poor, to indicate that the problem of poverty is so overwhelming we can ignore it, or at least cut ourselves some slack about it. And that flies in the face of the consistent witness of all the rest of scripture (including the gospels; it is impossible to imagine this sentence proceeding from the mouth of the Jesus of Matthew, Mark or Luke).
Let us linger at the meal... an intimate lamplit scene, buzzing with the voices of the guests, the spicy aroma of Middle Eastern cooking warming the air, the shock of the perfume entering everyone's nostrils, catching their breath. Breathe it in.