Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 7th, 2019
NO Audio this week.
How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of light against its being.
Otherwise, we all remain too frightened.
the raising of lazarus lucille clifton
the dead shall rise again
dust must be dust
don’t see the trees
everything that goes
even the dead shall rise
Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 21 Thomas Merton
“The universal and modern man is the man in a rush…, a man who has no time, who is a prisoner of necessity, who cannot understand that a thing might perhaps be without usefulness; nor does he understand that, at bottom, it is the useful that may be a useless and back-breaking burden. If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots.”
Four versions of the anointing of Jesus
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 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.’
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, 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.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’
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.’
On the fifth Sunday of Lent, the lectionary offers the Gospel of John’s version of the anointing of Jesus. A version of this story is told in all four gospels. It is a fun exercise to line the four versions up side by side and explore the differences. The story is changed and shaped by the gospel writers.
Where does this happen?
Mark and Matthew: Home of Simon the Leper in Bethany.
Luke: Home of Simon the Pharisee.
John: Home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus in Bethany.
When does this happen?
Mark, Matthew, and John: Holy Week.
Luke: Earlier in his ministry.
Who does the anointing?
Mark and Matthew: Unnamed woman.
Luke: A woman in the city, a “sinner.”
John: Mary sister of Martha.
Does the woman anoint head or feet?
Mark and Matthew: Pours ointment on Jesus’s head.
Luke: The woman washes Jesus’s feet with tears. Dries with hair. Kisses feet and anoints them.
John: Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with perfume and dries with her hair.
What is the ointment?
Mark: Alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard.
Mathew: Alabaster jar of very costly ointment.
Luke: Alabaster jar of ointment.
John: Pound of costly perfume made of pure nard.
How expensive is it?
Mark and John: 300 denarii.
Matthew: Large sum.
Who is the scold?
Mark: Some people.
Matthew: The disciples.
Luke: Simon the Pharisee (to himself).
What is the scandal?
Mark, Matthew, and John: Expensive perfume wasted on Jesus.
Luke: A sinner is touching and anointing Jesus.
What is the message of Jesus?
Mark, Matthew, John: The woman anointed him for burial. “You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”
Luke: “The one who is forgiven much, loves much. The one who little is forgiven, loves little.”
Each story is different and really cannot be reconciled. It is like the four different empty tomb stories and the two different birth stories of Jesus. In all cases, each narrative is very different in regards to significant details and in some cases, the point of the story. Unless one damages the integrity of each story, they cannot be meshed into one narrative.
In the story of the woman with the perfume, notice that in none of the versions is the woman Mary Magdalene, even though she is often the one named as the woman, the sinner, in movies, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and others. The reason for this is that in Luke’s version, the woman is a sinner and then following Luke’s version, Luke says that women followed Jesus around. One was Mary Magdalene who Jesus cured of demon possession. Later tradition linked Mary Magdalene as the sinner and interpreted that as a prostitute who anointed Jesus even as it never says that anywhere in the gospels.
What is common among the stories is that a woman uses ointment to express love and devotion toward Jesus amidst opposition.
In Mark, Matthew and John, she is opposed for supposedly wasting perfume and in Luke, she is called names, “a sinner” and Jesus is opposed for letting her touch him.
In all four accounts, despite opposition, mostly from men, she does what she wants.
She, and when I say she, know that it is a different woman in at least three cases. She sees something in Jesus that inspires her to an act of artistic generosity.
That is not an easy thing to do. Artistic generosity born of love and devotion amidst opposition is not for the faint of heart. You have to have heart to do such a thing. You have to have courage. You have to have a center, a place within that cannot be disturbed by the arrows of criticism and hostility and ignorance. You have to know that the action you take will not be accepted or received as you intended it. You have to accept that there may not likely be any explanation that will satisfy the busybodies, fusspots, tattletales and scolds who want to shame you.
You do it because you are summoned by Jesus to do so and nothing else matters.
Now in none of the stories did Jesus actually summon the woman to do this thing. He didn’t say, “I want you to anoint my head and kiss my feet.”
In each case, the woman acted from her own agency. The summons, however, is implied in the person of Jesus. It is a divine summons that only she sees. She saw the divine light of Jesus and the divine light within Jesus and she responded. She responded with her own artistic generosity.
That is what art is of course. Generosity. Generativity. Creativity. In the words of Hafiz:
How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its being. Otherwise we all remain too frightened.
Have you ever felt the encouragement of light against your being? I know you have. I know you have because we don’t survive without it. That is why whatever the challenges we face and whatever forecasts of storms cause us to fear, the encouragement of light against our being is our courage and our heart.
Wendell Berry’s beautiful poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” speaks to this encouragement of light:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What I want to say to you, my dear friends, is this.
The encouragement of light against your being that enables you to respond with artistic generosity will save the world.
That summons to the light of Jesus is to you and for you. When you feel it, you know it, not necessarily by the responses of others, but by that deep center that nothing can disturb, that center that is you, and that is Jesus, the Christ, the light.
The busybodies, fusspots, tattletales, and scolds will come up with anything they can to put you down, to shame your creative generosity, to dismiss your insight, to put out your light, to poison your truth, to shut you down. But it isn’t going to happen to you. It didn’t happen in any version of this story. The summons to artistic creativity, to beauty, to devotion, to love, comes from the light, the light we see in Jesus, the light that shines in the darkness.
Trust it. Trust the light against your being.
Trust the summons.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”