Monday, March 29, 2021

Monday of Holy Week 2021

I could spend the week here:

Mary brought in a pound of expensive lotion and anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair.  And the house was filled with the lotion's fragrance.--John 12:3, SV.

So I've decided I will.

This story is one of three found across all four gospels.  Literally, three.  All four gospels have this story; then some version of Jesus "cleansing" the Temple (John relegates it to two verses in chapter 2; but then the interesting thing about John's gospel is that almost the entire story takes place during "Holy Week."  I'l try to come back to the significance of the "cleansing" story before the week is out.), and then some version of the Crucifixion (those stories have common elements, such as Peter's denial; but they don't all have the same elements. Oddly; they do all include the soldier's ear being but off at the arrest, but I'd argue that shows the influence of Luke on John's narrative, more than anything.  We'll come to that argument eventually.  For now, when I say this is one of three stories, I mean to underline it's importance, not to make an absolute statement.  But if I frame it as an absolute, you'll better get my overall point about it.)

I think it so significant I want to present it across the four gospels.  Which means we'll start with Mark's version first, on the well-established theory that Mark is the oldest of the four, and provides much of the material for Matthew and Luke.  The theory goes on, if you aren't familiar with it, to posit a "Q" document (for the German "quelle" or "source."  This is a 19th century scholarly theory, not a 21st century conspiracy theory) that both Matthew and Luke used for stories and sayings not in Mark; and then there's "Special Luke" and "Special Matthew," conjectured sources for material peculiar to those gospels, respectively.  I'll explain those as we go along, because they play into the interpretation of these stories, too.

You may notice I've left John's gospel out.  That's only because it's understood not to be one of the "synoptics."  Long before the Q theory was formulated, scholars of the scriptures knew there were strong similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke that marked them off from John.  Those three were dubbed the "synoptics," for "seen together."  John's gospel is different, beginning with the fact his story centers almost exclusively on Holy Week.  There is no baptism by John in John's gospel, no "Last Supper" is instituted.  In fact, John's "final meal" story sets up the "sacrament that wasn't," when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, an act at once so humbling and intimate it's very difficult to enact in a church setting, for both the people taking their shoes off, and the person with the basin of water and the towel.  But I don't leave John's gospel out of my study; in fact, it's in some ways the linchpin to my theory about this story.  But we'll go in chronological order, so we'll start with Mark.

The Anointing at Bethany, as it is usually called, appears first in Mark's gospel during Holy Week (and yes, I know that term is an anachronism in speaking of the events of the gospel, but it's easier for us; we aren't Biblical scholars here).  It's in Mark 14:3-9.  But I'm going to start at the beginning of chapter 14, to put this in Mark's narrative context:

Now it was two days until Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread.  And the ranking priests and the scholars were looking for some way to arrest him by trickery and kill him.  For their slogan was "Not during the festival, otherwise the people will riot."

When he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, he was just reclining there, and a woman came in carrying an alabster jar of myrrh, of pure and expensive nard.  She broke the jar and poured (the myrrh) on his head.

Now some were annoyed (and thought) to themselves "What good purpose is served by this wast of myrrh?  For she coulid have sold the myrrh for more than three hundred silver coins and given (the money) to the poor.  And they were angry with her.

Then Jesus said, "Let her alone!  Whay are you bothering her?  She has done me a courtesy.  Remember, there will always be poor around, and whatever you want you can do for them, but I won't always be around.  She did what she could--she anticipates in anointing my body for burial.  So help me, wherever the good news is announced in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her."

Mark 14:1-9, SV

Modern scholars have pointed out the irony of verse 9:  the woman who does this is not named in Marke's gospel, or Matthew's, or Luke's.  She is named in John's, but we'll get to that.  Her anonymity, and her presence, are things we have to pay attention to.  But there is a truth in v. 9; all four gospels do tell this story; just not necessarily "in memory of her."

Let's start with the unnamed woman's presence.  Matthew and Mark don't make much of women being among the men in Jesus' entourage; Luke mentions it even less, except, ironically, in his version of this anointing story.  It's an odd lacunae we accept as sound practice, although literally for centuries women in the company of men was taboo.  I had neighbors who were Muslim, and wonderful people (I do not in any way speak against them; I'm still sorry they moved away).  She was American by birth, but dressed in traditional Muslim attire; and would not answer her own door if I knocked on it.  I barely even spoke to her outside, but she never made me feel threatening or like she was ashamed.  I have known church members whose memories went back to Sunday services where men sat on one side of the church, women and children on the other.  So we're not talking about the Middle Ages or the days of the Roman Empire to say that in Jesus' time, even wives did not enter the room when their husbands had guests.  To do so would be the greatest shame, and mark the woman (of course) as a prostitute.  The former Vice President reportedly did not want to be in the room alone with another woman, particularly without his wife present.  We find that odd behavior; much of human history would find it normal.  (And when I was in ministry, I was warned many times never to be alone in my office with a woman, especially with the door closed or no other people in the building.  Times have changed?)  We need to understand that in order to study this story and understand both this woman's actions, and the reactions to it.

As I said, the gospel writers don't make much of this, but arguably that more reflects the "bohemian" nature (as we would say today) of Jesus' entourage.  The gospel writers accept that as part of Jesus' radical challenge to society.  We have made it so anodyne that, even as we upheld the distinctions between the sexes and "protected" the "fairer sex" by exclusions and separations from males, we ignored the radical nature of the life of Jesus in the gospels.  Just because it's presented as normal in the gospels, in other words, doesn't mean that it was normal in 1st century Palestine.

And before you think it must have changed radically in Paul's day:  first, Paul's letters predate even the earliest of the canonical gospels by decades.  Second, Paul's churches were "house churches."  They were literally the family of one house, including relatives and slaves.  The most radical thing about Paul's teachings to them was that slaves and free were all on common footing before God and as believers in Christ.  He wasn't that radical about men and women being together (although he did have women who traveled and preached, with him).  Wealth and status had much to do with it, too.  Luke relates, in Acts, the story of Lydia, a "dealer in purple cloth."  Purple was exclusively the color of royalty.  Lydia was a person of high status, then, and great wealth.  As Fitzgerald told Hemingway, the rich are different; and it's not just because they have more money.  Wealthy women were at much less risk of being considered prostitutes than poor women.

There is also the matter that prostitutes were more likely women without husbands, or who had lost their husbands and had no access to society, no means to make money other than by prostitution.  But we'll come back to that; we're straying a bit far from our source story.

Moving back up into Mark, I would note that the idea this woman is a prostitute, and the tradition that Mary of Magdalene was a prostitute, are connected to this story (in Luke's version, but we'll get there).  My mind always echoes with "Jesus Christ Superstar" during Holy Week, and I hear Judas snearing at Jesus when I think about this story:

It seems to me a strange thing, mystifying,
Why a man like you would waste your time
On women of her kind!

Yes, I can understand that she amuses,
But to let her kiss you, stroke your hair,
Is hardly in your line.

It's not that I object to her profession!
But she doesn't fit in well, with what you teach and say.
It doesn't help us if you're inconsistent!
They only need a small excuse, to put us all away.
In the opera it's a moment of tension between Judas and Jesus, the first instance we see since Judas' opening song, that the relationship between them is rocky, and getting rockier.   But it also plays on the tradition that this woman was a prostitute.  And yet there' s no indication of that at all in this story.

Probably the biggest issue today with this passage is the reference to the poor being always with us.  I don't know how many times I've heard that quoted, wholly out of context, to justify doing nothing for the poor, rather than doing something for them because, after all, we can't exactly pour myrrh over Jesus any more, can we?  Suffice to say Jesus' remarks are specific to the event described here; but they show up in three of the four gospels, and find an echo in the fourth (Luke's, in this case).  So they need to be noted for our purposes.

We have only two points left, now:  time, and place.  Mark sets this story in the home of Simon, the leper. Maybe that excuses the presence of women.  Simon has been healed by Jesus, but "leprosy" was not necessarily the disease we know today.  The term was not so specific in Mark's day, and it denoted not just illness, but an outcast social status.  Even today a "leper" can be a social stigma as much as a medical diagnosis.  Indeed, the word "leper" is eschewed much as the term "Mongoloid" is no longer used to describe the genetic condition now called "Down's Syndrome."  "Leper" carries such disapproving connotations it can't be used because it connotes a pariah status.  That's much closer to the use of the word in the gospel's than to victims of Hansen's disease.  It may be no wonder, then, that women move freely among men in Jesus' group.  They're already in the house of a leper; how much lower than they descend?

And then there's the time:  two days before the feast of the Passover.  We can't overstate, or understand the events of the Crucifixion stories, if we don't recognize how significant Passover was to the children of Abraham under the rule of the Romans in the holy city of Jerusalem.  Rome was very tolerant of religion in the Empire, but even Rome got nervous about Passover in Jerusalem.  Pilate's palace stood right next to the Temple; "on top of it," we might say today. From the high walls of the palace Roman soldiers could look down into the courtyard, the outer precincts of the Temple, to keep an eye on things during Passover. This is one reason the "cleansing of the Temple" stories are so important to the gospel narratives of the Crucifixion.  But Passover itself was the great festival, feast, and remembrance of the events that had created the Hebrew (not yet Jewish, but soon) nation.  That remembrance was a challenge to Roman sovereignty, and a religious event unlike any other on the Hebrew calendar.  It brought throngs to Jerusalem, reminded them of their place before the God of Abraham, of their release from the captivity of Egypt in the city now captured by Rome; and generally just threatened to light a powder keg among the people gathered there.  So Pilate was on edge for seditious or even treasonous behavior.  It's no accident Rome stepped in to crucify the man from Nazareth during the observances of Passover.  But we'll return to that.  For now it's important to keep in mind three of these four anointing stories take place in the days before the celebration of Passover, the events that broke the power of another ruler over the children of Abraham.

We'll come back to this with Matthew's version.  But it doesn't differ that much from Mark's, so we won't have as much new ground to cover.  Still, each version deserves it's own attention, and we will give them that.

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