Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Tuesday of Holy Week 2021

Picking up on the anointing at Bethany, Matthew follows Mark very closely.  (This is the Q hypothesis in action; Matthew and Luke have passages taken almost verbatim from Mark.  It's also part of the reason Mark is considered the oldest of the canonical gospels.)

And so when Jesus had concluded his discourse, he told his disciples "You know in two days Passover comes, and the son of Adam will be turned over to be crucified."

Then the ranking priests and elders of the people gathered in the courtyard of the high priest, whose names was Caiaphas, and they conspired to seize Jesus by trickery and kill him.  Their slogan was "Not during the festival, so there won't be a riot among the people."

While Jesus was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, a woman who had an alabaster jar of very expensive myrrh came up to him and poured it over his head whil he was reclining (at table).  When they saw this, the disciples were annoyed, and said, "What good purpose is served by this waste?  After all, she could have sold it for a good price and given (the money) to the poor."

But Jesus saw through (their complaint) and said to them, "Why are you bothering this woman?  After all, she has done me a courtesy.  Remember, there will always be poor around; but I won't always be around.  After all, by pouring this myrrh on my body she has made me ready for burial.  So help me, wherever this good news is announced in all the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

Matthew 26:1-13, SV

We'll start at the top, this time, and work our way down.  Little details about 1st century life in Palestine are important here; and not peculiar to this story, just to how times have changed.  So Jesus is reclining at table.  We think of chairs and tablecloths, or seats at least, and a long table raised to a position comfortable for seated diners, as in DaVinci's famous painting.  But that's a Renaissance table, not a first century one.  The Roman style, which is to say the common style, would be to sit on the floor, and lay on one's side, almost.  You would prop yourself on an elbow, or some cushions.  This is how the diners are seated in Plato's Symposium.  Chairs as we have them today were unknown and, like purple cloth, owned only by the richest.  Most people sat like we imagine traditional Japanese diners sit; on the floor, but not with legs crossed.  The legs would be out to one side.  That's a small detail that will mean a great deal tomorrow, when we get to Luke's version.

Now, the myrrh.  I've wondered, without any way to establish it, if Matthew decided myrrh was an appropriate gift for the Christchild because Mark mentions it first in his gospel, and associates it (as it would have been in Jesus' time) with death.  Myrrh is expensive (worth 300 denarii, Mark says.  My references tell me a laborer could hope to make 1 denari a day.  You do the math.).  It was used for burial by those who could afford it.  Dom Crossan argues the body of Jesus of Nazareth was dumped in a shallow grave, the repository of political criminals.  It's more likely true than the gospel accounts of tombs and rich benefactors (Joseph of Arimethea), for reasons I'll come to now.

Both Mark and Matthew make more of the priests and scribes (or Pharisees) than Luke does.  Why?  Because Mark and Matthew are self-hating Jews (yes, the term is an anachronism in 1st century Palestine; but go with it)?  Not likely.  More likely is that they dare not blame Rome for the death of Jesus.  After all, look what happened to Jesus. It's very likely Peter denied Jesus three times, to escape being crucified along with him.  That threat still existed in the 9th decade of the 1st century, when Matthew likely penned his gospel.  You can even see hints of the transition between Mark's version (circa 70 C.E.) and Matthew's (circa 85 C.E.).  Mark says the "chief priests and scribes" are looking for an excuse to arrest Jesus.  Matthew elaborates further, naming Caiaphas and putting him in a palace (the rich v. the poor is not a theme confined to Luke's gospel only).  This is the first time Caiphas is named in the gospels, and it probably comes from "Q," since Luke names him, too.  But Luke references Caiphas in his nativity stories:

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiphas, the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wildnerness.

I have to stop at point out what a Lukan passage that is.  Imagine it in a movie, with a narrator, and the camera starts in the palace in Rome, moves across the empire to the Governor's palace in Jerusalem, then to the palaces referenced after Pilate, to the home of the priests, and finally out, into the desert, the wilderness, to find John ben Zechariah.  It is not the powerful who are important here.  You are probably thinking I'm indulging my fancy too much and should stick to the point.  But my endgame is Luke, and this is part of my point.  But we'll get there.

John, by the way, mentions Caiphas five times.

Why Caiphas? Verisimilitude, maybe.  More likely, to establish responsibility, and make sure that responsibility falls on the almost powerless scribes and priests.  As Caiphas says in "Jesus Christ Superstar:"  "We have no law/to put a man to death!"  The Romans did, however, and they weren't afraid to use it.  Blaming the priests and scribes (and later, the Jews) was the safe move in the 1st century.   The centuries of anti-semitism it would lead to, were unimaginable at the time.  The death penalties of Rome, were quite imaginable, and justly feared. 

In other words, there is a lot of tension around the events of this story, both in the narrative and in the mere re-telling of it.  And that tension explodes in the narrative with the complaint about the expense of the myrrh.  So, from the standpoint of the narrative, let's ask:  why is that here?

In modern story telling, long stories are commonly divided into chapters.  In the Harry Potter novels (for a common cultural touchstone today),  each chapter is itself a complete story, and each story is part of the whole story of the novel.  And each novel, in turn, is part of a still larger story:  the battle against Voldemort, and how it finally concluded.  But each chapter is something of a short story:  it has a plot which introduces the conflict for that chapter, initiates the action of that chapter, and moves the tension or rising action of the chapter forward until there is some resolution of the conflict of that chapter.  That conflict may well lead to the next chapter, but each chapter ends with some conflict that is resolved and serves to advance the greater story of the novel, just as each novel advances the still greater story of the battle against the evil sorcerer.

The gospels are not products of modern story telling, but there are enough similiarities in story-telling across the millenia to recognize the forms.  Episodes in the gospel narrative of Matthew (or Mark), for example, move the overall story forward, while providing their own situations of conflict and resolution.  So the woman appears in the house of Simon the leper, and pours expensive myrrh on the head of Jesus.  Then what?  Then the conflict occurs; and some interpretations of what follows turn that act of generosity into a McGuffin; because the act itself almost disappears in the wake of Jesus' rebuke of his disciples.

A McGuffin, if you don't know, is a device that sets a plot in motion, but itself is inconsequential and even disappears once it has done its job.  Hitchcock loved McGuffins.  In "Psycho," the McGuffin is the money Janet Leigh's character steals from her employer.  It's the reason she drives to the Bates Motel, but you forget all about it after the shower scene, and it only reappears in the denouement, and that just to wrap up a loose end.  In "The Birds" a cage with two love birds prompts Tippi Hedrin to drive to the coastal village where the bird attacks take place, and even prompts the first seagull attack on her.  But, again, the cage disappears only to reappear at the climax of the film, and then disappears again.  The money, the caged birds, do their job for the plot, and that's all they're needed for.  When interpreters focus on Jesus saying "The poor will always be with you," the anointing itself becomes a McGuffin.  I've even heard that verse quoted with no context for it whatsoever.  Who quotes "Eli, eli, lama sabachtani?" without noting it is said on the cross?  Or quotes the Beatitudes and forgets they are part of the most famous sermon in Christendom?  But this verse is usually divorced entirely the anointing; or treated almost as a sentiment grafted onto what has just occurred.

So let's look at the lines as organic, as a part, of this story, not as a misplaced grafting.  The woman pours the myrrh, and the expense (and "waste") of this offends them.  Well, it would, wouldn't it?  That's a year's salary to these men.  You don't spend that all at once and, if you do, you don't spend it on the person who teaches poverty and asceticism and how God provides all you need.  Seems reasonable, right?

But are the disciples concerned with the poor?  Or with their image?  As Judas says to Jesus in "JCS," objecting to this same act by Mary Magdalene:  "It doesn't help us if you're inconsistent.  They only need a small excuse to put us all away."  Tim Rice catches the tension of the story in those lines, even if he embellishes the scene for his purposes.  And is it really so wrong that somebody do something nice for Jesus, especially considering the week he's about to have?  They may not know what's coming, but Matthew and Mark make it clear Jesus does.  And frankly the gift is not a new house or a private plane; it is a gift that is used once it is given, that is gone once it is delivered.  It is, as Matthew has Jesus say, "a courtesy."  Why shouldn't Jesus receive some courtesy, especially at the beginning of Holy Week?

His words underscore that his time is coming to an end, his life and ministry are almost through.  It won't be long until he is praying and weeping in Gethsemane while is disciples sleep.  No, the anointing is not one event, the objection of the disciples another awkwardly mashed into it.  This story is the prelude to Holy Week.  It is the foreshadowing of what's to come.  For Matthew's narrative it's even a connection back to the nativity that begins his gospel:  that myrrh that was a gift to a two year old, is now a courtesy and a prophecy at the other end of that child's life.

And still, we're left with the fact that this woman is unknown and unnamed.  What she has done is told, but not in memory of her.  Well, not in the modern sense, when name is everything, and is the source of fame, where the most famous have only one name:  Cher, Beyonce, Madonna.  Although "when you talk about Dylan, he thinks you're talking about Dylan Thomas" was a good joke in the late '60's, we all know there is only one "Dylan."  But who are Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?  We don't know.  Perhaps they are the names of authors; perhaps they are only names certified by tradition.  We have animals as symbols for the four evangelists, but does that bring us any closer to remembering them?  Perhaps not in the way we mean now; but obviously we do remember them.  They are some of the most famous names in Western culture.  But knowing those names, do we remember them?

The woman with the jar gains a name; but only in John's gospel.  But then, we remember Thomas because of John's gospel, too.  It's probably worth noting that the three synoptics all list the 12 disciples by name; but in the story of the anointing, both Matthew and Mark mention only the whole, not the individuals.  And in Luke's version of the anointing, they play no role at all.

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