Spring seems to have come early to New York state. As I write this in the early morning the sun is already shining through my window although it is still rather chilly. Yesterday we took the pugs for a long walk in the mild weather. Winter has been short this year. The grass is green. Tiny shoots can be seen at ground level . . . the anticipation of what is to come.
Today’s lectionary reading is full of anticipation. Mary anoints Jesus in anticipation of his death. Once again the author of John has portrayed a woman in a strong, prophetic role.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Mary, the mother of Jesus, being used in a prophetic role. In that story, of the wedding in Cana, Mary revealed to Jesus that it was time for the public ministry to begin. It was a significant moment.
Here is another significant moment. Another Mary. This time revealing that the journey to death was starting. It wasn’t portrayed as a rash or careless moment. Jesus recognized that it was a planned moment, it was a prophetic moment: “She bought it so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” Jesus knew, this was the beginning of the journey to death.
So another women playing a key, prophetic role in the story of Jesus. A women anointed Jesus for his death. A women anointed. Let those words reverberate today . . . a women anointed. This is a key phrase, a key verse, a key happening, a blow to male domination in the patriarchal society of the day.
Yet, if the story is unpacked the significance is even more startling. Not only did Mary anoint but she understood what was about to happen. The disciples who had been Jesus’ companions still did not understand. In the gospel of John this is represented by Judas question, “should the nard not have been sold and given to the poor”. In the gospel of Matthew, Judas is not singled out, the text comments that the disciples were angry and said, “Why this waste?”
It is quite sad, that what should have been an amazing and poignant moment was belittled by the male disciples. I wonder if it would have read differently if it had been John or Peter who had done the anointing. I wonder if a male name would have made the action more acceptable to the disciples.
Read it again, note the male bias in the text, Lazarus’ house, Martha served.
However, I want to focus mainly how making John anoint Jesus changes the story. (Certainly brings it in line with the Old Testament where male prophets anointed kings)
Try reading the story this way . . .
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 table with him. The disciple, John, took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with his own hair.
So here are some hypothetical questions to ponder.
How does the insertion of John’s name change the story?
Would the other disciples have still cried, “Why this waste?”
Or would they have recognised it for what it was . . . a prophetic anointing signifying the beginning of Jesus’ journey to death.
Maybe the comment “Why this waste” should not be applied to the anointing oil, but applied to the centuries of women who have been ignored and bypassed in their communities of faith.
Nard (or muskroot) is an amber-coloured essential oil which is derived from a plant (pictured above) found in the Himalayas in Nepal, China and India.