Monday, April 18, 2011

This week's message: Anointing

We used a method of scripture study this week in our worship that is a little different. We read the story of Jesus being anointed by the woman with the jar of perfume in all four gospels. We began by reading the account in Matthew 26:6-13. Then we allowed a period of silence for meditation and, if prompted by the Spirit, for people to share what impacted them from the story. We then read the accounts in Mark 14:1-11; Luke 7:36-50; and John 12:1-8. Between each reading we allowed for that same quiet space for individuals to chew on the similarities and differences in each reading.

There are arguments that these stories are not all referring to the same anointing. Some scholars would like to set aside the Luke account as a separate incident, and even a few who would argue that there are three separate anointings. We approached these passages with a "what if" attitude. We asked "What if they are the same? What would that teach us?" There are so many overlapping details from each account that it makes it highly possible that this is one story told from different perspectives.

The location for the anointing is given as Bethany in Matthew, Mark and John. The name of the host is given as Simon in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yes, in two he is referred to as Simon the Leper and one as Simon the Pharisee. We must remember that Matthew and Mark were writing from the perspective of direct followers of Jesus, while Luke was writing as a historian who most likely conducted interviews to gain his information. Since we know that "the leper" and "the pharisee" were not formal last names, but reference points, and that they were not mutually exclusive, there can be no claim that these are two separate individuals.

Jesus was anointed with very expensive perfume in Matthew, very expensive perfume made of pure nard in Mark, perfume in Luke, and a pint of pure nard in John. The vessel holding the perfume was alabaster in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Jesus was anointed on his head in Matthew and Mark, but his feet in Luke and John with the woman wiping his feet with her hair in both accounts as well. The woman is rebuked in all four accounts. Jesus defends her in all four accounts.

I think the greatest obstacle to overcome in reconciling these accounts is that Luke calls the woman a person of ill-repute, and John says this woman was Mary the sister of Lazarus. We have a hard time conceiving of Mary as a prostitute or sinner. We like her. She chooses to sit at Jesus' feet and the little sister/brother in all of us wants to stick out our tongue at Martha as she complains and Jesus defends in Luke 10. But we fail to consider that perhaps her devotion comes from a place of deep gratitude for many sins forgiven. It certainly explains why she was not married. It may even explain why her sister resented her so much, a sister with a bad reputation easily spoils the reputation of the whole family. It would explain why she was seemingly uninvited to a banquet where her brother reclined and her sister served. An upstanding member of the community would assume that she was unfit company for an important rabbi.

Seeing Mary in a new light can actually give us hope for our own condition. We lift saints too high sometimes. It is easy to do, thinking that if God interacted with them, they must be morally perfect. But Jesus was not criticized for hanging out with saints, but tax collectors and sinners. This is exactly the kind of person he would have welcomed into his group of followers. And we are too.

Regardless of your past, God has a bright future for you. Bring him your gratitude and genuine praise. Don't be afraid to pour it all out at his feet. The opinions of others do not matter to him. Present him with yourself and allow him to fight the battle for your reputation!

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