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Women in the Gospels: Washing Jesus’ Feet

September 10, 2012

In the last article in this series I discussed Mary and Martha and noted that there was a third Mary story that I would discuss later. Well, later is now. All four gospels contains some sort of variation on the story of the woman who comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and then uses her hair to wipe his feet (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-10, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-11). In Matthew, Mark, and John these stories are very similar, though John says that it is Mary (Martha’s sister) who is the woman involved while Matthew and Mark do not tell us her name. In Luke the actions are similar but the woman is described as “sinful” and the lesson Jesus teaches from the incident is entirely different. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke a man named Simon (Simon the Leper in Matthew and Mark and a Pharisee who is addressed as Simon partway through the narrative in Luke) holds a dinner at his house where all of this occurs. In John the incident occurs in Martha and Mary’s home.

In Luke’s version of the story the conflict is that Simon believes that Jesus should not allow a sinful woman to touch him. Indeed, this woman is getting awfully close to Jesus. Jesus responds to Simon by telling him a story of two people whose debts are forgiven and asking him which debtor will be more grateful. Simon answers that the debtor who owed more will be more thankful and Jesus then points out that this woman has much to be forgiven of. He compares her behavior favorably to Simon’s (Simon has apparently neglected some basic duties of a host) and concludes by forgiving her of her sins and praising her faith.

Much of Luke’s story is familiar territory. I earlier wrote about some other women Jesus interacts with who had sordid pasts and this story is in the same vein: Jesus is willing to stand up for women who have done the wrong thing not because he thinks these things are right but because he is merciful and forgiving. This is scandalous behavior in that society but Jesus does it anyway.

In the Matthew, Mark, and John version of the story the conflict is different from that of the story in Luke. In these versions the woman uses up something very expensive in this act and it is seen as unseemly. Someone (those present, some disciples, or Judas) objects saying that the money could have been used for the poor. (This is interesting in and of itself: apparently those around Jesus are used to thinking of expensive items in terms of how much good they could do those in need.) Jesus responds that the poor will always be around to be helped but he will not be. Indeed, this woman has anointed him for burial. Matthew and Mark comment that Jesus says that this woman will always be remembered for what she did and that her story will be told all over the world by his followers.

There’s some important context for this story (by which I mean all three versions of this story). They all occur in Bethany where Jesus is currently staying so that he can go into Jerusalem for his last Passover. They all end with a comment about Judas or the Jewish leaders plotting to kill Jesus. The tension is building and the comment about Jesus’ burial is not incidental or particularly out of place. Moreover, the women who are supposed to anoint Jesus for burial never have the chance – he rises before they get to the tomb to do so.

Despite this context, the story remains odd. Many people get fouled up in its statements about the poor. I’m pretty sure that those lines are not actually setting policy. Instead, they are explaining an exception to the rules. Essentially, Jesus says, “Look, this is an exceptional case. I’m about to die and when I die it would be your duty to prepare my body properly for burial. This woman has done so. It’s the right thing to do.”

Now, this logic may be understandable in our post-Easter world where we’ve read the gospel in its entirety already but it’s a pretty crazy thing to say at that point in time. How would this woman know that Jesus was about to die and not be buried properly? In fact, one of the resonances that comes out strongly in Mark and Matthew is kingly anointing. In these versions of the story we are told that the woman begins by pouring perfume on Jesus’ head in much the manner that a king would be anointed with oil. (“Messiah” literally means “anointed” – there’s a lot of extra meanings associated with anointing someone.) It makes a lot more sense to assume that this is part of the story – the woman comes to publicly proclaim that she recognizes Jesus as the Anointed, the King of Israel, and Jesus makes a cryptic comment about how (although she does not know it) she is preparing him for his burial. If so, this woman is also important because of her proclamation of faith.

However, even without this we can know is that this woman is praised for her actions. Again, Jesus takes the side of someone who is doing things others see as wrong and who is socially inferior (in this case by being a woman) and defends them. (Critically, if this woman is anointing Jesus as a statement of faith Jesus is pointing out the she is on his side against those who criticize her.) Jesus’ statement about the importance of her action is also worth noting. No one else is ever told that their story will be told wherever Jesus’ own story is told. She comes across as one of the few people who is getting things right in understanding what will happen to Jesus and doing right by him in light of that. While it’s hard to discern if this is because she has actually figured all that out it is certainly a strong commendation.

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