13 March 2016
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lent 5C (RCL)
Each of the Gospels has a story of a woman anointing or washing Jesus’ feet or head. In Mark’s Gospel, it is an anonymous woman at a banquet at the house of Simon the leper. She pours the spike nard on Jesus’ head. Matthew leaves the story in essentially Marcan form. Luke changes it somewhat. Jesus is at a banquet at the home of Simon the Pharisee, and an unnamed woman woman washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Simon wonders that Jesus does not know what sort of woman she is, and Jesus scolds Simon because the woman has proved a better host than Simon. The story becomes clearer when we realize that the flute girls who often danced at banquets would have had their hair down (and other women weren’t likely to attend banquets). That’s why Paul admonishes women not to come to a banquet without their hair covered. He didn’t want them confused with the entertainment.
John mashes Mark’s and Luke’s stories together and gives the woman a name. Presumably this is Mary, Lazarus’ sister. We are not told that the banquet is at Lazarus’ home, but it would be an easy conjecture (we are told that the banquet is in Bethany, “where Lazarus was” — the NRSV supplies the information that it was at Lazarus’ home). And Mary anoints, not washes, Jesus’ feet, although she dries them with her hair. Is Mary being portrayed here as a “loose” woman?
Spike nard was imported from the Himalayas, and therefore very costly. The Greek says she had a liter of it, worth three hundred denarii. A denarius was a day’s wage for a day laborer. I figure 300 denarii must be about the equivalent of $20,000. Jesus’ disciples ask him, at the feeding of the 5000 men, whether he wants them to go out and buy 200 denarii worth of bread to feed the crowd. If we assume there were women and children in the crowd, let’s guess about 15,000 people. To feed that many today would cost will over $20,000. That’s a lot of spike nard.
Let’s also assume that Mary had it because she had planned on using it to anoint Lazarus, and ended up not needing it for that purpose. Surely, then, it could be sold and the money given to the poor. That’s a lot of money. Many will react to the saying, “The poor you will have with you always.” I think it is Jesus’ way of saying that we will continue (in this fallen world) to be obligated to help the poor.
But John’s Gospel raises the stakes on this story by having Jesus wash his disciple’s feet at the last supper. What Mary has done for Jesus, Jesus will do for us, and then direct that we do for others. Washing feet was the job of a slave, or in a household without a slave, a woman. Mary, clearly wealthy enough to afford $20,000 worth of spike nard, anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair — an incredibly intimate act. Jesus will strip and wash his disciples feet — also an incredibly intimate act, and one that stands expected roles on their heads. And then he will ask us to do that for others. We are not just to care for the poor, but anoint their feet.
Paul speaks of a righteousness which comes from Christ, not himself. If we remember that righteousness means something about one’s standing in community, then Paul is saying that he desires a standing in community that comes from Christ, not from himself. This is exactly what having one’s feet washed by Jesus would mean — a standing in community based on Christ’s grace, not on status given by the law.