24th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)
The story of a woman anointing Jesus appears with varying details in all four Gospels and have given biblical scholars endless material to debate and criticize. Wading through the discussions is like entering into the mystery of a whodunit.
In three of the Gospels, the event took place in the house of a man named Simon. Was Simon a leper (Mark and Matthew) or a Pharisee (Luke)? In John, the event took place in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
Where did it take place? Mark, Matthew and John say Bethany. Luke’s Gospel does not specify, but commentators looking for continuity between the passages preceding and following infer the northern region of Galilee.
Who was the woman? In Mark and Matthew, she is simply a “woman” (guné). In Luke, she is a “woman of the city” singled out as a “sinner” (hamartólos). In John, she is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.
In Mark and Matthew (whose accounts are virtually identical), the woman anointed Jesus’ head with expensive ointment from an alabaster jar. In Luke and John, the feet of the reclining Jesus were anointed, but Luke’s account contains more drama:
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.
No other account records tears or kisses. In John, Mary straightaway anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.
Given the divergences (and there are others), has the tradition received two separate accounts or one? An unrecorded oral tradition (called “L” in Luke and “M” in Matthew) partially explains why there are similarities and differences in the Gospels. As stories circulated by word of mouth, details cross-fertilized and produced amalgamations.
Many interpreters ancient and modern, including St. John Chrysostom and the second-century Syrian theologian Tatian, hold that there are two separate events which oral tradition mixed and mingled.1 Other thoughtful interpreters, including Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J. and C.H. Dodd, trace the three versions back to one fundamental narrative out of which variations developed through oral tradition. St. Ambrose expressed the concern that “the Evangelists seem to have contradicted each other,” and thus distinguished the woman in Matthew from the penitent in Luke.2
Variegations in the Gospels need not be a cause for stumbling. They are simply a natural outcome of the Holy Spirit working through human instruments, not robots or video recorders. The Spirit of truth beyond all words must be transmitted from generation to generation. Words are a means, not an end. Deeper reflection reveals the truth that nothing in reality can be completely expressed in words. Perhaps this is why Jesus himself never wrote. The Logos became flesh, not a book. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition are revered, not worshipped.
The historical-critical method is immensely useful for understanding the origin, language, background, and development of texts. For meditation and prayer, however, the hair-splitting analyses may prove daunting and even desiccated. Patristic commentaries and homilies seem to come from another universe, filled as they are with allegorical interpretations, symbols, and a devotional orientation.
For example, St. Peter Chrysologus sees the woman as symbolic of the Church who recognizes the true Christ in the synagogue of the Pharisees (house of Simon).3 For St. Ambrose, the woman/Church ministers to Christ who represents the lowly and the least: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).4
Pure facticity in the account of Christ’s anointing cannot be established with absolute certitude. But in the spirit of the Fathers, the possibilities for prayerful meditation are infinite. Focus is usually placed on the woman as the great debtor who loves much because she is forgiven much. But the focus can also be switched to God as the poor and lowly recipient who comes to humankind (the woman) to receive hospitality and love.
The “I AM WHO AM” of Moses and metaphysics, immutable and in need of nothing, placed himself in the vulnerable position of being rejected, embraced, or ignored as irrelevant. Why would the Divine Absolute enter into history as a poor, homeless beggar?
Beginning with his birth in a manger to his death on the Cross, the Lord of the Universe divested himself of dominating power and might to conquer human hearts by self-emptying love and humility. As the animals scattered and fled from Adam after the Fall, Adam scattered and fled from the Father. The cosmos ripped apart at the seams. If the Incarnation is true, the Immutable One truly desires the friendship of his creatures, even to the point of death.
In the person of the woman who anointed Christ with tears and kisses, humankind returned to friendship with God like the birds who ate out of the hand of Adam in Paradise. What animal fears a master who is kind, gentle, and merciful through and through? In the same way, alienated Adam (the woman) fearlessly and vulnerably returned to the Father in Christ.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, p. 686.
2 St. Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 6.14.15.
3 St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 95.
4 St. Ambrose, Letter 62.