In one of my favourite detective “Who dunit” episodes on TV,from the A Touch of Frost series , Detective Constable Clive Barnard had occasion to apologise to his superior, that unconventional master solver of crimes, Detective Inspector Jack Frost .
As best I remember it, the exchange went like this: :
D.C. Clive Barnard: “I was out of order yesterday. Losing my rag”…….
DI Jack Frost: “That’s all right. I’ll tell you one little trick, though. Out of order is no good to anyone. Out of step is much better. That way, you tread on the bits the other people miss”.
As one who happens to believe that this would be good advice for anyone who wants to make progress, not just in solving crimes, but even in finding truth in theology, for today’s gospel, I want to tread on some bits that sometimes get missed.
Just before we look at today’s story to see what it actually says, amongst the over stocked shelves and mounting piles of randomly categorised books in my study which I rather euphemistically term my library, I have one called The Book of General Ignorance which consists of a series of questions, many for which I think I already know the answer. For each question it then goes on to give how an expert would answer the question, which is almost invariably wildly different from what I think I know.
Let’s try it. Before today what did you know about the incident of a woman using perfume to wash Jesus’ feet?
Typically, I suggest what we may well think we knew about today’s described event before encountering the actual reading may have been misremembered something like this…… Jesus visits one of his mates’ houses (usually remembered as Simon’s) with some of his disciples. While they are there, a bad woman eg Mary Magdalene, decides to perfume his feet, so she pours some some incredibly expensive perfume over his feet and , then lets down her hair and uses the hair to dry his feet. Judas objects at the waste of expensive perfume and says he reckons the perfume should have been sold, given to him to look after, and then the proceeds doled out to help the poor. Jesus says something like: “leave her alone. The poor are always with us. She is doing the right thing”.
Well that might be approximate public knowledge, but you would have struggled to find the complete evidence to support that remembered story.
There are of course four distinctly different versions in the four gospels (as well as some others in contemporary writings of the day). The first thing that we might notice is that there are substantial differences in each retelling.
We start with the simplest question. Where did this happen? In Matthew and Mark it happened in the home of Simon the leper. In Luke it was the home of Simon the Pharisee and in John (today’s story) it was the home of Lazarus, recently raised from the dead. So do we know where it happened? ….Let us be honest and admit not for sure.
In Matthew the disciples object to the way Jesus was treated. Or was it as in Mark, some of those present objected. In Luke it was Simon the Pharisee, and in John it was Judas. So who objected – surely that depends on whose version you prefer?
And how was Jesus anointed. In Mark it was Jesus’ head that got anointed. In Luke and John it was his feet. So which? And why the differences?
And who did the anointing? Mary Magdalene is surprisingly not a direct contender if the four gospels are used as our best sources. Certainly Luke claims it was a sinful but unnamed woman, but don’t forget John says a good woman.
Then behind all this is a niggling worry. Is it really a truth if we have no way of knowing which set of reported facts is closest to what happened?
If we look for the common theme in all of the versions our problems start to fade.
Deuteronomy is usually attributed as the basis of Jesus throw-away line about the poor always being with us. The whole quote then would be: (Deuteronomy Ch 15 verse 11) Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’ (NRSV).
If we think of Jesus, this time in the role of the neighbour, surely this is what happened. Putting it another way, it is the attitude of the open hand as the way to deal with the needs of the neighbour, which seemed to be valued by Jesus, and surely even if we are confused about the identity of the woman, the one thing we know is, that if the perfume was indeed very expensive, it was a most generous and open handed gesture to offer the oil for Jesus’ needs. Had the best use of the gift been preceded by working out best use of this particular asset by first calculating the value of the oil, this would have removed that element of open handed generosity.
I don’t think it matters in the slightest who objected to this generosity offered to Jesus. The fact is that whether it was Judas, Simon or anyone else present doing the criticizing, criticism about someone else’s giving from the sidelines is always a feeble contribution. But did you notice? The gospel writers are also confused about who was the one making the gift and expressing it in such a caring manner. May I suggest that not noticing the open handed gesture is almost part of the human condition.
For all of our enthusiasm in accepting Christian principles it may be that we are so conditioned to modern economics that it is the monetary value of the gift and whether or not we consider the recipient to be worthy rather than the style of giving that draws our attention.
In this particular version of the story, if we could just reflect on Middle Eastern customs of that time we would perhaps begin to realize why Mary’s actions might have caused consternation.
This was the ancient world where the custom of the day said that a woman’s hair should be covered and bound in public. Mary letting her hair down and allowing it to be smeared with oil would not be considered proper behaviour and would almost certainly be regarded as scandalous. In a regular Jewish household, like that of Lazarus, feet were washed, but they weren’t normally anointed. And, what is more, you washed your own feet. The only exception was when a slave was compelled to wash them for you. In John’s version, Mary was the brother of Lazarus and accordingly, may well have wanted to show gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother from the dead. But to the spectators this did not mean she should try to play the part of a slave to him.
And anointing with perfume? Custom suggested this was OK for royalty provided it was on the head as in anointing a king but there it was usually the priests or high ranking courtiers who did the anointing and definitely not lowly women . What is more, for the Jews it was not the feet that were anointed. That was not a Jewish custom. About the only time women got to anointing men was when they were preparing a body for burial. As it happens Pliny the elder records that some high class Roman men had a custom of putting perfume on the their feet, a custom which incidentally Pliny disapproved of on the grounds that it was an extravagant waste of a valuable resource.
Now all this is entirely academic and as long as it stays academic, it is a passing set of curiosities with nothing to do with us. If on the other hand we take that central theme of costly giving and look for the evidence for that style of giving in our own life stories, there is an issue which may cause us to stop and think.
Historically, costly giving for needs outside our own needs is not typically part of Western institutions, whether they be Church based or secular. Please notice that costly giving for Church building – or for the maintenance of Church hierarchy is not always compatible with the notion of responding generously to the needs of a neighbour.
Church decision making is typically inward directed. Fix the buildings, attend to our own needs, discuss the salaries of our church workers, our maintenance needs, our social functions – Oh yes and a small item for giving too, at least as an afterthought. But costly giving? That is when we meet the uncomprehending blank stare.
Yet Jesus by his own attitudes, his actions, and how he dealt with personal interactions, shows that he values costly giving. We say as a matter of course, that we follow Jesus, which presumably means that what he values, we value. Therefore it is fair to look at ourselves and our actions to see that we have taken that giving to a point where it will affect our personal lives, our institutional lives and even our political decision making.
If as a nation we are effectively ignoring the needs of our less fortunate neighbours can we really say we are entitled to do as Jesus did and paraphrase Deuteronomy: There will never cease to be some in need on the earth…(. and the next bit which follows): open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land?
In practice what we hear time after time is that certain groups in society – and even certain nations are unworthy of our giving. Perhaps it is time we reflected more carefully on an illustration once given by William Law, who will be known by some for his reputation as the Spiritual mentor of the Wesley Brothers, John and Charles.
Many years ago William Law presented what we hope was caricature of a self-absorbed society girl, Flavia who constantly assessed the worthiness of those who came seeking her aid. You would not be surprised that none were able to meet the standard that she set. As the story continues, we find Flavia’s test for worthiness turns out to be an exercise in self-deception. In her anxiety to cling on to her possessions she forgets their ultimate source and I guess also fails to consider that her own worthiness might also have been suspect.
If we are born into good fortune, to good chances in education and career this is of course not our own doing. For example New Zealand has an unexpectedly high level per capita of natural resources. Those born in New Zealand would have to think long and hard before assuming that therefore certain groups like boat people refugees are automatically disqualified from any share in these resources. In the same way if a child of a rich man inherits the family company and a salary to sustain a hundred families, the company owner would find it hard to justify preventing his employees earning the recommended minimum wage of $18.50 per hour on any grounds justified in terms of Christian conscience.
But ultimately it is not the acts of industrialists, politicians or even beggars that should be our focus. We need to find our own ways of expressing our own faith. If that faith is sometimes expressed with our own acts of costly giving we can be assured that at least in that respect we are being true to a way of life where Jesus has been on the path before us.