Mary, Jesus & the Alabaster Jar

In 1970, God did a new thing in the Lutheran church and in 2020, the ELCA marked the 50th anniversary of its decision to ordain women. There was supposed to be a big celebration in Phoenix last July – but, you know, COVID. The event was actually known as 50-40-10 because it also honored the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first women of color and the 10th anniversary of the ELCA’s decision to officially ordain lgbtq people. 

But let me take you back a bit further. The 25th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA was in 1995 and there was a grand celebration in Minneapolis. The theme of the gathering was Breaking Open the Jar. The reference was to the alabaster jar of perfume used by a woman to anoint Jesus. Each attendee received a jar like this one. 

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is a well known, if sometimes confusing and intriguing one. All four gospels have a version of it, although the details vary. In Matthew and Mark, the incident takes place in the home of Simon the leper; the woman is unnamed; she anoints Jesus’ head with the oil instead of his feet. The disciples complain about the waste of the costly oil. 

In Luke’s gospel, the setting is the home of a Pharisee named Simon. The woman is called a “sinful woman” (there is no mention of her sin, but tradition has called her a prostitute). She kisses Jesus’ feet, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair before anointing his feet with the oil. The one who complains in this version is the Pharisee who criticizes Jesus for interacting with such a person. 

In John’s version, the event takes place in the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with Mary Magdalene) is the one who opens up a pound of pure nard. 

Now this was expensive stuff. Nard, actually spikenard, is an oil extracted from a flowering plant that grows in the high mountains of Nepal, China, and India. Along with being a valuable perfume, it’s also used as incense, as a sedative and as an herbal medicine. This exotic perfume, with its strong, distinctive fragrance, was highly valued in ancient cultures; it symbolized the very best – in the way that “Tiffany diamond” does to us. If you smelled the aroma of spikenard, you knew that you were experiencing the best there was.  

But what was Mary thinking?! What she did at the dinner party in Bethany was so over the top in so many ways. First of all: the expense. Imagine buying a bottle of wine for your next dinner party that cost you a year’s salary. Extravagant doesn’t even begin to cover it. What was she doing with a pound of nard in the first place? Some have suggested that it could have been part of her dowry, which she sacrificed for Jesus.

So here they are, sharing a meal together, a celebration among the closest of friends – a celebration of that friendship, of good food, good wine, and most of all, life. But there must also have been an element of worry and fear at that table. John has set this dinner party after the raising of Lazarus, and notes here that Lazarus is at the table, so the scene already has a liminal feeling to it, of being on the threshold between life and death. They had to know that Jesus was a marked man, that his days were numbered. In John, it’s the raising of Lazarus that really sets the religious authorities against Jesus, and they decide he has to die. 

For us, reading this today, we know we’re about to enter into Holy Week, the time of remembering how the authorities did indeed carry out that death sentence. So Mary’s is a prophetic action – Jesus himself is about to enter Holy Week. The very next passage in John is the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. 

Still, her action is not proper. What she does goes way beyond inappropriate – unacceptable in polite company in that culture and time: she loosens her hair as women did only for their husbands or when they were in mourning; she pours expensive balm on the feet of Jesus (not like the anointing of a king, when the oil would be poured on the head), and she touches Jesus even though she’s a single woman – which is so not appropriate – and then wipes his feet with her hair. Her action is sensual and intimate. But Mary clearly adores Jesus. 

And wrong as they are, we can see how many readers of the gospels have taken Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the ‘sinful woman’ in a story from Luke’s gospel and conflated these women into one – and that one, a prostitute. Mary of Bethany is most certainly not the same person as Mary of Magdala. Magdala was located 50 miles north of Jerusalem. Bethany was just on the edge of Jerusalem, just one mile east of where Jesus was heading to his death.

We don’t know who the woman who broke open the alabaster jar of ointment in the other gospels was. Like so many women in the Bible, her name is not given. In Matthew and Mark, she’s simply a woman; it’s not until Luke gets ahold of the story that she becomes a ‘woman who was a sinner.’ It’s of particular offense to women that all of these biblical women have been labeled as prostitutes, even though the nameless woman’s ‘sin’ isn’t identified (Could she have been a thief, a liar, a gossip? How is it that sexual sins are much worse than all others?) Even more offensive is the defamation of Mary Magdalene’s character. But that’s another sermon for another day. 

Here, at this table, Judas is having none of it. In this version, he’s the one complaining about the wastefulness of it; the money could have been put to better use. We might be inclined to agree with Judas here (whether or not we buy John’s characterization of him as a thief), but John pulls us back and reminds us that, in this story, it’s Mary who teaches us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. He doesn’t negate the call to serve the poor; it’s just not what this is about. After three years with Jesus, the disciples had learned that care for the poor characterizes the people of God. But here he reminds them that there’s even more to it. Full-bodied adoration. Mary recognized that she has encountered the lavish, over-the-top love of God, and she adores Jesus for it. She’s experienced the sumptuous love of God through Jesus and responds with an extravagant act of love. She takes the best of what she has to offer – her whole self – embodied in that jar of nard – and breaks it open as a fragrant offering to the One she adores. 

Father Gerry O’Rourke, one of the founders of United Religions Initiative, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio lived not far from here at Atria Park during the last years of his life. Not long before he died, I interviewed him for a website called Virtual Grace that Bishop Megan and I used to do. In the interview (you can find it on YouTube), Father Gerry got onto the subject of abundance, how so often in the church today we operate out of a sense of scarcity, of being afraid of not having enough. As he said in his wonderful Irish brogue, “There’s nothing scarce about Jesus.” 

Well, Mary obviously got that. She recognized the generosity of love that Jesus had for her; she in return poured out her devotion to him. And neither the original disciples nor we should begrudge her act of devotion, emotion, sensuality – and the foreshadowing of his death, because nard was also used to prepare a body for burial. 

We have to recognize what a stunning act this was. In the culture of that time and place, it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman not his wife. And loose hair on a woman was considered too sensual to be seen by men in Galilean culture (just as it is in some places today). But Jesus had transcended his culture. He didn’t have a problem with being touched by women or seeing them with their hair down. He didn’t have a problem with talking to a woman at the well or having women as friends and disciples. Remember the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet in this version of the story is the same Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who sat at his feet to listen and to learn.

But history has a way of layering over some of the extraordinary nature of this event. After Jesus died, the radical inclusivity he manifested toward women became more restrictive. Mary Magdalene came to be portrayed as a prostitute, as did the unnamed “sinner” in Luke. Women’s bodies, women’s ways were declared sinful. 

Consider these writings from some of the patriarchs of the early Church:

From Saint Clement of Alexandria: “For women, the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

From Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer.”

From Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo: “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.”

And from our own Martin Luther: “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”

It’s no wonder so many women found remaining in the Church untenable. I used some of these quotes in my presentation at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2018: Dismantling Patriarchy in Religion. Afterward, I met a number of people who had attended the workshop and learned that many of the women had left Christianity for other spiritual paths.

Part 1
Part 2

So I see the ordination of women as a “new thing” that God has done. And in lifting up the woman with the alabaster jar, not as a prostitute or even a “sinful woman,” we participate in the gift given to us. In the oldest version of this story, the one found in Mark and Matthew, Jesus makes a remarkable comment on her action: 

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

What she has done. With tears, of all things: such a sign of weakness; who doesn’t fear breaking down and exhibiting such vulnerability? But here, there is no shame in crying. 

With her hair. Clergywomen’s hair was still an issue not that long ago. A friend was told by her (male) bishop when she was called to her first congregation that she should get her long hair cut short and permed. 

With her hands, providing ministry in a tactile way: hard to do today with our fears of being accused of having boundary issues. Still, we know that one of the sorrows of the pandemic lockdown was the loss of human touch. 

With her respect for Jesus – recognizing that his body was about to be dis-respected, brutalized, and destroyed – she reminds us of the innate goodness of human bodies. Mary debunks the hierarchical, dualistic view of reality that we inherited from Greek philosophy and Church patriarchs, in which, for example, the rational mind is valued over the intuitive, spirit is valued over matter, the human is valued over nature, man is valued over woman – and the soul is valued over the body. 

And Jesus concurs. In Hebrew thought, the soul was the whole of a person, the life force. Spirit wasn’t isolated from the body, but the body itself in complete harmony. It was the Greeks who created the dualism of separation of the soul from the body, which we’re still trying to get beyond today. 

With Mary’s help, we remember that Jesus has a body. Jesus is a body. Jesus is a human being, with aches and pains, joys and sorrows. I’m sure after all his teachings and travels, as he prepared to go into Jerusalem to certain death, being recognized as a human body and treated lovingly was just what he needed. Not more arguments from the Pharisees or questions from the disciples. Simple bodily care. Maybe he remembered Mary’s gift to him when he got up from the dinner table, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

What does all this mean for us? We should now go around touching each other, crying on one another’s feet? I don’t think so. Boundaries are important. But as we move closer to Good Friday, the humanity of Jesus looms larger. Although we’d like to jump quickly over to Easter and get past the ultimate human reality of death, Good Friday will not let us forget the ubiquitous presence of suffering as part of the human condition. And Mary will not let us forget how to love ourselves and others in the midst of it all. 

To deny the physicality of our humanness it to deny the physicality of the Word made flesh. It’s also an invitation to unhealthy distortions. I watched the movie Spotlight again a little while ago. It’s about the uncovering of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priests’ sexual misconduct in Boston. While watching, I couldn’t help thinking that a system that continues to promote the hierarchical dualism of spirit over physical, celibacy over marriage, and men over women, that implies a lesser state – if not shamefulness – in sexuality, will produce dysfunction and the misuse of the God-given gift of sexuality. 

The problem is not homosexuality; it’s our distortion of human sexuality. And until this underlying foundation is dismantled, no manner of punishment of individuals will change the fact that human beings need to be whole. That is, we need to be at home in our physical selves, as well as our spiritual selves. We need to be comfortable with both our feminine and masculine selves – and today we even go beyond that binary. 

I’m not just picking on the Catholic Church here, either – although I think they need to deal with it better. But remember, we’ve got Martin Luther’s legacy to deal with too. We’re not perfect. We’re all products of a culture which if often confused about its physical self. We think we’re not worthy if we don’t look like the airbrushed models in magazines. We have a national obsession with cosmetic surgery. There was the controversy over Facebook’s removal of pictures of women breastfeeding their babies. Protestors rightly pointed out the numerous pictures of near-naked models, actors, etc. that did pass the morality test. 

We are a mixed-up bunch. But let’s not use Jesus as an excuse. He’s profoundly appreciative of Mary – or whoever the woman was – and her care for his weary body. And let us not forget that “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

All of this talk of extravagance and wastefulness should sound familiar to us. Last week, I quoted the late Bishop John Shelby Spong: 

“the only true way to worship God is by living fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be all that we are capable of being.”

This might be a very new way of thinking for many of us. Being wasteful is generally not considered a positive thing. So we have to really ponder this as we try to apply it to ourselves as followers of Jesus and as the church. 

We often talk about God doing a new thing among us. Even before COVID, many, instead of bemoaning the decline of the church or sounding the death knell, were looking expectantly to the church being reborn or re-formed. And as we slowly begin coming back together, that expectancy has become even stronger. But it’s hard to pull ourselves out of a scarcity mindset.

I’m sticking with Father Gerry: “There’s nothing scarce about Jesus.”

And I’m keeping my alabaster jar “in remembrance” of Mary – to remind myself to “live fully, love wastefully, be all I can be.” And to lead our congregation – made up of beautiful bodies – into the new thing God has in store for us. 

Amen

John 12: 1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Attribution:Pittman, Lauren Wright. “Anointed”, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57085 [retrieved April 5, 2022]. Original source: http://www.lewpstudio.com – copyright by Lauren Wright Pittman.

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smstrouse

I've been the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Burlingame, CA since February, 2020. I am a “proud member of the religious left” and an unapologetic progressive Christian. While I have been criticized by some as no longer being Christian and as a pastor for whom “anything goes,” I firmly reject those characterizations. I am most assuredly a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a seeker of the Cosmic Christ.  My preaching, teaching and worship leadership is based on sound theology and careful study. I would call myself a devotee of process theology with a Lutheran flavor. For two years I also served as the interim executive director of the Interfaith Center at the Presidio in San Francisco (http://interfaith-presidio.org) and served on the board for many years before that.  In 2005 I received my Doctorate in Ministry from the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley in interfaith relationships. My book is The INTRAfaith Conversation: How Do Christians Talk Among Ourselves About INTERfaith Matters? I enjoy leading workshops and retreats on interfaith matters, as well as teaching seminarians how to think about pastoring in a multi-faith environment. I suppose I’m not everyone’s idea of the perfect Christian. But if you’re interested in exploring the questions of faith in the 21st century, drop me a line.

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