In this week’s Gospel reading from John, we are told a version of a story that is found in all four gospels.* Six days before the Passover, Jesus comes to Bethany to have dinner with his friend Lazarus, whom he has recently raised from the dead. While Jesus is at table with him, Lazarus’ sister Martha serves them their meal. Meanwhile, their other sister Mary takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,” anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and wipes them dry with her hair. We are told by the narrator that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” (Jn 12:3)
We’ll get to the rest of the story, but I want to stop here a moment to point out the similarities and differences that are already apparent between this account and how an analogous event is told in the other gospels. In all four of the Gospel retellings, the scene is set while Jesus is dining, though the woman goes unnamed by three of the four evangelists. Even the host of the dinner is shrouded in some ambiguity, since he is described as “Simon the Leper” (who continues to live in Bethany) in Matthew and Mark, but Luke only says that he is “one of the Pharisees” without any geographical reference. (Lk 7:36) Part of the reason for this notable departure in the Lukan version is almost certainly because the meal becomes the first in a sequence of three edifying dinners that Jesus and his disciples have with various Pharisees, but each of the convergences and divergences between the gospels emphasize the near impossibility of trying to pin down fixed identities as each author molds their narrative to emphasize what they understand as the story’s importance. The scene is always set by a scandalous dinner—with a dead man, with a leper, with a Pharisee—that is interrupted by the even more scandalous ministrations of a woman. In Matthew and Mark, the nameless heroine seems like little more than a prop, a chance for the disciples to once again misunderstand the situation and for Jesus to once again chastise them accordingly. She is slightly more fleshed out in Luke, described as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner,” and her anointing is intermingled with her “weeping.” (Lk 7:37-38) While John doesn’t give us explicit insight into Mary’s motivations, it seems clear that her act is one of some overwhelming mixture of gratitude, worship, and perhaps even a touch of Luke’s penance. After all, the last words that she spoke to her teacher in this gospel were that quiet rebuke, kneeling at his feet, for the callous fact of her brother’s death: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (Jn 11:32) The descriptions of the perfume similarly shift between each reading: an alabaster jar of ointment (“very costly” according to Mk 14:3 and Mt 26:7) in the Synoptic Gospels, while John sees fit to go into specifics of weight, price, and its identity as “pure nard.” Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, even the question of quite what is anointed is a matter of some dispute. Matthew and Mark envision the woman pouring the ointment over Christ’s head; however, Luke’s sinner and John’s Mary are focused on Christ’s feet. The former act should remind you of chrismation, of the priestly and kingly anointings that shape the Hebrew Bible. The latter act could have valences closer to supplication or burial rites, though I could not tell you for sure what is happening aside from startling intimacy. In short, we’re again and again confronted with the limitations of fact before the power of the Gospel, and we’re left with a plurality of witness in its wake.
John goes on to put the outrage that the disciples voice in the other gospels about what the cost of the perfume/ointment could have done to further the preferential option for the poor in Judas’ mouth particularly, who only cares because he was stealing from the common purse. (Why miss a chance to reinforce your villain’s duplicity?) Jesus responds cryptically to this objection, though the wording remains pretty consistent in three of the gospels:** “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.” (Jn 12:7-8) Matthew and Mark echo almost all the same language of burial, the poor, and the looming end of Jesus’ ministry—yet Jesus is a little more expansive in their versions, describing what the woman has done as “a good service.” (Mk 14:6, Mt 26:10) While the Gospel of Mark is usual the sparest, Jesus spells out the faithful’s relationship to the poor the most explicitly there: “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish.” (Mk 14:7) This clarification manages to be both more reassuring and more troubling in the same moment. The major divergence, however, between the Gospel of John and the two other gospels is how Jesus ends his remarks in Matthew and Mark, giving the woman pride of place in salvation history: “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (Mt 26:13)
This is a woman (or women) who doesn’t have a name three out of the four times we meet her in the Bible. Even the Gospel of John, which would seem pretty clear on the specific relationships involved, has become conflated over the centuries with the next chapter in the Gospel of Luke and the introduction of “Mary, called Magdalene” and her “seven demons.” (Lk 8:2) Thus Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene have become the same woman in Christianity’s shared memory. (The situation is complicated by each Mary and her respective place in the Resurrection narratives.) The Lukan “woman in the city, who was a sinner,” has likewise been incorporated into this amalgamation, and it has become common knowledge—even though her sins are never specified—that this double Mary was a whore. Now, there has been a fairly significant amount of work done over the last few decades to right this wrong, to banish this caricature of womanhood and allow each of these characters to exist in all of her complicated convergences and divergences. Even Dan Brown has done his part. But, like the poor, she is still with us.
If the final phrase “will be told in remembrance of her” from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark strikes you as achingly familiar, it’s because it is an almost perfect echo of the Words of Institution, of the Biblical language we repeat during each and every Eucharistic prayer to remind us of how and why Jesus instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion. “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Just as we are welcomed again and again to the holy table, I’d like to think that we have an opportunity “whenever [we] wish” to unlatch the doors, metaphorically and literally, and welcome her to the holy table too. To welcome the sister, the disciple, the sinner, the penitent, the possessed, the poor, the woman to the feast, whatever form she may take. As each of the evangelist tries to tell us in their own way, the plurality involved is fundamental to our experience of the Gospel. And, likewise, there is no Gospel without her. She has so much to teach us about ministry.
*More specifically, the iterations can be found at John 12:1-8, Luke 7:36-50, Mark 14:3-9, and Matthew 26:6-13
**The rest of the story in Luke is different enough that I don’t think I can do it justice in this meditation