Sunday, June 17, 2007

Love Alone: The Anointing at Bethany

Today I rejoiced in one of my favorite episodes in scripture, the dramatic scene of Jesus' anointing in the house of Simon the Pharisee by an unnamed women. All of the synoptic retellings indicate that she is a woman of bad reputation. (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50). Testifying to the importance of this pericope is its fourth appearance in the Gospel of John (12:1-8). There however, the woman does not go unnamed. She is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Many have mistakenly assumed that the sinful woman of the synoptic versions was Mary Magdalene but scripture scholars do not support this conflation of characters. However, the scholar C.H. Dodd, in his book "Historical Tradition", argued that there was one actual incident behind these Gospel versions and that the variations arose in the course of oral tradition.

It is a story rich in lessons on faith and love, on sinful righteousness, on the largess of the mercy of God. Perhaps I am so partial to it because I spent a great deal of time studying this narrative and comparing the synoptic versions for a graduate school research paper. That work may yet see the light of day on this blog. But today my heart went in another direction.

I was struck by the motif of lavishness, of opulence, of generosity that does not keep count but is rather poured out in prodigal fashion. So prodigal that it annoyed Simon. With or without full appreciation of the culture of the time, the actions of the woman do seem quite over done, over the top. And Luke does not hesitate to embellish the story with tears so copious they literally wash the feet of Jesus and hair so thick and luxuriant that it can be used to dry them. To justify the woman's actions and his own in allowing them, Jesus tells another story of prodigal generosity - the forgiveness of debts. In the end he over shadows the story by extending God's forgiveness to the woman who was presented as a great sinner.

These expressions of prodigal love and forgiveness enlarged my own understanding of the quality of utter openness and generosity God desires from me. It is thoughtless abandon to the acts of giving and availability. And in this pericope Jesus assures that God will not be outdone in generosity. The prodigality, the lavishness of his unmerited mercy cannot be measured. Perhaps the mystery here is that one opens the other. In this quality of giving we are opened up to receive and God rejoices in our new availability to absorb the ever flowing shower of love and mercy which by the very nature of God cannot be staunched.

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