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The Alabaster Jar. Chapter Fifteen in The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

The Alabaster Jar

Chapter Fifteen in The Alabaster Jar by Theresia Saers

I wonder if Mary hoped against hope that there would be a day when even the Pharisees would recognise Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One. That time would bring a moment for them to need oil in order to anoint Jesus in the presence of the people. That could have made her decide to keep the costly nard she brought to the fateful meal hosted by the Pharisee. Judas tells us that the money for the nard should have been handed over to him for the care of Jesus and the poor that were always around wherever Jesus ministered. Mary may well have had the oil ready from the beginning, those far-away days when she sat down at the feet of the Rabbi for the very first time. There had been times when the common people wanted to carry Jesus off and have him anointed their king, for instance after the multiplication of the loaves of bread. Jesus had refused to go with them, knowing full well that it was only euphoria resulting from that miracle and the satisfaction of their well-filled stomachs that made them acclaim him.

Maybe it was the stubborn rejection of Jesus by the priests, the scribes and Pharisees that made her produce her beautiful jar of costly nard. Made her in a defiant gesture break it and empty it, all of it, on his head and on his feet, ‘Are you blind, you, stupid men that profess to be leaders of Israel?’

Is that why Jesus claims Mary has done all that she could? Was the attitude of the Pharisees not reason enough to make her weep? Why must it have been her sins? She must have felt that Jesus who had protected her when she decided to become his follower, indeed one of his disciples, had suffered enough. I do not think it is too farfetched to call to mind the Song of Songs,

‘Ah, why are you not my brother, nursed at my mother’s breast!
Then if I met you out of doors, I could kiss you
Without people thinking ill of me I should lead you,
I should take you into my mother’s house,
and you would teach me!
I should give you spiced wine to drink,
juice of my pomegranates.’

But let us consider how the awful drama is building up.

A few days after Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, the former is back at Bethany. One of the Pharisees learns that Jesus is in town again and that people are crowding around him because of Lazarus. Why not create an opportunity to help the chief priests lay their hands on Jesus? The Pharisee does not hesitate and invites Jesus and some of his disciples to a meal. Mary’s sister Martha is among the women he orders to do the catering. Although Jesus is well aware of the motives of his host, he accepts. Has he ever refused to eat with sinners?

Mary, who has always been a thorn in the eyes of the Pharisees, has not been asked to serve. Sitting idle at home she must have felt ill at ease. Jesus is going to die, but the leaders of Israel have not acclaimed him. What can she do, when she is not even allowed into the house? And if she were, no woman could accuse a Pharisee of sinful neglect, certainly not in his own house. She knows full well why she has not been asked to help prepare the meal. In his eyes she is a bad person. The Pharisees still hold it against her that she disregarded their warnings against the Rabbi, when he started his teaching. But was I wrong, she asks herself, when I stuck to the teachings of Isaiah and later of John the prophet? Was I wrong when I refused to marry because of my devotion to the Messiah? Was my friendship with Joanna sinful? Was Magdala synonymous with Sodom and all its inhabitants to be shunned? What can I do even now for my beloved Master in this moment of ultimate danger? For the Messiah, the Anointed One of Israel, rejected by the leaders of his own people?

At that moment she remembered the jar of nard and hit upon the gesture that has endeared her to all later generations, the breaking of the jar of ointment and the subsequent anointing. She took the jar, entered the Pharisee’s house and looking him straight in the eye, broke it with a resounding tap and splashed the nard all over her beloved Master. I will let the evangelists themselves tell the full story, including the remarks that precede and follow the actual anointing. In my view they throw extra light on the peculiar circumstances of that meal without which we are no good judges of what was actually happening.

First we listen to Matthew.

‘Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiphas, and made plans to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death. They said, however, ‘It must not be during the festivities; there must be no disturbance among the people’.

Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper, when a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of the most expensive ointment, and poured it on his head as he was at table. When they saw this, the disciples were indignant; ‘Why this waste?’ they said. ‘This could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.’ Jesus noticed this. ‘Why are you upsetting the woman?’ he said to them. What she has done for me is one of the good works indeed! You have the poor with you always, but you will not always have me. When she poured this ointment on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever in all the world this Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.

Then one of the Twelve, the man called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you prepared to give me if I hand him over to you?’ They paid him thirty silver pieces, and from that moment he looked for an opportunity to betray him.’ (Matth. 26:3-16)

Mark tells us:

‘It was two days before the Passover and the feast of the Unleavened Bread, and the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death. For they said, ‘It must not be during the festivities, or there will be a disturbance among the people’.

Jesus was at Bethany in the House of Simon the Leper; he was at dinner when a woman came in with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the ointment on his head. Some who were there said to one another indignantly, ‘Why this waste of ointment? Ointment like this could have been sold for over three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor’; and they were angry with her. But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why are you upsetting her? What she has done is one of the good works. You have the poor with you always, and you can be kind to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me. She has done what was in her power to do: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. I tell you solemnly, wherever throughout all the world the Good News is proclaimed, what she has done will be told also, in remembrance of her.

Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, approached the chief priests with an offer to hand Jesus over to them. They were delighted to hear it, and promised to give him money; and he looked for a way of betraying him when the opportunity should occur.’ (Mark 14:1-11)

Then John:

‘The Jewish Passover drew near, and many of the country people who had gone up tot Jerusalem to purify themselves looked out for Jesus, saying to one another as they stood about in the Temple, ‘What do you think? Will he come to the festival or not? The chief priests and Pharisees had by now given their orders that anyone who knew where he was must inform them so that they could arrest him

Six days before the Passover Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom he had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there; Martha waited on them and Lazarus was among them at table. Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair; the house was full of the scent of the ointment. Then Judas Iscariot – one of his disciples, the man who was to betray him – said, ‘Why wasn’t this ointment 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 was in charge of the common fund and used to help himself to the contributions. So Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone; she had to keep this scent for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always, you will not always have me.’

Meanwhile a large number of Jews heard that he was there and came not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. Then the chief priests decided to kill Lazarus as well, since it was on his account that many of the Jews were leaving them and believing in Jesus.’ (John 15: 55-57, and 16: 1-11)

Finally Luke:

‘I tell you, of all the children born of women, there is no one that is greater than he (John.) is. All the people who heard him, and the tax collectors too, acknowledged God’s plan by accepting baptism from John; but by refusing baptism from him the Pharisees and the lawyers thwarted what God had in mind for them’.

‘One of the Pharisees invited him to a meal. When he arrived at the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table, a woman came in, who had a bad name in the town. She had heard he was dining with the Pharisee and had brought with her an alabaster jar of ointment. She waited behind him at his feet, weeping, and her tears fell on his feet, and she wiped them away with her hair; then she covered his feet with kisses and anointed them with the ointment.

When the Pharisee who had invited them saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who this woman is that is touching him and what a bad name she has.’ Then Jesus took him up and said, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you’. ‘Speak, Master’, was the reply. ‘There was once a creditor who had two men in his debt; one owed him five hundred denarii, the other fifty. They were unable to pay, so he pardoned them both. Which of them will love him more?’ ‘The one who was pardoned more, I suppose,’ answered Simon. Jesus said, ‘You are right’.

Then he turned to the woman. ‘Simon,’ he said ‘you see this woman? I came into your house, and you poured no water over my feet, but she has poured out her tears over my feet and wiped them away with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but she has been covering my feet with kisses ever since she came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. For this reason I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love. It is the man who is forgiven little who shows little love.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’

Those who were with him at table began to say to themselves, ‘Who is this man, that he even forgives sins?’ But he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’.(Luke 7: 28-30 and 36-50)

Some people see in the anointing related in these four accounts not one single event, but two. They point out mainly three details of Luke’s version to make their point. First the fact that his story is told at an early stage in his gospel and does not put the link with Jesus’ coming death. Second that in Luke Jesus has the meal at the house of a Pharisee and third that his story is mainly a story of sin and love. For a start I would say that we have already made a note of the lack of real chronological order in all the gospels. As for the identity of the host, the other three evangelists do not state whether the host is or is not a Pharisee. Matthew and Mark agree with Luke that his name is Simon and they refer to him as the Leper. John does not mention any name at all. This Simon certainly is not a person to tell an enthusiastic story about, more a matter for the early Christians to remember with a shudder. We know that no real leper would have been an officiating Pharisee, nor would a person healed by Jesus of leprosy, if he were in his right mind, have thought of handing his benefactor over to the chief priests to suffer political murder. As for the story of the big sinner and the small one and their love or lack of it, which does not occur in the other accounts, we find that evangelists make their own choice of details to be recounted. That most important event for instance of the institution of the eucharist is not mentioned in John’s lengthy account of the Last Supper, whereas the washing of the feet is. The fact that some things are not mentioned does not imply that they have not happened; it only means that the author prefers to tell other things that have impressed him much more. Do we not recognise this behaviour in ourselves, when we talk about our own dear departed?

The kind of religious-political murder about which we have been reading was the first of many such events among Jesus’ followers. The atmosphere is full of downright menace. Later martyrs, too, are aware of the awful future ahead of them, but can or will not try to escape their fate. We know from the evangelists that Jesus had foretold what he knew was coming. When in later years they look back on Jesus’ life, they realise that this meal was the first stage of the road that eventually led to his death on the cross. These cannot have been happy memories, because in those dark days there was nothing much that they have done to help their Master. It seems they have not even protested the lack of courtesy shown to him at the house of their host. Yet the disciples do not totally shy away from mentioning their cowardice and describing what really happened, maybe because there were still enough witnesses about who knew the real facts.

© Theresia Saers

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