Sunday, March 07, 2010

An Ounce of Nard

An Ounce of Nard

Sunday School this morning. The theme was the Matthew version of the anointing of Jesus with expensive perfume. The different gospels have this event occurring in the house of Simon the Leper, a Pharisee’s home or the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. Sometimes she pours oil on his head, and in Luke, she washes his feet with her tears and then anoints them with myrrh. In every case, the event involves personal sacrifice and an expression of deep affection.

I spent a long time considering how I might approach this passage, and then decided that it was really one of a number of incidents in which Jesus tries to teach his disciples to avoid categorical thinking . . . fundamentalism, if you will. The disciples, you see, rebuke her in Matthew for wasting the expensive perfume when it could have been converted into cash and benefited the poor. Jesus rebukes them in turn for “bothering” the woman, who has done something wonderful for him.

Because of the variations in fact across the gospels regarding the anointing of Jesus, it clearly falls into the category of legend. It’s what happens in oral traditions where a story may be repeated over decades and may travel long distances. Details evolve, places and times shift until the actual facts are clearly no longer reliable. Amazingly, though, such legends seem to retain a strong similarity in what they are attempting to communicate. In every case, male persons look down their noses at a woman’s act of love and are brought up short by Jesus. Every version has this in common.

I wonder how a director would choose to render this scene in a movie? Take Luke’s version: Jesus is eating supper at Simon the Pharisee’s table, possibly with a group of men. They’re seated on the floor around a low table set out in the courtyard of Simon’s house. A woman known to be a prostitute enters the gate and is unnoticed amid the laughter and conversation. She comes up behind Jesus and wraps her arms around his feet, weeping and wailing. Servants of the Pharisee begin to drag her away and some mutter “If Jesus was a real prophet, he’d know that he’s just been grabbed at table by a whore!” Jesus jumps up and fends them off, shouts at them to leave the woman alone. They reluctantly resume their seats and Jesus tells them the parable of the two men who are unable to pay a debt, one of fifty silver pieces and one five hundred. The point he’s making is that the one who is forgiven the most will love the most; they get that when it’s cloaked in the arithmetic of dollars and cents.

The woman languishes at Jesus’ feet for the rest of the meal, a thorn in the host’s side. She opens a flask of myrrh and anoints his feet with it. The aroma wafts through the air and it’s all the men around the table can do to restrain their desire to throw her out.

I think it could be a great scene.

We, too, can be such Pharisees from time to time. To me, the arts are the myrrh (the spikenard in Matthew) that cannot feed or clothe, but that is capable of blessing the world with an aroma of love. Women seem to get this more easily than men. 2/3 of the people at concerts are women; many come without spouses; there’s a hockey game on TV, or there’s work to be done, or they “just aren’t interested in that stuff.” Categorical thinking. The fundamentalist’s plague. Adopting a singular attitude toward life precluding all others.

An aside. Agnes and I were invited by Persephone Theatre to attend the opening night of Billy Bishop Goes to War on Friday. It’s basically a one-man show with a supporting musician and is a powerful rendering of both the chutzpah and the tragedy of war. The actor was a surprise to us; he also plays the nerd in the A & W commercials. He’s brilliant in this version of this gem of a play. Unforgettable. I’m still spending half my reverie time sorting out the meaning of the play. That doesn’t happen often.

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