I wrote a facetious post on Matthew 26:6-11, an episode in which a woman pours ointment on Jesus’ head and the disciples complain on the grounds that ointment is expensive and the proceeds from its sale should have been used to help the poor. Christ replies (in what I characterized as an asshole move) that she was right to do as she did, since the poor will always exist, but he won’t be around forever. Being in an irreverent and unscholarly mood, I left out the last line of Christ’s response: “For in that she powred this ointment on my bodie, she did it to burye me.”
It never pays to mock the Bible before you’ve done your research. I’ve since read further in my facsimile 1560 Geneva Bible. If you know your Gospels, you know that an almost identical episode takes place at John 12:3-9. Jesus is at Lazarus’ house when Mary, instead of pouring the ointment on his head, uses it to wash his feet:
Then took Marie a pound of ointment of spikenarde verie costlie, and anointed Iesus fete, & wipte his fete with her heere, & the house was filled with the savour of the ointment.
Then said one of his disciples, euen Iudas Iscariot Simons sonne, which shulde betraye him,
Why was not this ointment solde for thre hundredth pence, and giuen to the poore?
Now he said this, not that he cared for the poore, but because he was a thefe, and had the bagge, and bare that which was guen.
Then said Iesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying she kept it.
For the poore alwayes ye haue with you, but me ye shal not haue alwaies.
Before diving into this, here’s a caveat: I’m obviously not a Bible scholar, but I was, once upon a time, a pretty fervent Bible reader. When I was eleven or twelve and really religious, I decided to read the Bible all the way through. I had a Precious Moments Bible and a plastic hologram bookmark and set to, plowing through Genesis and Leviticus and Numbers and the horrors of Judges, by which time my eyes were bulging out of their sockets at all the concubine butchery and rampant murder, adultery, and polygamy. By the time I got to the end of the Old Testament I’d overdosed on swallowed questions and doubts and given up the project. Never got to the New Testament. Point being, I read the Bible with a suspicious eye, but the suspicion is less objective and scholarly (I mean, why bother?) than it is readerly: in the way readers want closure from a story, I want the New Testament to redeem what the Old Testament made terrible.
From that viewpoint, Jesus’ insistence that the disciples won’t have him always, even though they’ll always have the poor, is so irritating. It smacks of self-love and it contradicts a basic tenet of Christianity: they will have Jesus with them always. That is the whole point. Jesus’s claims to transcendence and divinity don’t get switched off just because he’s talking about his carnal body*. On the other hand, the disciples won’t have the poor with them always: poor people die every day. Only if you regard the poor as an unindividuated mass can such a statement make sense. Is that really how Jesus sees the poor? As a demographic?
Seen as storytelling, it’s interesting that this version of the episode in John (with a slightly different cast of characters) makes the episode in Matthew much more palatable, despite almost identical dialogue. First off, the fact that JUDAS objects to Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet gives us a clear sign that this instinct is wrong. This isn’t the case in Matthew, where several disciples raise the point and seem to genuinely want to help the poor. John implies that the poor wouldn’t get the money anyway since Judas is a thief. In that case, obviously Jesus should receive the benefit instead of Judas. The interesting moral dilemma raised in Matthew is attenuated here, thanks to the appearance of Judas the Bad Apostle. Prolepsis wins.
Speaking of prolepsis, the proleptic angle I left out (“she did it to burye me”), which comes at the end of Matthew, appears before the dismissal of the poor in John. This drives home a point that sinks into near-irrelevance in Matthew: Jesus is going to die, and true believers sense this and are subconsciously preparing him for burial. His insistence on his right to anointment is thereby transmuted from a pretty unconvincing defense of luxury (in his special case) into an acceptance of death. He’s accepting a burial rite before he’s dead. The line about the poor has much less force this time round.
In the language of creative writing workshops: Good rewrite, John!**
*I concede that the point of the Passion is to shock believers into experiencing the loss of Jesus’ body—without focusing on his body there can be no guilt at his sacrifice, and no redemption. That doesn’t change the peculiarity of Jesus insisting on how much people will miss him.
**Totally spurious claim; I have no idea which gospel was written first.