The woman with the alabaster jar appears in all four gospels. She is unnamed in the three synoptics, but the writer of John’s Gospel says she is Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Doctoral theses have explored every aspect of the four different stories told about her in the New Testament. Best-selling novels and feminist theological treatises have been written about her. Who was she really? Was she “Mary, the one from Magdala, from whom seven demons had taken their leave,” as Luke puts it? Was she one of the rich women who may have supported Jesus and his followers on their itinerant ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem? Was she married to Jesus? Was she his lover?
Luke’s version of her story is usually read for Proper 6 of Year C (Revised Common Lectionary), shortly after Pentecost. In those readings, the woman with the alabaster jar is associated with the notorious Queen Jezebel, and David’s affair with Bathsheba. Why the Elves who constructed the Revised Common Lectionary suggested those three stories be considered together is a question that likely cannot be answered without deconstructing dogma, tradition, patriarchy, misogyny, legend, and archetype.
Meanwhile, at least three levels of spiritual struggle are found in the combination of readings.
On one level is human ego gratification. In the story from 1 Kings, Ahab’s Queen, Jezebel, organizes a campaign to kill Naboth, who owns a vineyard coveted by Ahab. Ahab thus is in violation of three of the Ten Commandments: you shall not covet your neighbor’s house and goods; you shall not bear false witness against another; and you shall not kill. The reading from 2 Samuel brings us in at the end of King David’s arranged murder of Uriah so that he can take Uriah’s wife Bathsheba for himself. Covetousness and murder are the order of the day.
A second level of spiritual struggle is the confrontation with blatant injustice. The prophet Nathan seems to speak on behalf of God for both Old Testament stories. When David is rightly outraged by Nathan’s parable, Nathan declares “You are the man!” But if we read on in the Elijah saga and complete Ahab’s story, we find that both Nathan and Elijah essentially “forgive” their respective Kings because they repent of their sin. Nevertheless, the prophets exact payment from future generations because these are not just petty trespasses, but cosmic breaches of sovereign trust.
At a third level of spiritual struggle, distributive justice-compassion squares off against retributive justice. In the portion chosen from Galatians, Paul says that “no one will be justified (made righteous or just) by doing the works of the law.” In his later letter to the Romans Paul goes so far as to say that “the strength of sin is the law.” The phrase seems incomprehensible so long as “sin” means petty trespass such as using the law – the authority of the King – to accomplish selfish ends, and feed bully egos. But the stories of Kings Ahab and David are not only about such petty trespass. Their abuses of power break trust with the people, forming a trilogy of sin: David and Ahab betray their own integrity, confound the laws of the land, and break the laws of God.
In the suggested reading from Galatians, Paul is reminding them that if they accept the risen Christ as their Lord, they must reject the imperial rule of law, whether it is Jewish or Roman. Otherwise, Paul says, “Christ died for nothing.” Well then, the Galatians apparently argued, if we reject the law, but still sin – perhaps as Ahab and David did –“is Christ then a servant of sin?” Don’t be ridiculous, Paul says. If I reconstruct the unjust retributive imperial system after dismantling it, then I am indeed a transgressor because I have betrayed the Christ who reconciled me with God’s justice-compassion. We are justified not by adherence to law, but by acknowledging the death of Jesus as an invitation to participate in restoring God’s justice-compassion to the world. When we accept that invitation, we are made just because we become coworkers with God in that great work of justice-compassion, not co-workers with unjust imperial rule.
There is a difference between the short-term forgiveness extended to Ahab and David with the retribution exacted by God from future generations, and the free gift of grace (cosmic forgiveness) defined by Paul, won by the death of Jesus and extended to all who accept the invitation to the great work of justice-compassion. “I do not nullify the grace of God,” Paul says, “For if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”
In Luke’s hands, the story of the woman with the costly alabaster jar of ointment looks like a story about hospitality, and seems to become a story about earning salvation based on the level of forgiveness received. But it may also be an attempt to convey the idea of grace. Luke has Jesus say that “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence (therefore) she has shown great love.” Luke is saying that when one is forgiven, then one is able to love extravagantly (grace)? Luke seems to contradict Paul’s insight that grace is the free gift from God. Instead of being made just (justified) by trust (faith) in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Luke seems to put a value on how much “grace” one receives from the forgiveness of sins. “The one to whom little is forgiven loves little” (NRSV). The translation and the point become clearer in the Scholar’s translation: “But the one who is forgiven little, shows little love.”
Because the story has become saddled with sexual sin, the deeper meaning of the free gift of grace (charis) is lost. Luke’s setting is one where a woman who is a known “sinner” crashes an exclusively male dinner party (symposium). The Magdalene (if that is who Luke thought she was) is the penitent prostitute. She is so guilty, so remorseful, that she sheds enough tears to wash the feet of one of the guests. (One has to wonder why this basic hospitality was not extended to Jesus by Simon in the first place, but Luke was writing a novel, not a news report.) Then the woman lets her hair down in public (clearly a breach of social propriety) and dries Jesus’s feet with it. The drama is award-winning, and has proven over the centuries to be completely distracting. If we lift the story out of that personal human relationship fraught with profligate sexuality and into present-day international relations, we may discover a better explanation of the woman’s action than the one Luke’s Jesus uses.
In 1804 the country of Haiti delivered itself from slavery to the French monarchy. The French government decided that the people of Haiti had stolen themselves from their French owners, and therefore must pay restitution. The yearly reparation extracted from the Haitian government is still in effect. The result has been 206 years of grinding poverty, corruption, and crime. Here is the full force of imperial, retributive justice under the law. If the government of France were to forgive this debt, Haiti would be free to enter the community of nations as a valuable participant instead of an international pariah.
As Luke’s Jesus asked, which debtor would love the master more? The one who was forgiven much or the one who was forgiven little (or not at all)?
Was Mary Magdalene the woman with the alabaster jar? Does Luke mean that Mary Magdalene loved the most because, as he reports later, “seven demons had gone out” from her? Is Paul’s argument about the free gift of grace already so totally misunderstood by Luke that he reduces Jesus’ power from cosmic Christ to faith-healer? Or is Luke – like all the patriarchs – struggling with the wild feminine – untamable, trouble-making – the lawless one – in Jungian terms, the dark anima?
Luke allows a grudging acceptance of the women with Jesus. All but the one who crashes the dinner party are named, which means they were powerful and well-known. But at the same time, Luke dismisses them as “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna.” He also mentions “many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” He does not name them however. Had they also been “cured,” or was Luke obliged to mention them because they had the money?
The ultimate demonstration of sin in the suggested collection of readings is Jezebel’s perversion of the law in Ahab’s name. Ah yes, Jezebel. The Wicked Witch of the West Bank. She’s a Pagan, a Priestess of Baal, and the personification of Evil in the Old Testament. Her demise is apocalyptic – she predicts her own death by wild dogs, which is confirmed in the sentence against Ahab, and proclaimed by Elijah. Curiously, this last part is never included in the lectionary (1 Kings 21:21b-29).
Jezebel is a mythical character, but nevertheless is a powerful female presence – otherwise, she never would have been named. In the battle between the Hebrew God and Baal, Jezebel is a major force. She is also the anima – the dark feminine – for Ahab, and perhaps for God as well. When Ahab can’t bring himself to really act on his selfish desires, he projects it onto his wife, who acts for him. Have we heard this before? Didn’t Adam do the same with Eve? What is it with these patriarchs?
Acting outside the law is not the same as perverting the law, as Paul makes clear, and Jezebel’s fate illustrates. If sin (injustice) is indeed a product of the law, then the wild feminine outside the law must be the pure spirit of justice-compassion: grace, free gift (charis), the woman with her alabaster jar of precious essential oil.