The Revised Common Lectionary and the Catholic Lectionary for Mass diverge this week on the Gospel lesson, as they sometimes do. Yet both appointed readings are from John’s Gospel and both feature women in direct encounters with Jesus. One of the meetings is juridically suspect, the other sensuous and bewildering, both undeniably scandalous.

In the LM reading, John 8:1-11, a woman caught in adultery is brought before Jesus. It’s a familiar story, though many scholars believe it to be a later addition to the Gospel. It reads something like the scene of a screenplay, with detailed descriptions that paint vivid mental pictures for the reader/hearer:

It’s early morning at the Mount of Olives. Rabbi Jesus, seated, is teaching a few students. Religious leaders disrupt the quiet scene by bringing in the adulterous woman. They press Jesus for his legal opinion on the case. He bends down, doodles in the sand for awhile, stays silent. After more urgent questioning, Jesus rises and speaks, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he goes back to doodling in the sand.

The leaders, undone by Jesus’ answer (which simultaneously subverts and upholds the Mosaic law), depart the scene one by one. Left alone in the hot morning sun with this woman (was she weeping? trembling? dazed? defiant?), Jesus asks about her accusers; refuses to condemn her; and charges her to go and “from now on do not sin again.”

A few chapters later, the RCL’s appointed lesson recounts the story of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and then wiping his feet with her hair. It, too, is a vivid, dramatic scene with similar antagonists and plot twists.

This is a festive occasion, a time to celebrate the recent raising of Lazarus from the dead. Everyone is reclining at the table–laughing, we can imagine, eating and drinking, enjoying the hospitality that Martha is famous for. Passover and its somber rituals will come soon enough; Jesus’ own death soon after that. 

Then Mary breaks open a jar of pure nard, an intensely aromatic oil, thick in consistency, made from a plant not native to the arid middle east (which probably accounted for its outrageous cost). She takes a pound–a pound–of the thick, sweet stuff and slathers it on Jesus’ feet. The table chatter abruptly stops. There’s the dreaded awkward silence of a ruined dinner party. (Was Martha fuming at her sister? Again?)

Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. A woman’s long, loose hair in mixed company? The contortions she would have to manage in order to carry out this intensely physical act! When she finishes, her hair is damp and heavy with the scented oil; Jesus’ feet are glistening.

Somebody say something.

Judas does. He breaks the tension by decrying the injustice of the act. Think of the poor who could have been fed for what that perfume cost! Think of the Haiti relief it could have funded!

John, with his screenwriter-like cues, offers plenty of parenthetical direction to let us know who Judas really is (“the one who was about to betray him”), and why he really protests (“not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief”).

It’s Jesus who interprets the act for those at the table: “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” He even uncharacteristically brushes aside the concern for the poor that Judas (disingenuously) raises.

Mary and the unnamed woman caught in adultery, in their surprising encounters with Jesus, reveal something of the nature of God and the nature of the Kingdom. The adulterous woman is the recipient of Jesus’ judgment-free compassion; in his presence she is given a new lease on life–she is given life itself. Mary anoints Jesus’ body in preparation for his burial, for she knows where his journey will take him. Her gift is lavishly poured out for the One who will make of his own death a gift for all the world.

These women are not alone in pointing us to the shalom of God. Consider: 

  • the women who accompanied Jesus during his ministry and helped to finance it (Luke 8:1-3)
  • the Samaritan woman whom Jesus engaged in the longest recorded conversation in the Gospels (John 4:4-42)
  • his own mother who reveals that discipleship trumps biology when she frames John’s Gospel by her presence at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (the wedding at Cana) and at the end of it
  • Mary Magdalene, the first proclaimer of the resurrection (Mt. 28:10,  Lk. 24:10, Jn. 20:18)
  • the woman with the flow of blood who took power from Jesus for her own healing (Mark 5:25-34)
  • the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-30; Mt. 15:21-28) who taught Jesus a thing or two about his own ministry–nameless she was (like so many) and willing to eat the morsels thrown to dogs. 

These are women who were used to the crumbs, who had to scrap for every bit of food and dignity they could get–and yet, like Mary at the feet of Jesus, they are extravagant and generous givers. And in their much maligned and misunderstand acts of giving, they tell us something about the extravagant goodness and generosity of God.