The SBL annual meeting is happening online this year, of course. In a highly stimulating and persuasive presentation yesterday David Burnett argued for revisiting the thesis of D.A.S. Ravens that Luke uses the story of the anointing of Jesus by a woman to portray him as the messenger of Isaiah 52:7, who brings good news to Zion.1
I didn’t get all the details, but enough, I think, to reconstruct the gist of the argument. Most of the substance, I presume, is from Ravens’ article, which I haven’t read yet, but Burnett added some excellent observations of his own, and I may have inadvertently slipped something of my perspective in.
- Mark and Matthew locate the event—or one very much like it—in the final week at the house of Simon the leper (Matt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9). The woman is not a “sinner,” there is some controversy over the cost of the ointment, and she anoints Jesus’ head in advance of the burial of his whole body. Luke moves the incident back in time, to the house of Simon the Pharisee in Galilee. The woman is a known “sinner,” though we don’t know what she has done wrong. She washes Jesus’ feet with her tears to remove the dust from the street, wipes them with her hair, then kisses them, and anoints them with the ointment.
- For Luke the burden of the story is the forgiveness of sins. The controversy is the failure of the Pharisees to grasp the fact that God is renewing his people from the margins. When Jesus says to the woman, at the end of the story, that her sins are forgiven, she becomes a representative of that section of the population whose “iniquity is pardoned” (Is. 40:2). She may “go in peace” as a sign that peace has been published to Zion (cf. Is. 52:7).
- The anointing of Jesus in Luke’s version looks not ahead to his burial but back to the reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…” (Lk. 4:18). In the synagogue Jesus explicitly identifies himself as a prophet (Lk. 4:24).
- The Pharisee did not arrange to have Jesus’ feet washed when he entered the house, did not kiss him, did not anoint his head with oil. But the woman anointed the feet of the Isaianic servant-prophet, who would proclaim good news to the “poor” in Israel.
- Simon the Pharisee questions in his mind whether Jesus is really a prophet because he has allowed this shameless woman to touch him (Lk. 7:39).
- There are other narrative connections between the story of the anointing of Jesus’ feet and the declaration of intent in the synagogue in Nazareth. Shortly before, Jesus is acclaimed as a “great prophet” who has arisen among the people in the manner of Elijah (Lk. 7:11-16; cf. 4:25-26). The disciples of John are told to report back what they have seen in the language of Isaiah 61:1-2: “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them” (Lk. 7:22).
- Jesus then identifies John as Isaiah’s messenger in the wilderness, calling for a highway for YHWH to be prepared (Lk. 7:27; cf. Is. 40:3). One question I have at this point concerns the relationship in Luke’s mind between John as the messenger in the wilderness who proclaims the revelation of God and the anointed messenger with the beautiful feet who proclaims good news to Zion. One is dismissed as a manic desert preacher, the other as a glutton and drunkard who hangs out with tax collectors and sinners (Lk. 7:33-34). What is that about?
- The anointing of Jesus’ feet by the woman, which Luke emphasises almost to the point of absurdity, is the anointing of the feet of the Isaianic servant-prophet who ‘brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns”’—or as the Targum has it, “The kingdom of your God has been revealed (Is. 52:7). Earlier, Jesus told the crowds who sought him in a “desolate (erēmon) place”: “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Lk. 4:43). Soon after the incident Jesus “went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God” (Lk. 8:1).
- Jesus then tells a parable about a sower to account for the different responses to his Isaianic servant-prophet mission to Israel. But he also explains to his disciples why he speaks to people in parables: “so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (Lk. 8:10). This is a reference to Isaiah 6:9-12. The failure of Jews like the Pharisee Simon to grasp the point of the parables is itself a sign of the judgment that will come upon Israel within a generation.
- When the seventy-two are sent out (Lk. 10:1-12) to heal the sick and announce to Israel that the kingdom of God is at hand, they are told to go barefoot, proclaim peace, and shake the dust off their feet when they are rejected as a sign that “it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town” (Lk. 10:12).
- When Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem, he laments that Israel has missed the last opportunity for peace (Lk. 19:42). He tells the “daughters of Jerusalem” not to weep over him, as the woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee had done, but to weep for themselves and for their children. Only a small “basket of deplorables” in Israel has actually heard and understood the good news. The nation as a whole has rejected the message and condemned the messenger. So the days are coming when the barren and childless will be blessed, ironically, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will call on the mountains to bury them (Lk. 23:29-30).
This seems to me rather compelling. The trouble that Luke has taken to rework and relocate the story of the anointing of Jesus to fit his wider dependency on Isaianic motifs suggests that this incident is now pivotal for his telling of the story about Jesus.
Burnett’s argument supports my general view that we cycle through three “sonship” narratives in the Synoptic Gospels: Jesus is the anointed Son, sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel do the work of the Isaianic servant-prophet; he becomes the Son of Man who is opposed and persecuted, but who will be vindicated; and is finally the Son of Man become Son of God, seated at the right hand of Power, to judge and rule over Israel and, in some respect, the nations.