Sloppy Scholarship

Maybe it’s because I’m a lectionary preacher, but when I start to work on a sermon I start not with an idea or a theme, but with the Bible.  That’s what I did when I was getting ready to preach at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia recently.  The theme was “A time for extravagance” but the text was Luke 7:36-38, so instead of pulling from the files my sermon on John 12:1-8 (which was all about extravagance) I started fresh with the text from Luke 7.

I’m glad I did.  I learned things I would have never learned if I had simply preached that other sermon.  But one of the things I learned is that this story from Luke 7 is different from all the other stories in the Gospels about women anointing Jesus.  That story from John 12:1-8 for example is a story about Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of pure nard—a very precious perfume.  There’s a similar story in Mark 14:3-9 about a woman who comes to the home of Simon the leper, breaks open an alabaster jar of nard, and pours it on Jesus’ head (not his feet).  Matthew uses this same story in 26:6-13 with very little elaboration on Mark’s version.  Again it is an unnamed woman who pours “costly ointment” on Jesus’ head.

The stories in John, Mark, and Matthew are all stories about women anointing Jesus with costly perfume or ointment as a way of preparing his body for burial.  The story in Luke 7, however, is about a sinful woman who comes to Jesus while he is eating at the home of Simon the Pharisee (not the leper).  She bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, covers them with kisses, and massages them with ointment.  It is a scene of shocking intimacy.  There is no mention of expensive perfume, no reference to preparing Jesus’ body for burial.  This woman does what she does to express her gratitude for the forgiveness she has received from Jesus.  It is a completely different story, about a completely different woman.

But you wouldn’t have known that if you had been at the BGAV meeting.  Almost everyone who stepped to the pulpit to preach or offer an interpretation on the theme talked about this woman who poured expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.  They tossed the details of these four stories together as if they were one, talking about how this woman named Mary, who was a sinner (probably a prostitute), poured out ointment or perfume or something expensive on Jesus’ feet (or maybe it was his head) and the fragrance filled the room. 

Did it?  And does it matter?

I think it does.  While the stories from Matthew, Mark, and John might be lumped together under a single heading—”A woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume in preparation for his burial”—the story from Luke needs a different heading altogether, something like—”A sinful woman pours out her gratitude for the gift of forgiveness.”  The point of this story is different from the others.  The characters in the story are different.  The details don’t match up.  To treat it as if it were the same story as those others is to twist its meaning into a shape Luke would not recognize—it is to do violence to the text.

You can tell I feel strongly about this.  Maybe it’s because I’ve heard too much “biblical preaching” that isn’t biblical at all.  It doesn’t begin or end with the Bible.  It is simply some preacher cloaking his thoughts and opinions in bibical language or using one verse of the Bible as a springboard into a sermon that never touches on that verse again.  Maybe the next time you listen to a sermon you could ask yourself some questions: “Is it faithful to the text?” “Does it communicate what the biblical writer was trying to say?” “How much of it is simply the preacher’s own opinion?”  And if you’re writing a sermon, of course, take the responsibility seriously.  Take the Bible seriously.

Do your homework.

4 thoughts on “Sloppy Scholarship

  1. As a fellow preacher, I resonate with your comments immensely. There is entirely too much preaching that is Biblical only in name. I actually think this text in Luke 7 is one of the most important in the New Testament. It was opened up to me by Dr. Kenneth E. Bailey, a brilliant scholar who has spent most of his life teaching and studying the Bible in the Middle East. He discusses this passage in his book, “Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes.” Highly recommended.
    Keep up the good work, Jim! Some of us other preachers out there very much appreciate your work.

  2. With all due respect, these preachers fit in the same categories as those professionals who “practice” their professions. There are attorneys who practice law, and physicians who practice medicine. It has always made me wonder if I really wanted one of the guys to “practice” on me? The same goes for those whom you describe. Perhaps they are practicing their theology, and thus, expressing their opinions. So, I accept your challenge to always listen for the Bible!

  3. I have heard very positive comments about your sermon at BGAV and I hope to be able to hear it or at least read it at some time. I am happy to see this blog posting. So much of what we carry in our memories from the many sermons we have heard, and sadly this is more often true where female protagonists are concerned than otherwise, is what Frances Taylor Gench refers to as “litter” — litter which results from, yes, poor scholarship but, equally as often, from conflation of narratives — assuming that all the stories which mention a woman annointing Jesus are the same. I was asked once by a friend if Mary Magdalene were a prostitute. Her stance was that an important preacher in the denomination had emphatically stated it is as fact. That presumption comes from the conflation of these stories.

  4. Hi Pastor Jim,

    I have a question about the accounts in the gospels concerning the anointing of Jesus. I read your post on this topic, and my question is about the account in Luke. You say that there is no mention of an expensive perfume. I read the account in Luke, and it depends on which translation you use. The NIV says that she brought an alabaster jar of perfume. The KJV says that she brought an alabaster box of ointment. The account in Matthew uses the same words. The NIV says perfume, and the KJV says ointment. I am not arguing with what you have said, but I am looking for an explanation as I try to understand this topic better.

    Thanks for you thoughts on this. I appreciate your work and your insight.

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