Recently, for work associated with my day job, I compared four similar stories. Scholars interested in “real” history argue that these reflect two separate events. What interested me most is that the two different strands were woven together in the fourth story.
Which story are am talking about? In each of the four gospels there is a story about a woman anointing Jesus. In all of them, an expensive perfumed ointment is used, but in Mark and Matthew his head in anointed, and in the other two his feet are carefully, gently rubbed with the perfumed ointment and wiped with the woman’s hair. In all of them, people around object, but sometimes it is to the waste and sometimes to the fact that he let a woman known to be a sinner touch him.
What is most interesting is the way the two sets of themes are woven together in John’s gospel. John tells of Mary the sister of Lazarus, rubbing nard into his feet after washing them. The picture of a woman kneeling with her hair loosened is similar to Luke’s version. But instead of following Luke into a discussion of forgiveness, John follows Mark and Matthew into an objection to the waste and an instruction to care for the poor.
History-oriented scholars dismiss John’s version because he let the other two stories interact. John has blended them, thereby masking the true event, it is argued.
But isn’t that what stories do? They speak to the listener. They interact with the reader. Stories, even holy stories, are interpreted. That’s how we gain access to the meaning of the story. Finding the fingerprint of one story on another is interesting. Noticing the way a story touches us is powerful. Reaching out and changing the reader and the world is what good stories do. So why wouldn’t a good story also change the stories we tell?
In flu season, we go around washing our hands so that we don’t pick up germs. We wipe down doorknobs and bathroom taps to get rid of other people’s fingerprints, afraid we’ll get sick if we let what they left touch us.
But let’s not do the same with stories. Stories don’t need to be sanitized, stripped of the influence of every story teller as if when the layers are gone we will find an original core. When we do that the story is gone.
Although, if it started as a good story, the germ that is left may enter our imaginations becoming the seed of something new.