The Anointing Woman
Categories: The Gospels
All four gospels have a story about a woman anointing Jesus. Some of the phrases are very similar, but there are also some major differences. Are these all the same story and, if so, what was the point of the story?
Scholars disagree as to whether or not this is the same story. It can be found in Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:36-50; and John 12:1-8. Matthew and Mark are practically identical, with only a few minor changes in wording. Their gathering occurs in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper, two days before the Passover (which would have been Wednesday). Luke's story also occurs in the home of Simon (but now Simon is referred to as a Pharisee), and comes in the middle of Jesus' travels throughout Galilee. John's anointing occurs six days before Passover in Bethany at the home of Lazarus. He identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany. In the other three stories, the woman is unnamed, although Luke identifies her as a sinner.
The focus of Luke's story is quite different. A woman who had lived a sinful life interrupted Jesus' dinner with the Pharisees by standing behind him at his feet. She wept so that her tears wet his feet, then she dried them with her hair and applied the perfumed ointment upon them. Simon was outraged because Jesus should have known she was a sinner and should not have allowed her to touch him. Jesus perceived this, and told Simon a parable about forgiveness; in so doing, he admonished him for his lack of hospitality. In contrast, the woman showed her great love, and her sins were forgiven.
The other three stories are more closely connected with Jesus' Passion narrative. The major difference is that in Matthew and Mark, the unnamed woman anoints Jesus' head, while in John's story, she anoints his feet and dries them with her hair. (There is no comment about tears, as there is in Luke.) It is not clear why she anoints Jesus' feet in John.
Mark makes the most of the story by using it as part of the frame for chapter 13. This "little apocalyptic" chapter, which talks about the end of the temple all the way to the end of time as we know it, when everything will be turned upside down, is preceded by the story of the widow who gave her last two mites to the temple. Following this is the story of Jesus' anointing wherein the woman poured oil on his head. (Scholars figure this oil was worth about a year's salary. It could have easily been her entire family's savings.)
The women demonstrate their faithfulness and give their all. The anointing itself is bracketed by stories of betrayal and violence. The men (the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees), who are supposed to be faithful, are not. Everything about this is upside down. Now, two days before the great festival of Passover, the Pharisees are using their preparation time to plot murder; the woman is using hers to anoint Jesus.
The reaction in all three remaining gospels is the same – outrage at the wastefulness of using the perfume, indicating their lack of recognition of any symbolic meaning. "It could have been sold and the money given to the poor." In Mark, "some people" say this; in Matthew, it is "the disciples;" in John, it is "Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus." In each case, Jesus tells them to back off, saying what she did was important. "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." This does not suggest that one should ignore the needs of the poor; the point is that Jesus' time is limited, and this is where the symbolism of her action becomes apparent. While anointing Jesus' head could symbolize the anointing for burial, it could also refer to the anointing of a royal figure. The woman, then, is cast in a prophetic role. By anointing Jesus' head, she is, in fact, affirming Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed. Kings and priests were anointed in this manner. The story, then, that began with Jesus entering Jerusalem as the Messiah, is now confirmed through anointing.
Indeed, Jesus vindicates her actions: "She has done a beautiful thing." In reality, he had to be anointed just then; after his death would be too late. He would soon be crucified as King of the Jews. The fulfillment of the kingship had just occurred. Jesus adds, "Wherever the gospel is preached, throughout the world, what she has done will be told, in memory of her." She has anointed him as the Messiah. We will never know her name, but everyone will remember what she did.