The Anointing in Bethany

anointing3 When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head. 4 There were some who were indignant. “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? 5 It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.” They were infuriated with her. 6 Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her? She has done a good thing for me. 7 The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial. 9 Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

The nameless woman’s gesture reveals that Jesus’ followers still do not grasp the necessity of his passion (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34). She is preparing Jesus for death; the others seem to assume their ministry with Jesus will continue and thus denigrate the woman offering support of the poor as their reasoning. What they continue to miss is that the woman’s actions are prophetic. The expansive gesture, breaking and pouring out the entire vial of expensive ointment rather than using a few drops, forms a stark contrast to the cheapness of Jesus’ life in the eyes of those who seek to destroy him. One might argue that the woman is as misguided given that anointing the head was associated with the designation of kings (1 Sam 10:1; 2 Kgs 9:6), the woman’s gesture has been seen as a symbolic recognition that Jesus is King of Israel. However, Jesus makes clear that the woman’s intentions points not to messianic kingship but to Jesus’ death. And perhaps there is more at play. As Pheme Perkins [698] points out, “Her gesture of emptying out the entire contents of a very valuable vial of ointment might also be compared with that of the widow at the Temple treasury (12:41–44). The willingness of both women to give all of what they have raises doubts about the behavior of the others.” The disciples have failed to understand Jesus’ words about his death. But now a woman has recognized the truth without such instruction. Just as Jesus promised that the kingdom belongs to the children whom the disciples tried to exclude (10:13–16), so also this woman’s gesture makes her worthy of an unexpected reward. She will be remembered wherever the gospel is preached (14:9) – and the gospel will be preached everywhere.

Perkins [699] goes on to note: “The tension between those at the table with Jesus, who only see wasted ointment, and the woman’s acknowledgment that Jesus is “the anointed” reminds us of the mystery of faith. Those at table with Jesus are so irritated by the woman’s behavior that they do not even consider the honor that she is giving Jesus. Instead, they attempt to frame the woman as someone who wastes what is valuable rather than contributing the same amount to help the poor. Perhaps, that false religious excuse masks embarrassment over failure to treat Jesus with the respect he deserves, as a related story in Luke 7:36–50 suggests. Jesus points out that the Law (Deut 15:11) makes everyone responsible for helping the poor. If the poor are in desperate need, then this woman’s failure to donate the cost of the ointment is neither the cause nor the cure. Jesus is not impressed by the false piety expressed in their excuses. This story raises in haunting fashion a question that perennially faces both individual believers and Christian congregations: How do we—by our actions and our disposal of resources—show honor to Jesus?”

Notes

Mark 14:3 Bethany: on the Mount of Olives, nearly two miles from Jerusalem and the last station on the pilgrim road from Jericho to Jerusalem

Mark 14:3 Simon the Leper: As noted in mark 11:11, Jesus spent each night among unnamed friends in Bethany. John 12:1–8 makes it probable that this was the home of Eliezer (of which ‘Lazarus’ is the shortened Aramaic form), Miriam (‘Mary’) and Martha. But who then is Simon the leper, whose household it is, according to both Matthew and Mark? Some speculate that is a reference to a former owner of the house, giving his name to the building even when it passed to subsequent owners. Some suggest Jesus was dining at another house that evening. It may well be that the father of the house, though still alive, was a leper, and that control of his household had therefore passed, for all practical purposes, to his children. So Uzziah lived in splendid isolation in the basement of his palace, while his son Jotham ruled in his stead (2 Chr. 26:21).

Mark 14:3 a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil: There is often attempts to equate the description of the anointing of Jesus in Mark 14:3-10 (Mt 26:6-13) with that in Luke 7:36-50.and John 12:1-8.   All four have a setting in a house for a meal, a woman, and expensive perfume poured on Jesus, to which someone objects. All except Luke identify Bethany. Matthew and Mark identify the location as the home of Simon the Leper; John does not offer a definitive host or house; Luke says the house of a Pharisee named Simon. John identifies Mary of Bethany, Luke offers only that she is a sinner, which has usually been taken to mean a prostitute. Matthew and Mark just say “a woman”. The oil is poured over the head according to Mark and Matthew; over the feet according to John and Luke with wiping with her hair mentioned in both the latter two accounts. Matthew, Mark and John record very similar words from Jesus about always having the poor with you and the purpose of the action being preparation for burial. These last elements are not in Luke, who instead records comments on hospitality and forgiveness of sins that are not in the other accounts.

The costly perfume is identified as nard, the aromatic oil extracted from a root native to India. To retain the fragrance of nard, enough ointment for one application was sealed in small alabaster flasks. The long neck of the flask had to be broken to release the aroma

Mark 14:5 the poor: It was natural for them to think in terms of provision for the poor, for it was customary on the evening of Passover to remember the poor with gifts (M. Pesachim IX. 11; X. 1; cf. John 13:29). It was also the practice to give as charity one part of the second tithe normally spent in Jerusalem during the feast

Sources

  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 8:698-99
  • The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible
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