How many stories about Jesus are told in all four Gospels? Apart from the trials and crucifixion of Jesus (Mark 14–15 and parallels), not very many. The story of a woman who anoints Jesus during a meal is one of them. The earliest version in the Markan account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one (Mark 14:3–9) is repeated almost the same in Matthew’s book of origins (Matt 26:6–13). A similar account is included in the fourth Gospel, the book of signs (John 12:1–8). This version provides the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday.
All three accounts are placed at a key place in the narrative arc of each Gospel; the story forms the hinge between the public activities of Jesus and the events that take place in the last week of his life. All three accounts offer a symbolic looking-forward to the fate that lies in store for Jesus—his betrayal, arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial.
Two Synoptic accounts specifically state that the anointing of Jesus prefigures the anointing of his dead body (Mark 14:8; Matt 26:12). The unnamed woman in the Markan account is honoured for her symbolic action: “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Mark 14:9; so also Matt 26:13). She performs a valuable and deeply spiritual role, signifying in advance the death of Jesus.
As this unnamed woman expends “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard” in anointing the head of Jesus, she is doing in advance what a group of women will later attempt to do early on the morning after the Sabbath, as they “bought spices so that they might go and anoint [Jesus]” in the tomb where his body lay (Mark 16:1). The women likewise “prepared spices and ointments” in Luke’s account (Luke 23:56–24:1). The parallel in Matt 28:1 simply states that the women “went to see the tomb” (28:1); there is no mention of perfumes for anointing the body in this account.
The Johannine account of this anointing at a household meal is more subtle; Jesus indicates that the perfume had always been intended for “the day of my burial” (John 12:7); it would appear that this day now draws near. In fact, in John’s narrative, rather than the women, it is curiously Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who “took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial customs of the Jews” (John 19:38–41). They perform the actions traditionally ascribed to females by Jewish custom.
The story of the anointing of Jesus is substantially reworked by the author of the orderly account of the things being fulfilled, to produce a quite different account (Luke 7:36–50). In this version, it is a different woman (unnamed, but identified as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner”), who anoints the feet of Jesus, rather than his head (as in Mark and Matthew).
Rather than pointing towards his death, the anointing of the feet of Jesus appears to express the respect and deep veneration that the “sinful woman” has for him (Luke 7:38). The point of the story is not to prefigure the death of Jesus, but to focus on the gracious forgiveness of sins which characterises the ministry of Jesus (Luke 7:39–50).
The story is set in a different location, in the house of “Simon the Pharisee” rather than “Simon the leper” of the Mark and Matthew version. And the story, set in Bethany in Judea by Mark, Matthew, and John, is placed in a different location in the narrative flow of Luke’s story—much earlier, in Galilee (Luke 4:14 appears to set the general geographical location for all of chapters 4 to 9).
The woman, anonymous in the other three accounts, is named in the book of signs as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. (There is nothing here, or in other Gospel accounts, that in any way identifies her as Mary Magdalene.) In John’s telling of the story, the meal is linked with the previous story of the raising of Lazarus (11:1–44). That was the incident, according to John, which propelled the opposition to Jesus to crystallise into a fully-fledged plot to arrest and kill Jesus (11:45–57). So the narrative flow is clear: Jesus raises Lazarus, the chief priests and Pharisees order the arrest of Jesus, the woman anoints Jesus, the chief priests plan to kill Lazarus also, and Jesus then enters Jerusalem to the shouts of “Hosanna!” (John 11–12).
This is in contrast to the Synoptic narratives, in which dissension regarding Jesus, evident from early times (Mark 3:6) is later crystallised into a full scale plot to arrest him and have him put to death. The camel that broke the straw’s back in those narratives was the politicised way Jesus entered the city and caused havoc in the Temple courtyard (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47–48; Matthew softens this immediate impact at Matt 21:15, but describes the full plot at 26:3–5). The debates that Jesus undertakes with various Jewish figures whilst teaching in the Temple precincts (Mark 11:27–13:1; Matt 21:23–24:1; Luke 19:47–21:38) simply aggravates the dissension and accelerates the plot to arrest and kill him (Luke 21:37–2:2).
Perhaps the extravagant amount of perfume used to anoint the feet of Jesus, as was also the case in Luke’s account (not his head, as in Mark and Matthew) reflects the joy of the household in Bethany, as Mary and Martha rejoice that their recently-deceased brother, Lazarus, was now once more alive? Surely extravagant celebration was acceptable after such an event.
The raising of Lazarus was, as the author of the book of signs positions it, the climactic sign amongst the series of seven signs that mark the first half of his narrative (John 2:1–11:44). Whilst the earlier signs had evoked belief (2:11; 4:53–54; 6:29–34, 69; 9:35–38), opposition to Jesus had grown and many did not believe (8:42–47; 10:22–26), and this last sign had accelerated the conflict with the Jewish authorities into outright antagonism (11:47–53).
Judas, however, complained about how much perfume was used (some commentators suggest that 300 denarii was a full year’s wage for a labourer). Jesus has a snappy retort ready to give to him—“you always have the poor with you” (12:8).
These words of Jesus are often misinterpreted to suggest that Jesus reflects an acceptance of the state of “the poor”. On the contrary, Jesus is here quoting from the Law, where Israel is instructed, “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth … open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour” (Deut 15:7–11). Recognition of who Jesus is goes hand-in-hand with serving those who are in need; indeed, careful attention to the teachings of Jesus intensify this duty.
The way that Mary has used the “costly perfume” indicates, in the end, that this is “the day of [his] burial”—Jesus is facing the cross. This will be “the hour” for which he came (2:4; 8:20; 12:23, 27–28; 13:1). What has long been in view, for Jesus, was now being publicly revealed. Soon, Jesus would pray, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son” (17:1). And events would take their course …