The story is reported in Mark 14:3-9; Matthew 26:6-13, and traces of a similar story in Luke 7:36-50. It is a legend that must have been handed down in various forms with varying content to address the beliefs of different communities. Legends are very useful in helping us understand how beliefs and cultures develop and how they conceptualize the things that define them. The Iliad and the Odyssey are Greek examples of legends that have shaped many Western ideas. I will not reflect on what will happen two thousand years in the future when our descendants are able to decode something called a DVD and see bits and pieces of the legend of The Walking Dead, or Twilight. What will they think of us?
In the earliest NT tradition names are absent, so the woman who does the anointing is anonymous in Mark. Participants in the dinner are not identified by name. The point of the story seems to be different for each of the four Evangelists. Concern for the poor was certainly a feature of the early Church, though the word does not appear in Acts! However, that concern is introduced to deflect attention from the activity that is taking place at the dinner table. My view is that once the anointing of Jesus was finished the story ends, that is, the anointing is in John 12:1-3a. The anointing must have raised religious and moral questions that gave rise to the need to make the event more accommodating to the religious and moral sentiments of the people. The quantity and cost of the ointment provided a way out of a moral dilemma.
It is not until the Gospel of John that the tradition introduces names. Perhaps John is using a legend identified with Bethany, so a dinner at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus makes sense. In any case, John also takes up the cause of moral sensitivity and introduces Judas as the one who advocates for the poor. The fact of the matter is that John has no interest in “the poor” as a social class. If the idea were to be found in his thinking “the poor” would be those who are without revelation, not without money. Such is his thinking. Judas is a fortunate choice. His field of expertise is money. Later, he will betray Jesus for money and thus becomes a part of the Passion of Jesus. Judas is hence a bridge between the money (material) and the cross (spiritual) dimensions of the narrative, though in this episode that is entirely cosmetic. It is much easier to moralize about Judas than to accept what the anointing is communicating.
The episode is set as if in parenthesis between the plot against Jesus (11:55-57) and the plot against Lazarus (12:9-11). The aim of both plots was homicide. Between these plots of homicide a drama of life, the act of redemption is being played out. The anointing at Bethany is a prelude to the entry into Jerusalem. As an examination of the events discloses, it was the entry into Jerusalem, inspired by the dinner of Jesus at Bethany that was the immediate cause of the crucifixion of Jesus. This is John’s view of history. In the synoptic gospels the anointing takes place after the entry, thus giving rise to a different understanding of history.
If we are going to uncover the deep meaning of this story we shall have to suspend our pre-understanding and shake ourselves free from the obvious meaning that is widespread.
The anointing takes place “six days before the Passover.” Bear in mind John’s dating may be more theological than chronological. Since the Feast of the Passover in CE 33 fell on April 4, the crucifixion fell on April 3, and six days before the Passover would have been Sunday, March 29, CE 33, the Entry into Jerusalem, and our Sunday of the Passion or Palm Sunday. (The date for Passover used here is taken from the U.S. Naval Observatory Data). The Feast of the Passover memorializes the act of liberation (Exodus 12:14). The first Passover was preceded immediately by the death of every first-born of Egypt (Exodus 12:12). The Passover in our narrative also memorializes liberation, “do this in remembrance of me,” and is preceded immediately by the death of a first-born Hebrew. The prophecy of Caiaphas that “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” meant that “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (John 11: 49-52). I refer to this as “the Passover Paradigm,” and it holds true repeatedly though unconsciously. So, read on. Jesus rising on the first day of unleavened bread rises as the Bread of Life. He is the first-born from the dead (Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5), the first-born of all creation (Colossians 1:15), and the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor.15:20). He dies as a first-born and is raised as a first-born.
The anointing itself is a prophecy of the Passion of Jesus as is the prophecy of Caiaphas. It exposes the entry into Jerusalem for what it is: the final journey to the cross, and the interpretation that “now is the judgment of this world.” But this is not known at this point in the narrative, as I will show later. Immediately prior to the anointing, 11:55, the Passover is about to take place. The faithful, “the dispersed children of God,” began to arrive in Jerusalem from all parts of the world. They were coming to take part in rites of purification in anticipation of the Passover. The anointing of Jesus is a rite of purification in anticipation of the Passover. This streaming in of “the dispersed children of God” is a sign that redemption is near. This idea of Caiaphas needs to be explored further. As the people gather, they began to wonder if Jesus will really show up, given the threats he faces. The same sense of questioning took place at the Feast of Tabernacles, 7:11, where the people wondered where Jesus was. As they wondered, we are told that the authorities were seeking informants to alert them if and when Jesus showed up, 11:56.
In chapter 11, Martha is given preeminence. In chapter 12, Mary is given preeminence. The two sisters have always played different roles in the drama of redemption. The same happens in the episode of the anointing. Martha is again practicing her diakonia. Mary is anointing Jesus. The two sisters may present two different ways of understanding relationships with Jesus. But that is not an issue in this present context.
In the Evangelist Mark’s tradition, Mark 14:3, the supper during which the anointing takes place was given in the home of Simon the Leper. Matthew knew the same tradition. Luke knows that a banquet was given at some time in the home of Simon the Pharisee. Luke does not know of Simon the Leper, nor does John, for if he did it is not conceivable that he would have omitted such an important fact: that Jesus was in the home of a leper, having a dinner in his honor. That Jesus ate with outcasts is a known fact. John simply says that Jesus came to Bethany to the home of “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead,” where they had a dinner in his honor. There is ample evidence that Jesus was a regular guest in this home, and that the people who lived there, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were his friends. Martha said to Jesus at one time, speaking of Lazarus, “he whom you love has died.” At this dinner, Martha served, Lazarus reclined at table with Jesus and the other guests, and Mary was at the feet of Jesus, anointing him. Mary frequently sat at the feet of Jesus, as if it were her favorite place. See 11:2; 11:32; 12:3; and Luke 10:39. In that culture this was the rightful place of a learner, a disciple. Mary’s place and her action are that of a disciple of Jesus. But Mary’s discipleship is about to rise to a new and different level. The Evangelist John is about to do something unique for Mary.
(If Jesus had not gone to dinner with his friends none of what followed would have happened. Lesson to be learned: Do not go to dinner with your friends!)
Mary does not anoint the head of Jesus as in Mark, but his feet. The disciple is not above her master! This is a mark of her humility, as also is the fact that she always sits at his feet. In John 13:5-11 Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter was reluctant to let this happen. After a lively exchange, Peter wants to be washed all over, and Jesus tells him that it was enough to wash his feet, for then he will be fully pure. It is clear then that Jesus understands foot washing as a rite of purification. It is likely that the Evangelist intended Mary’s anointing of the feet of Jesus to be understood as an act of purification.
I propose that wiping the feet of Jesus with her hair is an act that calls for a new understanding and interpretation. It is not to be taken simply as an act of drying his feet. What it announces is that Mary shares more deeply in the rite of purification of Jesus than simply as the person doing the anointing. Her head is being anointed! “Thou anointest my head with oil.” Psalm 23:5. More appropriately and scandalously the image implies that Jesus is anointing the head of Mary as she wipes his feet with her hair. Mary’s act redounds to herself. Herein lays the religious and moral dilemma, the scandal that cannot be talked about and must be hidden under the talk of “the poor.” It is the kind of thing that can get a fellow killed.
The visual of Mary with her hair on the feet of Jesus communicates something profound that says this is more than an anointing. She appears to bow before the feet of Jesus. We have seen others fall at the feet of Jesus before: the leper in Matthew 8:2-3; the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5:6; Peter at the large catch of fish in Luke 5:8; Jairus in Luke 8:41; the woman with the blood flow in Luke 8:47; the one of ten lepers who returned in Luke 17:16, and the women at the tomb in Mt.28:9. When Moses ended his proclamation of the Passover, “the people bowed down and worshiped.” (Exodus 12:27). What Mary does is an act of devotion. It is an act of worship.
My interpretation is that Mary’s mission is to reveal Jesus as the Divine. At every stage of his life Jesus is proclaimed as Divine. At his birth he is called Emmanuel (Mt.1:23). At his baptism he is called the God’s son (Mt.3:17). At his transfiguration he is again called God’s son (Mt.17:5). At his crucifixion the centurion called him God’s son (Mt.27:55). At his resurrection when he surprised the women at the tomb, “they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” (Mt.28:9). This is precisely what Mary has done. She has fallen at his feet to worship him. This is something that could have happened only at Bethany and only in the home of Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead.” Only the Divine can bring life where life was not. Yet, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.” John 1:10. Mary, like Lazarus, proclaims the redeemer. There is more here than meets the eye and this needs to be investigated with skill and care.
Another aspect presents itself for consideration. Jesus is performing an act of purification for Mary before the Feast of the Passover. This is a point that is missed in the interpretation of the narrative. In Mark 14:6 Jesus says Mary “has performed a good service for me.” In John 12:7 he says, “Leave her alone, she has done this for me.” The narrative seems always to point back to Mary. In Mark 14:9, it is said that wherever the gospel is proclaimed what Mary has done will be told “in remembrance of her.” Jesus indicates that Mary will have a future; that her story will be told over and again. This brings to mind the words from the Last Supper “do this, as often as you do it, in remembrance of me.” The anointing at Bethany communicates the deep bond that Mary shares with Jesus. This is the eternal bond of redemption. The Crucifixion like the Passover is a memorial of the eternal recurrence of redemption history.
The episode of the anointing begins (12:1) with the reminder of “Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” The fact of resurrection is thereby imprinted upon the story. That Jesus does something extraordinary for Mary is thus not the first time that he has done something extraordinary for this family. If indeed Jesus anoints Mary as I believe he does then Jesus is again going against culture and tradition; he is breaking the rules; he is overturning the tables in the Temple. The anointing episode ends with the anticipation of the death of Jesus. One is reminded again of 11:16, when Jesus decides to go and raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas the Twin said, “Let us also go that we may die with him.” When Martha complains that Mary is just sitting at his feet instead of helping with the household chores, Jesus replies that Mary has chosen the better part. He is acknowledging that offending cultural propriety is congruent with the announcing of the coming of the redeemer. The act of mutual anointing indicates another “horizon” event where heaven (Jesus) and earth (Mary), the Divine and the human join together for the opening up of something new. This act elevates both male and female to a higher spiritual level than has been the case before.
It is said that the fragrance of the ointment filled the whole house. This cannot have been an original part of the story. It certainly seems as if the person telling this story was present at the time to know this minor detail that adds nothing to the narrative but is rich in homiletic substance: what happens to Jesus has an immediate effect on the whole house, that is, the whole world. Jesus is the center from which the fragrance, redemption, goes forth like ripples on a pond to “all who received him, who believed in his name.” Being in the presence of Jesus is life-giving.
However, not all present were moved by this act on Mary’s part. Judas is identified by name as one who would have chosen to sell the ointment and give the money to the poor. In Mark it simply says that “some” who were present raised this concern, while in Matthew it is “the disciples” who ask the question. It does not matter who raises this concern, the point is this, that it shifts attention away from the central act: the anointing. The main point of the episode is lost.
The story is not about taking care of the poor. The narrative properly ends with verse 3a. With the introduction of the challenge to Mary, verse 7 became necessary. I believe that verses 4-6 were added to turn attention away from the unique event of the anointing that was offensive to some. Verse 8 does not belong to the narrative, but appears to be a later addition to respond to verse 5. The text has undergone changes from legend to gospel so that the meaning of the anointing is covered over and must now be uncovered through careful analysis and exegesis.
The anointing of Jesus is first, a rite of purification for the Feast of the Passover. Mary does not know that Jesus is going to his death. She did not come to anoint him for his burial, but to worship him. Anointing a guest, especially on the head, is a way of honoring the guest. We see this in Matthew 26:7, and especially in the encounter of Jesus with Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:46. Compare Psalm 23:5. At the time of this episode the act of anointing was not considered as preparation of the body in anticipation of death. In the second place, it is Jesus who introduces the idea of anointing in anticipation of death. This is the only time in the NT when anointing is seen in this light. There are instances of anointing for healing and exorcism, but not in preparation for death. However, an idea of extreme unction did develop in the Church and was accepted as a sacrament in 1439. But it cannot be projected back into history to interpret the anointing at Bethany. This idea is foreign to the NT. In verse 7 Jesus says defending Mary, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” It is this verse that makes Mary’s act prophetic. The anointing is a prophecy of the Passion of Jesus. It is Jesus alone who can see this. And because he anoints Mary, she is now a full participant in his Passion. Mary as humanity stands with Jesus for all of us.