The Anointing of Jesus
Our post-Enlightenment occidental minds are steeped in modernity and find it necessary to be individualistic, chronological, and historically factual, so, we bend over backwards to fit scripture into those preconceived boxes. The ancient mind knew no such necessities. Biblical authors are concerned with theological meaning. They arrange stories for meaning, not to record facts in order of occurrence. Forced harmonization is unnecessary.
We have four accounts, one in each gospel narrative, of Jesus being anointed by a woman. It’s possible they describe multiple anointings by different women; or, we may have four writers describing the same event from different perspectives. The differences do not imply contradiction. Only a modern mind would think so. It would have never occurred to the original audiences.
Mark is the oldest of the gospel narratives and served as source material for Matthew and Luke and perhaps John. Mark 14:3-11 tells the story, which Matthew 26:6-13 follows closely. Near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he was in Bethany, a town about 6 miles from Jerusalem, having dinner at the house of Simon the leper. An unidentified woman comes in and anoints Jesus’ head with costly perfume. The disciples are indignant at what they perceive as waste. Judas leaves the group to betray his Messiah.
John 12:1-11 places the story six days before Jesus’ final Passover, again in Bethany, but this time in the home of Martha, Lazarus, and Mary. In John, it is Mary who anoints Jesus, but his head isn’t mentioned. She anoints his feet and dries them with her hair. The spikenard she uses is worth a year’s wages. Again, Judas is indignant.
Luke 7:36-50 places the story nearer the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and in Galilee, in the northern part of Israel apparently near a town called Nain. Jesus is invited to dinner by Simon, who is described as a Pharisee. An unidentified woman, described as “a sinner,” enters, bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and kisses them repeatedly. Here, Jesus reads Simon’s thoughts and tells a parable about forgiveness. He then forgives the woman’s sins and tells her to go in peace, filled with shalom, wholeness, wellbeing.
The western mind sees the stories through a modernist lens and tries very hard to make them all fit together, sometimes concluding that we have three different accounts: one in the home of a leper named Simon in Bethany; another, also in Bethany, in the home of Martha, Lazarus, and Mary; and a third in Galilee in the home of a Pharisee named Simon.
Others see two anointings. One in Bethany near the end of Jesus’ ministry, and one in Galilee near the beginning. To make that work, they surmise that Mary of Bethany was a notorious sinner, and that somehow Jesus was having dinner with Mary and her siblings at the home of a leper named Simon. Then, they postulate a second anointing near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee in the home of another guy named Simon, who is a Pharisee.
Both of those scenarios are possible, but neither is required. People in the biblical times were not concerned with reproducing history exactly as it might be described by an unbiased journalist. Biblical writers are concerned with theological meaning. There are wide theological differences between Anglican, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Arminian, Calvinistic, Open, Process, Baptist, Liberation, and Pentecostal theologians; however, there is truth in all of them, and in matters most essential, they all provide differing perspectives on the same truths. God is too big for any one box. The four gospel narratives are four complimentary views of the life and teachings of Jesus the Messiah.
If we take the four accounts of Jesus being anointed individually without worrying about how to harmonize the stories, deep theological truths emerge.
Mark and Matthew are very close to one another. The story takes place in Bethany at the home of one Simon, a leper. Leprosy in the Bible translates a generic umbrella term used for skin disease in general, not just the modern Hansen’s disease, which is an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. Lepers were ostracized in ancient cultures out of fear. To be a leper, living in his own home rather than a leper colony, would mean that Simon was wealthy. That Jesus would have dinner with him defies societal prejudice and fear. Religious Jews, like the Pharisees, thought leprosy was a punishment from God. That the disciples were with Jesus in the home of a leper indicates their trust in and love for their Lord.
Mark and Matthew give us no clues to the identity or background of the woman who anoints Jesus’ head. Whoever she is, she undertakes an act of extravagant, costly worship. The disciples’ indignation indicates a lack of ability to see her heart, resulting in judgmental spirits. They are indignant. Couldn’t this expensive perfume be sold and the money given to the poor?
In Matthew, Mark, and John, Jesus replies that the poor are with us always. Ripped out of context, many have used that as a proof text for being opposed to government welfare safety nets. First, are the poor with us? Are they eating at our tables, living in our spare bedrooms? Do we drive them to work each day? Jesus assumes that his followers have the poor with them. Always. Second, being opposed to government safety nets ignores the fact that governmental and societal systems have caused the poverty in the first place, and therefore must be part of the means by which it is alleviated.
John sets the story in Bethany in the home of his friends Martha (busy in the kitchen), Lazarus (the guy Jesus raised from the dead), and Mary (who sat at Jesus’ feet). Like Matthew and Mark, it occurs near the end of Jesus’ ministry. Here, there is no mention of a man named Simon, and Mary is the one who anoints Jesus. But it’s his feet, not his head, wiping them with her hair. It is a tender, sensual, intimate picture. Mary chose the place of a disciple, sitting at the feet of the master-teacher. She touched Jesus. She touched Jesus’ feet. All of that is outrageous for a woman in that culture. Gender roles are shattered. Jesus embraced her in love.
In Luke, the setting is Galilee nearer the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The home is that of a Pharisee named Simon. The woman is a notorious sinner. The scene is even more provocative and intimate – she not only drenches Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair as she pours out the expensive perfume, but she also smothers his feet with kisses. If, as is usually assumed, her sinfulness is related to being a prostitute (the text doesn’t say that), then she is pouring out the essential tool of her trade, perhaps indicating her desire to give it up. Her need is forgiveness. Jesus gives it and his forgiveness results in shalom. She has been forgiven much. She loves much. Simon, in his self-righteous judgmentalism, is unaware that he too has sinned much and needs to be forgiven much.
Jesus asked Simon if he saw the woman. “Do you see this woman, Simon?” Do you really see her? A child of God, created in the divine image, loved by God, of unsurpassable worth? Or, do you just see a whore?
Þ Do we truly see others the way God sees them?
Þ Are poor people living with us?
Þ Are we addressing the underlying issues that cause poverty?
Þ Are we clinging to ideologies that divide people – ideologies that are shattered by the gospel?
Þ Do we bring our deepest needs to Christ?
Þ Do we love extravagantly?
Þ Are we living in deep intimacy with Jesus?
20 July 2022