The Anointing at Bethany

One of the things that has always given the Gospels the ring of a truthful recounting of historical memory by eyewitnesses is the story of the anointing at Bethany. What is interesting to me are these passages:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.  Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner. ” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50).

Notice that in this telling, Luke does not name the woman, but merely notes that she was commonly recognized as a “sinner” (typically code for “prostitute”).

In Mark’s version of the story, we have more details. Luke tells the story, not to pin it to the week before the Passion, but to give us a picture of Jesus’ attitude toward the repentant and compare it with the Pharisee. That’s because Luke, like all the evangelists, is writing as much as a theologian as a chronicler and so will sometimes take sayings and incidents in the life of Jesus out of chronological order in order to make a point. 

In Mark, however, we are told that the woman performed this act just before the Passover.

It was now two days before the Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth, and kill him; for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people.” And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor.” And they reproached her. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:1-9)

Meanwhile John, obviously referring to the same event and telling it in words that are extremely similar, records this:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:1-8).

Nitpickers may quibble about whether the anointing took place two days or six days before Passover (those interested in the problem of how the Gospels date the Last Supper should take a look at Pope Benedict’s superb second volume of Jesus of Nazareth for more information. But to declare (as silly people sometimes do) that the thing never happened because of this discrepancy among witnesses is like declaring that JFK was never assassinated because some witnesses heard two shots and some heard three. Such minor disagreements are, in fact, the norm for historical testimony.

Meantime, the fascinating thing is how John speaks of Mary of Bethany in the story of the raising of Lazarus:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. (John 11:1-2)

Note that: this is John’s description of Mary before he tells the story of the Anointing, not after.

Why does this matter? Because writers who are telling new stories to new audiences never do this. Dickens does not start A Christmas Carol by introducing Scrooge and saying, “This was the Scrooge who was visited by three spirits and repented.” Rather, the only time a writer refers to events which he has not yet related himself is when he is telling a story with which the audience is already familiar. This underscores that John is presuming we have already heard, either in the preaching of the Church or in one of the other gospels, the tale of Mary’s anointing of Jesus. His own recounting of that story is therefore not intended as “news” to his readers, but as a reflection on the inner meaning of an event with which they are already familiar (as indeed, his whole Gospel is). It also means, by the way, that the anointing of Jesus feet was not something done repeatedly by multiple women, but something that was absolutely unique to Mary of Bethany. That’s why Jesus himself makes clear that this woman—Mary of Bethany—will be remembered for it wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world. Why do the synoptics not name her then? Very likely, to protect her. After all, her brother Lazarus was the target of assassination plots after Jesus raised him from the dead. But by the time John writes, she has died and her name can be spoken openly.

The anointing of Jesus is deeply poignant because Jesus (and we) know the destiny to which Jesus is bound. Like so many other things in John’s Gospel, it is laden with significance which the characters in the story do not themselves comprehend. Mary, in her love for Jesus, unwittingly foreshadows his burial just as Caiaphas has, in the previous chapter, unwittingly foreshadowed his sacrifice for the sins of the world. For the custom at that time was to anoint dead bodies in preparation for burial. Jesus’ hasty burial will make that impossible, so Jesus receives this anointing as a sort of “pre-anointing.” 

John, like all the biblical authors, does not spend a lot of time psychologically analyzing the characters in the gospel account. However, some interesting facts emerge about the mysterious figure of Judas Iscariot. First, as we have already seen in John 6, Judas has been living a lie. He does not believe, but he will not leave. So he has stayed on, growing more deeply in the life of a lie. Now he does something very common to the psychology of sin. He publicly excoriates Mary and accuses her of precisely the thing he himself is guilty: stealing from the poor.  Two things are notable here: First, Jesus publicly rebukes Judas, and second, according to the synoptic tradition it is after this incident that Judas went to the priests in Jerusalem seeking to betray him (Mark 14;10-11).

Some modern readers see in Jesus’ reply to Judas an excuse for callousness, as though Jesus is saying the poor can be ignored since they are always there. In reality, Jesus is alluding to Deuteronomy 15:7-11:

“If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the LORD your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the LORD against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.

In short, the poor are an opportunity to be generous and the rich shall be judged by their use of that opportunity.  The poor constitute a permanent contemporary test of love and a reminder of God’s generosity to us. God will withhold mercy from the merciless and generosity from the stingy, according to the Old Testament. Jesus does not deny this teaching, but also notes that Mary’s act of generosity for him in anticipation of his burial is fitting too.

One final point: It is worth noting that Mary’s gesture is the sole moment in the entire ministry of the Christ—the Anointed One—in which he is actually anointed. That God chooses this humble woman to make manifest the truth of who Jesus is reflects profoundly on the humility of God himself.