When referring to the earliest followers of Jesus, the Gospel writers often speak of two groups of disciples: the Twelve and the Women. The Twelve refer to the twelve Jewish men chosen by Jesus to be his closest companions and first apostles, symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel. The Women refer to an unspecified number of female disciples who also followed Jesus, welcoming him into their homes, financing his ministry, and often teaching the Twelve through their acts of faithfulness and love. Just as Jesus predicted, most of the Twelve abandoned him at his death (John 16:32). But the women remained by his side—through his death, burial, and resurrection. This is the first installment of a four-part series about the women who surrounded Jesus during his passion. The final installment will run on Easter Sunday.
They say that smell is most powerful sense for bringing back memories—something about the olfactory bulb in the brain’s limbic system and how it forever links the scent of freshly-cut lavender to the security of your grandmother’s guest room.
Scent, unlike anything else, brings us back. Scent reunites the senses of taste, touch, sight, and sound to place us, at least for a moment, in a time past.
So it is strange that in the most aromatic of the Passion stories, our collective memory fails us.
We know there is a woman.
We know there is an anointing.
We know there is expensive, perfumed oil.
We know there is a protest.
But when it comes to the details of the woman’s anointing of Jesus, accounts vary.
Matthew and Mark describe an unnamed woman from Bethany who, while Jesus dined in the home of Simon the Leper just days before his death, anoints his head with expensive ointment to the chagrin of the disciples at the table, who grumble that her offering might be better spent on the poor.
John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who bathes Jesus’ feet in perfume and wipes them with her hair. In John’s account, it is Judas who chastises Mary for her waste.
Luke writes of a “woman of the city, who was a sinner,” who bathes Jesus’ feet in a mixture of perfume and tears, wiping his feet with her hair and kissing them with her lips. In this story, a Pharisee condemns her, noting that “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.”
Whether these accounts represent one event or two, or possibly even three, has been the subject of speculation for centuries. It’s easy to get frustrated with the writers of Scripture, who are so careful to name and distinguish the Twelve, but who often blur the Women together. The Scholars Version note to Mark 14:3-9 states: "… It must be unintentional irony when Mark has Jesus predict that this story will always be told in memory of a woman whose very name escapes him."
But the account most commonly tied to the Passion is that of Matthew, Mark, and John:
Just days before his betrayal and death, Jesus and his disciples were eating at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. While they were reclining at the table, a woman, who John identifies as Mary of Bethany, approached Jesus with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wages. Mary broke the jar, pouring the perfume on Jesus’ body.
While John writes that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair, Matthew and Mark report that the woman of Bethany anointed Jesus’ head. Both actions carry important symbolic meaning.
In the ancient Near East, the act of anointing signified selection for some special role or task. Kings were often anointed with oil as part of their coronation ceremony, often by a prophet or priest. The Greek word Christos, Christ,” is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means “the anointed one.” And so this anonymous woman finds herself in the untraditional position of priest and prophet. In the upside-down Kingdom of Jesus, it makes perfect sense.
Anointing the feet, however, models service, discipleship, and love. In this sense, John’s account is more personal and raw. In a culture in which a woman’s touch was often forbidden, Mary dares to cradle the feet of Jesus in her hands and spread the oil across his ankles and toes with the ends of her hair. Rather than measuring out a small amount of oil, Mary breaks the jar lets it all pour out. She’s all-in, fully committed, sparing no expense. The oil she may have been reserving for her own burial, or the burial of a loved one, has been poured out generously, without thought of the future. The humility of this action foreshadows the footwahsing that is to come. Later, Jesus would imitate Mary by washing the feet of the Twelve, telling them to do the same.
But in the midst of all this symbolism and foreshadowing, Jesus sees something else at work. He interprets the woman’s act of worship as preparation for his burial. When the disciples rebuke the woman for what they see as a waste of money, Jesus responds by saying, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.”
Jesus had been speaking of his impending death for a while, but the Twelve were having none of it. When Jesus told Peter that “the Messiah must be rejected, suffer, and die; then he will be raised,” Peter responded with such an impassioned protest that Jesus rebuked him with “get behind me Satan!” In another instance, Jesus spoke ominously of his death, and the disciples respond by debating who will be the greatest in the coming kingdom. And in another, James and John miss the point entirely by responding to Jesus’ prediction with requests to sit at his right and left hand. Clearly, the Twelve struggled to conceive of a kingdom that would begin not with the death of their enemies, but with the death of their friend. I suspect this is why they complained about the “waste” of money exhibited by the anointing. They imagined that their ministry with Jesus would continue for months and years to come. You can sense the sadness in Jesus’ words when he reminds them, yet again, that he will not always be with them, that he is preparing for the most difficult days of his life.
We cannot know for sure whether the woman who anointed Jesus saw her actions as a prelude to her teacher’s upcoming death and burial. I suspect she knew instinctively, the way that women know these things, that a man who dines at a leper’s house, who allows a woman to touch him with her hair, who rebukes Pharisees and befriends prostitutes, would not survive for long in the world in which she lived.
Surely a woman in this society would understand this better than a man.
Perhaps this is why the women stayed by Jesus’ side after so many of the Twelve betrayed him, denied him, and fled from him in fear. This was the course of things, the women knew. They would see it through to the end.
And so the woman of Bethany becomes the first of Christ’s disciples to acknowledge his impending death. For this, Jesus praises her in unparalleled terms. “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
What a remarkable thought—that at every communion, every Easter service, every cathedral and every tent revival, from Israel to Africa, to Europe to China, this woman’s story should be on our lips, right along with Christ’s.
And yet, while we break the bread and drink the wine, we rarely pour out the oil.
Jesus wanted us to remember, but we have forgotten. We aren’t even sure of this woman’s name.
Perhaps we should bring back this oil, this costly perfume, and make it part of our Eucharist. Perhaps, with the help of the Spirit, the scent of it might trigger our memory.