A woman, Jesus and costly perfume


Scripture: Mark 14: 1-11 Jan Savory

A story about a woman, Jesus and costly perfume

How many times was Jesus anointed? All four Gospel writers tell us about a woman who anoints Jesus with expensive ointment.  Four stories about a woman, Jesus and costly perfume.  All four have the setting in a house, for a meal, a woman, and expensive perfume poured on Jesus to which someone objects. But they differ in some key areas. Whose house? Who was the woman? Did she anoint Jesus’ head or feet? Who objected? Comparing the four versions, well three really because Matthew follows very closely Mark’s version, shows us how oral traditions can change and how the Gospel writers change stories to fit their own agendas.

So how many times was Jesus anointed? I’ll let you decide. But I will ask you to consider this: if it happened more than once, why were the disciples not used to it by the time it happened again?

Mary Magdalene

As a sidebar, the attempt to conflagrate these different versions of this story, and the fact that there are so many women named Mary in the gospel stories led to an erroneous belief that Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the sinful woman in Luke’s account were the same person, and Mary Magdalene was considered to be a prostitute for centuries!  Fortunately, this belief has finally been discredited.

Back to the woman Jesus and her costly perfume

But let’s go back to the incident itself, as we heard it today in the earliest account as told by Mark.

The religious authorities want to arrest Jesus

Our reading started with the chief priests and the scribes looking for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. I expect everyone at the dinner was on edge and ready to fly off the handle at the least provocation and pick a quarrel with anyone around. This woman provided the right target. They saw her action through the lens of their own fear, hopelessness and vulnerability. And their reaction was out of proportion in their anger at the situation they were in. 

Who was this woman?

A woman, Jesus and costly perfume
Who was this woman who anointed Jesus?

Was she Mary of Bethany, a devoted follower, as John claims? Or a woman of ill repute, as in Luke’s version? Or just an ordinary person, neither overly devout nor overly sinful, just like us? And why did she do this? Did she understand the scheming of the religious leaders and foresee Jesus coming death? Or did she recognise how special he was, and want to show it? After all, anointing was for priests, prophets and kings? Maybe she had some personal reason?  We will never know.

Likewise, we will never know her name, her station in life, how she came to have such an expensive item or her motivation.  We do know what she did; she brought an alabaster jar, a thing of beauty, into the room. Alabaster is a mineral, a stone   which becomes translucent in the right light. It’s content, about 11 oz of nard or spikenard, is a scented ointment used for calming as well as when preparing a body for burial. Because the nard was so expensive, the jar was often sealed to prevent evaporation and the only way to get at it was to break the neck of the jar. Which she did, and she poured this aromatic ointment over Jesus’ head, filling the room with its fragrance.

The reaction of the disciples

The disciples rebuked her. They saw this costly ointment being wasted. To them it represented money. Did they care about the poor? Possibly, since Passover was upon them and this was a time for giving to the poor. Or, given the danger to their leader, were they so on edge that they just looked for any excuse to grumble?

Jesus reaction

Jesus saw it differently. To him, her actions were an expression of her love and devotion to him. He praises her and calls her action a good service to him, translated in some versions as a beautiful thing. Here he is, in the midst of a political maelstrom, realizing that his life was likely to end in a horrific way any time now – and someone did something nice for him. Just for him.

Acts of kindness and beauty

In a much smaller way, I can understand how he felt, and it shows me the very human side of Jesus. During the first lockdown of the pandemic, I was shopping for one older friend, looking after a neighbour with dementia, sharing meals and baked treats with neighbours. All while coming to terms with the reality of what Covid was doing to my life and the church’s. One day a neighbour knocked at my door with dinner – roast turkey, vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy. I was so grateful, I wanted to cry. I didn’t need the food; there were people on our floor who needed this sort of help far more than I did. But I did need someone to think of me, just once in a while, and show it.

What about the poor?

It is with this in mind that I read Jesus’s somewhat confusing statement: The poor are always with us, so they can wait. Poverty is not going to go away if you sell the jar of perfume, but this woman ministered to a need within Jesus that the disciples didn’t see. To him, this was an act of beauty at a time when his life didn’t have much pleasure in it. There is a time to be practical, but there is always time for beauty, even extravagant beauty.

The beauty of  this woman, Jesus and costly perfume

At the end of the meal, at the end of today’s reading, Judas goes to the priests and offers to betray Jesus. Here we have a scene of beauty, its beauty highlighted by being bookended by the foreshadowing of Jesus’ death.  But Jesus, through his lens of love sees beauty. Bringing beauty to the lives of others, as Jesus affirms here, is another way of showing love to each other.