January 27, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Anointing at Bethany

See Matthew 26:6-16, Mark 14:3-11, John 12:1-11

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us about the anointing of Jesus’ head and feet at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. On the other hand, Luke is the only one who told us earlier about the washing of Jesus’ feet by a penitent sinner in Capernaum. Were there two similar incidents? Probably not. Luke frequently told his stories differently from the other evangelists.

In this case, John’s Gospel (but not Matthew’s or Mark’s) names Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, as the woman who did the anointing. Luke’s penitent sinner was unnamed. Through the centuries, these incidents became interwoven and the tradition grew that it was Mary of Magdala who did the washing or the anointing. But none of the Gospels names her. John’s Gospel named Mary of Magdala (or the Magdalene) in several places, but never in connection with Lazarus and Martha.

John’s Gospel disagrees with Matthew’s and Mark’s about when the dinner occurred. He places it the day before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem while the other two place it afterward. Considering the fact that the Gospels were written from 40 to 65 years after the event, why would we be surprised about that?

The host for the dinner is called Simon the leper. We can safely presume that the leprosy had been cured—maybe by Jesus—and was no longer contagious. Perhaps, though, he continued to be called a leper because the disease had changed his appearance. At any rate, he invited Jesus, his neighbor Lazarus, and presumably Jesus’ Apostles, for a festive dinner. As was the custom among the Jews, the women (including Martha) served the table, but didn’t join the men during the meal.

That’s when Mary took a very expensive nard oil in an alabaster vial, broke the neck of the vial and poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet (or head, according to Matthew, as a sign of regal, messianic anointing). The reaction was immediate: Why this extravagance? The money for that expensive perfume could have gone to help the poor.

Jesus, though, who always championed the poor, would have none of that. He defended Mary’s loving action, saying that she anticipated anointing his body for burial. He knew that he would soon be killed as a prisoner and his body would not be anointed.

His response reflected the debate among rabbis over the relative merit of almsgiving to the poor and proper burial for the dead. Those who argued for a proper burial believed it essential for sharing in the Resurrection. There would always be chances to care for the poor, Jesus said.

For Judas, though, this incident seemed to be the last straw. Matthew and Mark both report that, immediately after this incident, Judas went to the chief priests to see how he could hand Jesus over to them. We don’t know precisely what motivated Judas. John says simply that he was a thief. The money he was offered, though, 30 pieces of silver, was a paltry price. †


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