When I was writing yesterday’s post on coming undone I could not help but think of the other similar stories in the New Testament of women anointing Jesus. All four Gospels give an account of a woman anointing Jesus. However, varying details in each account leave it unclear how many times this happened. Some scholars have argued that these four accounts cover two different incidents, but the more common view is that there are three different anointing stories told.
Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:1-10) appear to tell one of the stories, and their accounts are almost identical. In both cases an unnamed woman while eating at the house of Simon the Leper anointed Jesus on his head with expensive perfume from an alabaster jar. This happened two days before the Passover. The Gospel of John tells another account a few days earlier, when Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus) used her hair to anoint Jesus’ feet with oil six days before the Passover (see John 12:1-11). Finally, Luke (7:36-50) tells a story of an unnamed sinful woman weeping at the feet of Jesus while dining the house of a Pharisee by the name of Simon. She used her tears, perfume and hair to clean the feet of Jesus.
So, it appears we have three different women on three different occasions. If we put them in chronological order they appear as follows.
When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. Luke 7:36-38
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pintof pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. John 12:1-3
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Matthew 26:6-9
The woman in Luke has captured imaginations for two millennia. We are told that she had lived a sinful life (v. 37). Later Jesus references her many sins (v. 47). Even as those in the house must have been murmuring among themselves so have readers speculated about her sins. It has often been suggested that she was a prostitute, and that the perfume that she had on her was one of the tools she used in her trade. Whatever the untold details may be, it is clear that this woman had come undone from encountering Jesus. Over the course of the meal she went from sinner to servant.
The second story takes place in Bethany six days before the Passover. This time the woman is named, it is Mary the sister of Lazarus. She was apparently the same Mary that Luke said chose to sit and listen to Jesus instead of busy herself with preparations for hosting the guests in their home (Luke 10:38-42). And it was certainly the same Mary whose grief over her deceased brother caused Jesus to weep (John 11:35). Mary differs from the unnamed woman. There are no tears. She does not seem moved so much by her sin and brokenness in the light of the love of Christ, as by her devotion and loving relationship with Christ. In Mary we see a disciple who had moved from servant to friend.
The third and final anointing takes place a few days later. Matthew specifically tells us that it was two days before the Passover (v. 2), and took place in the home of Simon the leper (v. 6). This time the woman is once again anonymous. The perfume she is using is said to be very expensive, and the parallel account in Mark tells us it could have been sold for more than a year’s worth of wages. This woman does not anoint the feet of Jesus. Rather, she anoints His head. Jesus rebukes His disciples for their response to her act, and lets them know that she had seen something that they were still not perceiving. That is, she did this in order to prepare His body for burial.
Jesus goes on to say that wherever the gospel is preached her act will be told in memory of her (v. 13). Some have thought it ironic that Jesus proclaimed this memorial about a woman who then remained anonymous. However, her anonymity might be part of the point. For this woman did not act out of servitude nor friendship. Rather, in this woman we see a faithful participant in the Kingdom, who discerned it was time to anoint her King. Her act is prophetic. Anointing kings was the duty of prophets. She had no desire for personal name recognition, only that His name be lifted up. She was a seer, an anointer, and one who proclaimed God’s activities to God’s people, even though their eyes failed to see the word revealed in her actions. Here we see the move from personal friend to faithful prophet.
Jesus was anointed three times by three women. In each event we see the progression of both the individual disciple and the collective bride of Christ. First, we fall at his feet, overwhelmed with the reality of the love of God, as we move from sinner to servant. Second, we draw near to Him in intimacy. He calls us by our name. We offer glad service to Him as we are moving from servant to friend. Finally, we stand in faithful anonymity and proclaim the name and authority of God. It is no longer our life that we are living, but the life of Christ in us (Gal 2:20). Now our chief end is to glorify Him.
Thus, we see in these three women the three fold path of the lover of God. From sinner to servant to friend to faithful. Finish your journey.