The Woman Who Anointed Jesus
Jesus instructs those who proclaim the gospel to recite the acts of the woman at Bethany who anointed him as a remembrance of her and what she did:
"I tell you the truth wherever this gospel is proclaimed in all the world, what she did will also be spoken of as a memorial to her" (Matt.26:13; Mk.14:9 Para.).
Because the account of Jesus being anointed by a woman is recorded in all four gospels, and Jesus gave a clear instruction to recite this event whenever the gospel message is presented, there must be some significant lessons to be learned from the event.
Throughout the Bible, there are a number of individuals who are called by name to be remembered for certain actions or events that they either caused or took part in. Even though the woman noted in Matthew and Mark is not mentioned by name, it seems logical that she was Mary (the one who also anointed Jesus' feet), the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and quite possibly one of the women who continually helped to support Jesus in his ministry (Lk.8:1-3).
Even if all four gospel accounts that speak of Jesus being anointed are not speaking of the same event, the profound lessons that are taught in these accounts certainly apply to the gospel message.
Passover 30 A.D.
The Passover season of 30 A.D., began much as it had in previous years as thousands of pilgrims from all over the world crowded into Jerusalem. All were concerned with preparing for the Passover and they did not realize that at this particular Passover the most important event in all human history would occur: the Lamb of God would be sacrificed on this Passover.
Because of a problem in determining the first day of the first month of the sacred calendar in 30 A.D., the Calendar Court sanctioned two Passover observances that year. This rare situation allowed Jesus to observe the Passover with his disciples and institute new rituals before fulfilling the prophetic meaning of the Passover Lamb the next day, on the second Passover.
The Tenth Of Nisan
Matthew, Mark, and John recorded that prior to the Passover, while Jesus was in Bethany having supper, he was anointed for his burial by a woman. Matthew and Mark record that she anointed his head, and Luke and John record that she anointed his feet. All except Luke, record that Jesus said he was being anointed in preparation for his burial, and only John records that this event took place six days before the Passover. See Matt.26:6-13; Mk.14:3-9; Jn.12:1-7.
It is important to understand that the events recorded in the four gospel accounts are not written in chronological order, and that the two days before the Passover noted in Matthew 26:1-5 and Mark 14:1-2 concern a separate event from the anointing of Jesus noted in Matthew 26 and Mark 14.
Remember that the Passover lamb was selected on the tenth day of the first month and sacrificed at the end of the 14th day before sunset; then, it was eaten at the beginning of the 15th day just after sunset.
The anointing of Jesus on the tenth of Nisan and six days prior to the Passover was no accident. It was very important for the fulfillment of the prophetic symbolism of the selection of the lamb at the first and subsequent Passovers.
When John recorded that it was six days before the Passover that Jesus was anointed for his burial, he did so with the knowledge that there had been two days of Passover that year. Jesus had kept the first Passover with his disciples, while many of the Jews (Jn.2:13; 6:4; 11:55) had kept the second Passover (i.e., the one on which Jesus was crucified).
In order to explore some of the profound meanings of the anointing of Jesus for his burial and the importance of Mary's actions to the preaching of the gospel it is necessary to harmonize all four narratives of this event.
When one reads all four accounts of this event, it becomes clear that each writer was only inspired to record what was necessary for his particular narrative; therefore, none of the narratives has exactly the same information recorded. Moreover, these events are not recorded in the exact order in which they happened.
It is impossible to know every detail of what transpired on the day that Jesus was anointed for his burial or to know exactly what each individual was thinking on that occasion. But, there is enough information presented in the gospel accounts to piece together an astounding story that is not only interesting but also rich in meaning for those who are called to understand the gospel message.
It is also important to note that some of the events will not seem to harmonize until most of what is recorded in the various accounts is combined with additional information.
Although these four accounts may at first seem difficult to reconcile with each other, as we will see, they do speak of the same event. We will also see that as the accounts are combined and separated into specific subtopics, a story flow will begin to emerge and it will become much easier to follow the story flow and to see how the entire event fits together to make many profound statements about the gospel message.
Also note that there is a table included at the end of this chapter that shows the common references that exist in the four gospel accounts of the anointing of Jesus.
"And one of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to a meal" (Lk.7:36 Para.).
"Now Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper" (Matt. 26:6; Mk.14:3 Para.).
"Then six days before the Passover Jesus went to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, and whom he had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper: and Martha served: But Lazarus was one of them that reclined at the table with Jesus" (Jn.12:1-2 Para.).
Here, we see Jesus in Bethany on the day of the selection of the Passover lambs, which was six days prior to the Passover. On this day, he was invited to eat a meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee who was a leper. Although it is not stated in the verses above, we will see that the disciples of Jesus were also invited to this meal.
When one carefully reads the context of Luke 10;38-42 and John 11:1-5; 12:1-2, it seems that Martha is serving because she is the wife of Simon the Pharisee. It is also highly likely that the reason Lazarus is at the meal is because he lived with his sister and brother-in-law (Jn.12:9).
In order to more clearly understand what is happening here, we must remember that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were very dear friends of Jesus. John specifically records that Jesus loved each of them (Jn.11:5). Not only were they his dear friends, but genealogical studies indicate that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were also siblings of Jesus' mother, which makes them his relatives. Because of their friendship and the time they spent with Jesus, they knew much about him and what he taught.
Washing and Anointing Jesus' Feet
"And when a certain woman in the city, who was a sinner, knew that he was eating a meal in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster vial of ointment, and stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with her tears, and wipe them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with ointment" (Lk.7:37-38 Para.).
"Then Mary took a pound of ointment of spikenard [i.e., pure nard], very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment" (Jn.12:3 KJV).
There are four important things to learn from these two accounts:
- John clearly records that the woman who did the anointing of Jesus' feet was Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha: "And there was a certain sick one, Lazarus from Bethany, of the village of Mary and her sister Martha. And it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick" (Jn.11:1-2 Para.).
- Mary is said to be a sinner, but are not all people sinners? She was also the sister of Lazarus and Martha and a person of enough importance to be allowed into the house of the self-righteous Pharisee, Simon.
- Coming into the house, Mary sees Jesus reclining in the traditional eastern manner, at a table on a low couch with his feet stretched out behind him, while eating with his right hand. Mary comes up behind him, kneels down, breaks open the vial of ointment, and washes his feet with her tears before rubbing sweet smelling ointment on them.
- During this time, it was a sign of great immodesty for a Jewish woman to allow her hair to flow over her shoulders in public. Mary's actions show that she was not concerned about what people thought of her, because she had more important things on her mind than the customs and prohibitions of that day.
"Now when the Pharisee saw this he said to himself. If this man were a prophet, he would have known that this woman that touches him is a sinful person" (Lk.7:39 Para.).
Simon the Pharisee, who was himself a leper, was full of self righteousness. He could not understand how Jesus would allow a person as sinful as Mary to touch him, and Simon condemned him for it. In Simon's thinking, this was proof that Jesus was not the Messiah.
Simon believed in a social caste system that there were minor and major sins. He did not understand that, whether a sin is great or small, it is still a sin. The end result is the same—all sin, unless forgiven, is punishable by eternal death (Rom.6:23).
Herein is a great truth of the gospel message. The Father and Jesus Christ have always loved their human creation who are all sinners, and it is because of and through their great love for their creation that we have hope for salvation:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes on him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved" (Jn.3:16-17 KJV). See Mk.16:16; Rom.5:6-10; 8:7-18; Jms.4:4; 1.Jn.4:9-10.
Jesus loved Mary the sinner. He had a special love for her because she was a close friend (Jn.11:5); however, he also loved all of the other sinners who were there that day in Simon's house, including Simon.
The Parable of Forgiveness
"Jesus knowing the thoughts of Simon, said, Simon, I have something to say to you. And Simon said, Tell me" (Lk.7:40 Para.).
What Jesus tells Simon goes to the foundation of Jesus' ministry and his reason for coming to earth:
"There was a certain creditor to whom two people owed money; one owed him five hundred pence, and the other fifty pence. And when they could not pay him, he forgave both their debts. Tell me, which one will have more love for the creditor? Simon answered and said I suppose the one that owed the most and was forgiven his debt. Jesus said to Simon, You have judged correctly" (Lk.7:41-43 Para.).
Although sin is sin and the Father will forgive all sin (except blasphemy of the holy spirit), all people do not sin to the same degree, nor do all people have the same degree of gratitude and love for the Father and Jesus when they are forgiven of their sins.
The lesson here seems to be that when a person is forgiven of sin, if that person is truly grateful for being forgiven, that person will respond toward the Father and Jesus Christ with a corresponding level of gratitude and love.
Customs of the Day
"And Jesus turned to the woman, and said to Simon, See this woman? I entered your house and you did not give me water to wash my feet: But she has washed my feet with tears and wiped them with the hair of her head" (Lk.7:44 Para.).
During Jesus' lifetime, there were three important customs that concerned an invited guest:
- When an invited guest entered the host's house, the host would place his hand on the guest's shoulder and give him the kiss of peace. The kiss of peace was similar to today's shaking of hands or hugging when greeting a person. It was intended as an indication of happiness because of one's arrival, affection toward the person, or the affirmation of one's peaceful intentions toward another person. In Christ's lifetime, the kiss of peace was also an indication of respect that was always given to a person of importance or a notable rabbi upon their entering the host's home.
- When a guest entered a home, the host would either supply water for his guest to wash his feet, wash the person's feet himself, or have a servant or slave wash them.
- Guest's were given water by their host as a courtesy to provide for their cleanliness and comfort (Gen.18:1-4; 19:1-2; 24:32; 43:24).
- Washing of another person's feet was a gesture of submission to the authority of another (1.Sam.25:41).
- Washing of another person's feet was sometimes an expression of respect and love (Lk.1:37-50; Jn.12:3).
- The host would either burn a small amount of sweet-smelling incense to perfume the house or place a drop of rose oil/perfume upon the guest's head.
All of these things were done to show respect and to provide comfort and pleasure for the guest; however, Simon performed none of these common courtesies for Jesus who was the guest of honor. By this neglect we can clearly see Simon's attitude toward Jesus.
Although we cannot be certain, Luke 7:45-47 seems to be the logical point in the chronology of these events when Mary stops washing Jesus' feet and rubbing nard on them, and pours the rest of the ointment on his head. Why would she do this? It makes sense that Mary was also listening to Jesus' reprimand to Simon for his show of disrespect, and upon hearing Jesus comments, she responded accordingly by anointing his head:
"You gave me no kiss: but since the time I came into your house this woman has not stopped kissing my feet. And you did not anoint my head with oil, but this woman has anointed my feet with perfume" (Lk.7:45-46 Para.).
The Anointing of Jesus' Head
"And there came to him a woman having an alabaster vial of very expensive spikenard ointment, and she broke the vile and poured it upon his head, as he sat" (Matt.26:7; Mk.14:3 Para.).
After washing Jesus' feet with her tears, Mary breaks the vial and pours the remainder of the ointment over Jesus' head. As with the other things that Mary did on this day, there is great symbolism in the anointing of Jesus' head and the breaking of the vial.
Forgiveness of Sin
Jesus' reprimand of Simon for his failure to do what he knew he should have done for his guest is analogous to a person who is called to salvation through the gospel message and upon understanding what his response should be, he refuses to do what is expected. This person will not receive the forgiveness of sins, but will suffer the consequences for his lack of performance (Jam.4:17; Rom.6:23).
Notice Jesus' remark to Simon that he should pay attention to the lesson of Mary's performance of gratitude and love to him in anticipation of her salvation from the penalty of sin:
"Therefore, I say to you Simon, Her sins, that are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: But to whom little is forgiven, they are the ones who have loved little. And he said to her, Your sins are forgiven" (Lk.7:47-48 Para.).
Remember that Mary was a close friend of Jesus. According to biblical chronology, she was probably his aunt. Mary had faith in Jesus' ability to forgive her sins, because she believed what Jesus had been teaching. Moreover, she had either personally seen or known about Jesus' healing of many people and forgiving many people of their sins (Matt.9:1-11). Mary knew that she was a sinner and that Jesus loved her. And she knew that the only hope of having her sins forgiven was through Jesus, her Savior and Redeemer.
"And those who sat at the meal with Jesus began to say to themselves, Who is this who also forgives sins?" (Lk.7:49 Para.).
Those who ate with Jesus knew full well that only God could forgive sin. They also knew that there was no way under the current worship system that one could have sin forgiven and forgotten. They knew that all past and present sins were remembered by God on The Day of Atonement and had to be atoned for over and over as long as a person lived. Therefore they asked, "Who is this who also forgives sins."
"And every priest stands daily ministering and offering often times the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins" (Heb.10:11 KJV).
All those present (except perhaps Mary) did not understand that they were in the presence of the Creator God and their Savior who had been given the authority by God the Father to forgive sin in anticipation and as a promise of what would be done through his sacrificial blood:
"But this man, [Jesus] after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God" (Heb.10:12 KJV).
Faith and Works
"And he said to the woman, your faith has saved you; go in peace" (Lk.7:50 Para.).
Mary had faith and through this faith, she received forgiveness of her sins. The question that should be answered is what did she have faith in?
Mary's faith was more than just belief; her faith was complete because her faith had works. Mary was a person of action; she knew what to do and then did it. This is the kind of faith that is required in order to truly believe the gospel message. See Mk.16:15-16; Jms.2:14-17.
A major part of the gospel message has to do with the necessity to believe in Jesus and the Father's offer to forgive sin and his offer to establish peace between himself and the one who truly believes, through the sacrifice of his Son.
Mary had true faith and works. She had faith in what Jesus had been teaching and faith that her works would be honored by him. Mary went away from this very personal encounter with Jesus with peace of mind, knowing that her sins had been forgiven, and that she was in good standing with Jesus and his Father.
The Broken Vial
There were two customs in the East that may have had a bearing on why Mary broke the vial rather than just opening it, pouring the ointment out, and resealing it. Both of these customs fit well with the gospel message when viewed in the light of who Jesus was and what he was about to do on the Passover:
- If a glass was used by a distinguished guest, it was broken so that it could never be used by a lesser person.
- It was a custom to first bathe the dead, then anoint the body with fragrant ointments and/or perfumes. After the body had been anointed, whatever contained these ointments and/or perfumes was broken and its fragments placed with the body.
Judas, the Thief
"One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, the one that would betray him said, Why was not this ointment sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor? He said this not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief and carried and administered the money" (Jn.12:4-6 Para.).
Clearly Judas was not concerned with the meaning of Mary's act of washing Jesus' feet or the anointing of his head. What concerned Judas was the amount of money that could have been had by selling the sweet-smelling nard. It is obvious that Judas' question was directed to the other disciples, because many of them also took up his complaint:
"When the disciples saw this, they were indignant, and asked why the ointment had been wasted on Jesus, when it could have been sold for a great amount of money [300 denarii] that could have then been given to the poor, and they were angry with her for what she had done" (Matt.26:8-9; Mk.14:4-5 Para.). See also Jn.12:5-6.
The complaint of Judas and the other disciples about selling the ointment for 300 denarii to give to the poor is yet more proof that the four gospel accounts speak of the same event.
To the casual reader, 300 denarii will mean very little; however, during the time of Christ, 300 denarii was an enormous amount of money.
One denarii was a full day's pay for a common laborer; therefore, the value of the ointment was at least the value of a full year's pay for a common laborer.
In John, chapter 6, verses 1-10, we see that a meal to feed over 5,000 people would have only cost 200 denarii.
The value of the ointment was either 10 or 7.5 times (depending on which reference you use) the amount of money that Judas received for his betrayal of Jesus. (Matt.26:14-15).
The ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus was the extremely expensive nard, which was made from a rare plant grown in India. Because nard was very expensive, it was normally used with great frugality.
We can safely assume that Mary knew the value of the ointment, and that this occasion was of more value to her than any amount of nard. Her decision to anoint Jesus with nard shows that her love for Jesus, and what he thought of her and could do for her was much more valuable than the ointment.
This is also a part of the gospel message. We are told that we are to love the Father and Jesus above all other things—including our physical life. If we find anything of more value or more important than the Father's call to salvation, we are not worthy to enter the Kingdom of God.
"Being aware of what was said by the disciples, Jesus said, Let her alone, why are you bothering this woman? For she has done a good thing to me" (Matt.26:10; Mk.14:6 Para.).
By saying that Mary did a good thing, Jesus meant that Mary had done a lovely thing. The English word good in these two scriptures is translated from the Greek kalos, which means something lovely or a lovely thing.
Mary had performed a work of deep heart-felt love: hers was an act of deep personal love and was a precious thing to Jesus and his Father.
"Jesus said, You will always have the poor with you [Deut.15:11], and whenever you want to do a good thing for them you can, but you will not always have me with you" (Matt.26:11; Mk.14:7 Para.).
What Mary had done was far more important than giving to the poor, because there would never again be another opportunity to do what she did for Jesus.
"When she poured the ointment on me, she did it to prepare me for my burial" (Matt.26:12; Mk.14:8 Para.).
Mary's act was also prophetic, because it pointed to Jesus' death and burial.
"Then Jesus said, Let her alone because she has kept it [the ointment] for the day of my burial" (Jn.12:7 Para.).
Notice that Mary had specifically kept this ointment for this very occasion—the anointing of Jesus for his burial.
The Bringing of the Ointment
At this point, the process of logical deduction requires that we at least attempt to answer the question of why Mary would have such a large amount of the extremely valuable nard with her when she came to Simon's house?
There are a number of logical explanations that might be correct or at least offer a plausible answer to this question, because it is highly unlikely that Mary made a habit of carrying such a large amount of the valuable nard with her on a daily basis:
- Perhaps, for some unknown reason, Mary just happened to have the ointment with her when she heard that Jesus was at Simon's house, and decided to go directly there without stopping to place the ointment in a safe place. This answer would seem unlikely, considering what is recorded by both Luke and John concerning the bringing of the ointment (Lk.7:37; Jn.12:7).
- Perhaps, because of their friendship, Jesus confided in Mary and told her to either purchase some ointment or at least have some on hand to anoint him for his burial.
- It is very likely that Mary understood that Jesus was going to die on this Passover for the sins of humanity; otherwise, why would Jesus say that she had kept the ointment for this occasion (Jn.12:12).
- There is also the probability that the Father's holy spirit influenced Mary to purchase and keep the ointment in order to fulfill this prophetic event. This would also fit Jesus' statement concerning Mary keeping the ointment for his burial.
Regardless of the reason for Mary having this expensive ointment with her when she came to Simon's house, it seems clear that Mary knew in her heart who Jesus was. Whether or not Mary knew that Jesus would die soon is not clear. However, what is clear is that she was overcome with emotion when she saw the disrespect that Simon had shown him by not providing the customary water for the washing of his feet. Therefore, she seized the moment and began to wash his feet with the only water available—her tears. And then, after drying his feet with her hair, she began to apply the precious ointment to them.
It was also customary during Jesus' lifetime, to anoint those convicted of capital crimes prior to their death, because after being executed, they might be thrown into a grave without having the body properly prepared by washing and anointing.
Again, we see a custom that fits the circumstances of Jesus' death and burial. Additionally, we see Mary performing a prophetic act.
"I tell you the truth wherever this gospel is proclaimed in all the world, what she did will also be spoken of as a memorial to her" (Matt.26:13; Mk.14:9 Para.).
Why should her act be spoken of wherever the gospel is proclaimed? Mary is to be remembered because she recognized Jesus for who he was and what he could do for her. Mary believed in what he taught and had faith in his ability to save her from her sins. Mary took action; she did the right thing with the knowledge she had been given. She was not concerned with what others thought of her; her only concern was to do the right thing and honor her Redeemer and Savior.
Mary's actions on this day are an integral part of the gospel message and should be an inspiration to any who seek to understand the Father's great and awesome call to salvation through his Son Jesus Christ.
By B.L. Cocherell b1w12