Commentary on Mark 11:1-11; [14:3-9]
Each of the four Gospels tells a story of a woman anointing Jesus with costly perfume, but the details in each of the stories are different.
In Mark’s version of the anointing, it is the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, “two days before the Passover” (14:1), and we find Jesus in Bethany having dinner in the home of Simon the leper (14:3). We are not told much about Simon, but most likely he is someone whom Jesus had healed of leprosy. Still, he is known as “the leper.” To the very end of his life, Jesus is crossing boundaries, sharing dinner and fellowship with those from whom most respectable religious leaders would keep their distance.
But then another boundary is crossed. A woman shows up unannounced, breaks open a jar of expensive, fragrant ointment, and pours it over Jesus’ head. We don’t know whether this woman was a member of the household or whether she was crashing the party. We don’t know what exactly moves her to perform such an extravagant act of devotion. We do know that she gives Jesus a very costly gift.
Some of Jesus’ dinner companions are offended by such extravagance. That jar of ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii, they figure—a whole year’s worth of wages—and the money given to the poor. Their objection makes sense. Why waste this whole jar of ointment in one act of devotion, when so much good could have been done with the money it was worth?
While the others scold this woman, Jesus comes to her defense. “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish, but you will not always have me” (14:6-7). Jesus’ response is similar to his reply in Mark 2, when people ask him why his disciples do not fast like the disciples of John the Baptist or the Pharisees, and Jesus tells them: “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day” (2:19-20).
Now, in the last week of Jesus’ earthly life, that day when Jesus will be taken from his disciples is drawing close. Even this woman’s act of devotion cannot escape the shadow of the cross. Jesus tells his dinner companions: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (14:8).
Death is all around Jesus now. Just before this story of the dinner at Simon’s home, we read that the chief priests and the scribes were plotting against Jesus—“looking for a way to arrest him by stealth and kill him” (14:1). Immediately following this dinner scene, we read that Judas Iscariot goes to the chief priests and agrees to betray Jesus to them for money (14:10-11).
The loving act of devotion by an unnamed woman stands in stark contrast to the sinister plot developing around Jesus. Her precious, costly, sweet-smelling gift becomes mingled with his impending death. And “wherever the good news is preached in the whole world,” Jesus says, “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (14:9). By including this story in the account of Jesus’ last week of earthly life, the author of Mark has assured that she will indeed be remembered.
How might this text speak to hearers today? One angle worth exploring is that the objection of Jesus’ table companions to this woman’s act of devotion could be seen in light of ongoing debates in churches about how best to allocate resources. Can we justify spending large amounts of money to beautify the sanctuary, for example, when there are so many other needs for which the money could be used, like feeding the hungry and housing the homeless?
It is important to note that, in his response to the woman’s critics, Jesus’ remark about the poor uses the present rather than the future tense: “You always have the poor with you, and you can do good for them whenever you wish.” Too often this verse has been interpreted as though the verb is future tense—“you will always have the poor with you”—as though to throw up our hands and say that poverty cannot be solved, so we are excused for our inaction on behalf of the poor. Jesus offers no such excuse. Again, he says in the present tense, “you can do good for them whenever you wish.”
Criticizing how others use their resources can easily serve as a deflection from examining our own lack of generosity. Perhaps that is the problem Jesus sees in his dinner companions’ objections. A paraphrase of his remarks might be: “You are not lacking in opportunities to help the poor, so go ahead and get to work. But as for this woman, leave her alone, for she has performed a good, beautiful service for me.”
Jesus praises the extravagant act of the woman who anoints him with costly, fragrant ointment because he sees it as an extraordinary act of love. Love is not reasonable or restrained. Love gives fully, completely, lavishly. Is it any wonder that Jesus speaks in this way? This is the same Jesus who has been speaking throughout his ministry about the extravagant, even scandalous, love of God, the same Jesus who pours out his life for us on the cross.
Jesus praises the woman who anoints him because her loving act of devotion reflects the divine love that he makes real for us. It is love that holds nothing back, love that is costly, scandalous, and lavish in giving.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Hosanna! King of all, you reign over all. Reign in our lives, triumph over evil, and teach us to follow in your footsteps. Amen.
Hosanna, Randall Thompson