Jesus promises that the woman who anointed him with the fragrant oil will be remembered wherever the Gospel is proclaimed. How shall we remember her?
told by Deborah
It was two days before Passover and the religious authorities were continuing their efforts to get rid of Jesus permanently — but they agreed: “Not during the festival, otherwise the crowds may riot.”
At the time, Jesus was staying at the house of Simon the leper. That evening at dinner one of the women brought an alabaster jar of fragrant oil, and she broke the seal on the jar and poured the oil over his head.
Some who were there whispered angrily to one another, “Why waste such expensive oil like that? It could have been sold for a small fortune — and the money given to the poor.”
And they scolded her, “What’s the matter with you? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!”
But Jesus said, “Stop right there. Why are you hassling her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. You can show charity to the poor any time, but I won’t always be here. She has done all that she could; she has anointed my body in anticipation of its burial. I’m telling you truly: wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in remembrance of her.”
It was then that Judas Iscariot went to the religious authorities and offered to betray him to them. They were grateful — and promised to pay him, so he began to look for an opportunity to hand him over to them.
Jesus and his disciples were dining at the house of a friend two days before Passover. As observant Jews, the coming holiday would have been foremost in their minds, celebrating the birth of their nation, when Egyptian slaves followed God’s call and became The People of Israel. Yet here they were, preparing to celebrate a festival of freedom while living under the sovereignty of a foreign king.
This fact was not overlooked by the multitudes who came to Jerusalem for the holiday. Surely the Eternal, the Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had heard the cries of His people — for they were groaning under the oppression of Caesar, his taxes, his soldiers, his bureaucrats. How long, O Lord? Had Moses lead the people out of Egypt so they could die under Roman rule? When would the promised messiah come: the one who would lead them to victory, and (re)establish God’s kingdom as David had done? Many had grown tired of waiting, and agitated for a revolution.
The religious authorities were well aware of the volatility of the crowds who swarmed into the town during this emotionally-charged festival, and they feared the carnage that might occur if things got out of hand. Therefore, it was decided that this was not a good time to continue their pursuit of that troublemaker, Jesus.
And there, in this season of hopes and dreams and national enthusiasm, just outside the City where David had ruled by divine right as king, a woman came to Jesus carrying a flask — made of alabaster, the symbol of purity and perfection, filled with fragrant oil. Breaking the seal, she poured the contents over Jesus’ head.
The literal-minded who were that evening saw only the thing-as-it-was: the oil, its expensive container, its costly ingredients, its resale price on the open market. Others looked upon it with different eyes, honoring its symbolic purpose, seeing its value as far beyond mere money. It was a chrism; the oil of anointing:
a consecration, a coronation.
Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
The messiah of God, the Lord Christ, the anointed One.
Here was an enactment, a confession, a demand: Lord, be for us the One who was promised.
Despite the Lord’s commendation, this (unnamed!) woman’s action has quite certainly not been “remembered wherever the Gospel is told.” Historically, it’s generally been overlooked, or brushed aside — as if she were some kind of crazy lady who followed Jesus into Lazarus’ house and attacked him with a flask of oil. At best it might be thought that she was a sort of prophet who knew that she was pouring fragrant oil over the soon-to-be-corpse of the Lord.
Her action, so daring and so devout, has been misunderstood, overshadowed by Jesus’ recontextualizing of it. This was not an anticipation of his death, but an avowal of his messiahship; an affirmation that he — and not that schmo Herod — was the true King of the Jews; that God had indeed heard the groaning of His children and had sent a Divine Rescuer to free them from their servitude and misery.
What that woman did was extraordinary — very much a “goodness” done to the Lord; a beautiful thing: proclaiming to him and to the assembled community that he was their king. She, and others, saw and understood Who he was, even if the bureaucrats in Jerusalem did not. Jesus, of course, viewed the situation from a different perspective. He saw the inevitable outcome of his mission and ministry: the authorities would not approve of, or allow, or tolerate it. He was a marked man; a dead man walking.
The woman was right and righteous in her intention, as was Jesus, who accepted her blessing, the consecration — and the responsibility that came with it. What came next would not be a glorious elevation to the throne of Israel, but an ignominious elevation on a cross of suffering and death. It was both an anointing and a preparation for his burial.
In her 'brazen?( act of anointing Jesus, consecrating him as the Christ, the woman set off a chain of events that brought His ministry to its fruition. And so, perhaps, we might say that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed it is a remembrance of her faith and courage. This may also explain why all of the other Gospels “sanitize” the woman’s act by setting her at the Lord’s feet, because a consecration — in which the holy oil was poured over the ordinand’s head — was to be done only by a man, and only by a priest, at that.
While we need to be cautious about reading the scriptures through a modern lens, it seems very possible that the description of the events as given in Mark more accurately reflect what happened than do the Gospels which were written much later. It may also shed some light on why it was at that time that Judas decided to betray Jesus.
Later reports label Judas as “a thief” and that thirty pieces of silver was enough to buy his loyalty, but that’s not what Mark implies. Something happens that night at the dinner table that causes him to decide to hand Jesus over to his enemies. Could it have been Jesus’ willingness to accept a woman’s consecration? Was it that He not only allowed, but defended her use of the oil of anointing? Was this the last straw in a long pattern of Jesus being just too darned accepting?
How could this Jesus be the messiah when he didn’t care about raising an army or taking over the temple? It was nearly Passover; the city was filled with willing bodies, if only they were mobilized, but Jesus is just sitting there, eating with this bunch of sickies and sinners! And why wasn’t he concerned with holiness, if he really had been sent by God? What was he doing fraternizing with lepers and layabouts, tax collectors, wine merchants, and women of every type and condition?!
It was as if nothing was too extraordinary; no sin too vile, no behavior too loathsome, no history too shameful, no character too questionable. All were welcome, all were precious in his sight. Just look around the table: there was no preference in the seating: you sat wherever you sat — disciples who had been with Jesus from the beginning weren’t treated any different from the bedraggled camel-trader who just came in from off the street. If everybody was ok, how could you tell who wasn’t? How could you be sure you were loved if everyone was loved and cared for?
It simply isn’t right. It doesn’t make sense. It isn’t the way the world works. There has to be an elite group; there have to be outsiders so that the insiders know we are special. This guy can’t be the messiah we’ve been awaiting if he is so lacking in a basic understanding of how things are done. …. And so Judas pushes himself away from the table, slipping out the door, down the shadowed alleyways, into the depths of the night. This Jesus is not the messiah he was waiting for.
Jesus had noticed Judas’ departure, perhaps even risen to follow him and offer some comfort or consolation — but the man was lost in the darkness, his anger enveloping him like a shroud. The rest of the company was quiet, possibly shocked into silence by the Lord’s announcement of his coming death and burial. The woman was weeping. Had even Jesus himself misunderstood what she had done?
She knelt before him, washing his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, pleading for his life, begging him to claim his rightful heritage, to be the messiah they had been waiting for. And Jesus gently stroked her hair and wept beside her.
Was this the inauguration of the ritual of foot washing as commemorating in some of the early Christian communities? Was it a sign of both devotion and sorrow: an acknowledgement of holiness, and sorrow at the brevity of life?
Wouldn’t it be just like Jesus — this most unlikely of messiahs — to offer to his followers a reminder of the sacredness of one another; an honoring of each person individually, intimately, in the washing of each other’s feet? Here, indeed, was a king whose kingdom was not of this world: a community of compassion, ruled by the law of love and service — utterly unlike the way we expect these things to be done.
King Jesus’ only crown will be one cruelly fashioned out of thorns, he will be mocked and scorned, betrayed and denied and deserted by his followers; his reign lasting for but a few dozen hours. The oil of his consecration was indeed the anointing of his body for its burial, just as he said. But, despite the most determined efforts of his enemies, his kingdom is still with us — we are living in its midst. God’s Word is the last word, and that Word is Life.
And what of the legacy of that devout and daring woman? Surely we do remember her whenever we proclaim the Gospel — whenever we affirm, with her, that Jesus is the Christ, our Lord, the king whose law of love rules our lives.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
Once a year, on Maundy Thursday, the Christian community reenacts the Lord’s washing of his disciples feet. What would it be like to approach everyone we meet with an equal attitude of humility and compassion and care — every day?