It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
This story is hugely significant. A woman is anointing Jesus’s head. Not his feet as Luke and John would have it; they miss the point. For by anointing Jesus’s head, she is proclaiming him king, Messiah, liberator. Had not Zadok the priest, on the orders of David, anointed Solomon king of Israel (1 Kings 1:33-39)? Had a young prophet not anointed Jehu secretly king of Israel (2 Kings 9:4-8) on the orders of the prophet Elisha? And in each case, had these rituals not led to a coup d’état? For those who are hoping for the liberation of Israel, the woman’s act spells revolution. The Jewish authorities had good reason to feel unease. It’s Passover time and crowds are gathering in Jerusalem.
A second group of people also see the woman’s act solely in material terms. We don’t know who they are, but they snap at her rudely. They are outraged. The ointment she used so lavishly was worth a huge amount of money, the equivalent for a labourer of around ten months wages; it could surely have been sold for poor relief. In a time of widespread poverty, such conspicuous consumption would certainly have seemed scandalous. But they too miss the point.
See how Jesus reacts. He affirms the woman’s action and nuances what she has done. He reminds his hearers that there is never any shortage of poor people to whom they can show kindness (cf. Deut 15:11). And then come the startling words: “but you will not always have me”. The woman is “doing a good thing”; she is anointing him beforehand for burial. In the one action, the woman anoints Jesus king and prepares him for burial. The implications of Jesus’s words are clear – he, the anointed king, the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, far from leading a political coup, is to die and shortly. This is the introduction to the Passion narrative.
And who is this unnamed woman? Later versions of the story attempt to give her a life setting. For Luke she is a forgiven great sinner, for John, this is Mary, sister of Lazarus. But Mark portrays her as a prophet. In a supreme prophetic act, she proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, that the Messiah is to suffer and die. Wherever the gospel is proclaimed, we read, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her. But there is a problem. She is un-named. We remember a name. A name would have inscribed her indelibly in Christian tradition. Without a name it is all too easy to skip from this faithful disciple to Judas who betrayed or Peter who denied. This unnamed woman, the priestly prophet, stands for all those faithful women who have been overlooked by Christian tradition down the ages.
Ever-living and ever-loving God, I bless you for your hand upon my life. I thank you that this Christian way I walk is a road beaten hard by the footsteps of women and men, saints, prophets, apostles and martyrs. I thank you for the sign-posts and danger signals with which it is marked and which are made known to me through the Bible. Especially I give you thanks for the great gift of Jesus Christ, for his life, his death and his triumph over death. Bring nearer the day when the hand of your purpose shall be found throughout our nation, throughout the world. And whatever I myself can do, give me grace this day to begin, Through our saviour Jesus Christ, Amen.
The Rev’d Fleur Houston is a retired minister and member of Macclesfield and Bollington URC.