The Anointing at Bethany – Mark 14:3-9

Mark 14:3-9 is the center of yet another Markan sandwich.  Jesus is anointed by a woman at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany.  Since the story is framed by the betrayal of Judas, it is likely that Mark is intentionally contrasting the faith of the woman with Judas’ actions.

There are some source critical issues here – it is a very similar story to that of Luke 7:36-50 and John 12:1-8, so much so that the stories are often thought to be reflections of a single event. The name of the host in both stories and there are similarities.  But there are some critical differences.  Simon in Luke is a Pharisee in Galilee, here he is a leper in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem.  The identity of the woman is unknown in both Mark and Luke, but in Luke she is a sinful woman, there is no such implication in Mark.  Additionally, the objections to the anointing came from Simon the Pharisee in Luke, questioning the possibility of Jesus being a prophet.  Here in Mark the objection to the anointing comes from, “someone,” in Matthew it is one of the disciples Matthew, and in John 12 it comes from Judas, who wanted to sell the perfume in order to steal from the profits!  To me, we have two similar, yet distinct stories.

Anointings were common at the time of Passover (Psalm 23:5, 141:5), but this woman’s anointing may have had nothing to do with the coming Passover.  The anointing may be an indication that Jesus is about to begin his messianic role (Messiah is Hebrew for “anointed one.”)  On the other hand, it is possible that the anointing has more to do with the death and burial of Jesus.  In this section Jesus is anointed before his burial since, in chapter 16, he will not be available for anointing (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 359).

An alabaster flask of perfume.  According to Pliny the Elder, the best perfumes came in alabaster flasks, the neck of which would be broken to let the perfume out.  Nothing was held back, it was all used to anoint Jesus.  This is an extravagant act since the perfume as costly and it was entirely used on the Lord.  The disciple who objected notes that the money could have been given to the poor, something that as traditional to do at the time of the Passover.

Jesus’ words sound harsh:  “The poor you will always have…” While this may be an allusion to Deut. 15:11, the important thing here is that Jesus is predicting his death, and telling his disciples that there is very little time left for them to serve their master before his is killed.  What is remarkable is that when a time comes for the to serve (in the Garden, at the trials), they are either falling asleep or fleeing the temple guards).  While they will have many more years to serve the poor, their time serving their Lord is nearly up.

What I find touching is that Jesus describes this act of worship as a “beautiful thing.”  Her selfless act of sacrifice is the only anointing that the Anointed one actually receives in Mark.

7 thoughts on “The Anointing at Bethany – Mark 14:3-9

  1. I’ve never given too much though to the fact of Jesus’ statement, “The poor you will always have…” I’ve heard it many times, but never actually thought about it in context. The disciples chance to serve Jesus was coming to an abrupt end, yet they still did not understand His logic.

    While the statement Jesus makes seems contradictory, He is completely in the right to tell this to His disciples this. It always seemed rather selfish to me for Him to tell people to serve Him rather than the poor, but even in serving the poor, they were serving Him. In historical contest, Jesus wasn’t there to make everyone happy and tell them to serve the poor, He was much more radical than that. Judas response to the anointing is with the wrong attitude, and Jesus was directing their hearts back to himself, not to the poor.

  2. As a woman myself, this story of this woman annointing Jesus really speaks to me. I see her humbling herself before the Lord, knowing that she could not even begin to compare herself to him. She proved this by taking the best perfume she had, the most expensive perfume, and pouring it out on Jesus. She was displaying her knowledge that Jesus was far greater than she, and yet he still loved her. Maybe the only thing that she could do to show Jesus her love and greatfulness in return was to pour out this perfume.

    The disciples immediately begin to speak “harshly” to her, rebuking her for what she had done (Mark 14:5). Jesus spoke up and stopped them right away, for what this woman was doing was worshipping him and showing him honor. As Joe J. pointed out, her heart was right where it needed to be, unlike the disciples. The only thought going through their heads was that the money she spent on the perfume could have been put to a much better use such as helping the poor. Even though helping the poor is a good thing to do and honors God, the disciples were not living in the “now.” Jesus was sitting right in front of them and he had been telling his disciples how he would soon no longer be with them, but the disciples were still not fully understanding, and this woman who annointed him did. For as Jesus said, “She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial,” (14:8). She was living in the “now” and serving Jesus directly.

  3. I find it interesting that there is no mention of anyone actually trying to stop the woman. It is as if their verbal objections are more geared towards seeing Jesus’ reactions to the situation rather than the situation itself. I have heard many pastors preach in the subject but the usage is usually in support of giving to the poor because Jesus said “We will always have the poor”. I have even heard it said that it is pointless to give to the poor because if we will always have them, we should pour our resources into things that would really matter or make a difference.

    I do like how you point out though P. Long that her sacrifice was the anointing that Jesus received and that this is the only anointing he receives (in Mark). I may be stretching a little bit but would it be correct to assume then that when we give sacrificially to Christ, we are, in a sense, anointing him? Rather, by serving Christ, are we not being obedient to the point where God’s work is done and He receives glory? That through this anointing, we are proclaiming Christ as Lord and savior? Just a few thoughts. I think i’m inferring too much from the text though… but it’s still a thought provoking issue for me at least…

    • “…anyone actually trying to stop the woman.” Good point, although I am not sure Jesus had security men checking ID’s at the door. Perhaps she was one of the women who were following Jesus for a long time (not the Luke version, only the Matthew version). She was a well-known person to the disciples so they let her do this.

  4. Yes, Jesus had good reason to say “The poor you will always have with you… But will not always have me.” If all the disciples went to serve the poor and did not witness the events of Jesus ministry there would be a problem. Sure they would be doing something good but, they had a specific purpose of being one of the people around Jesus. Jesus was there for a much bigger purpose than just serving the poor even though he did serve a lot of impoverished people.
    I never realized that anointing did regularly happen during the Passover. I always linked this with Samuel anointing David in 1 Samuel 16:13. Based on the surrounding events I am inclined to believe that the anointing was more for the purpose of burial preparation. The question stands why did the women do this selfless act in the first place?

  5. “would it be correct to assume then that when we give sacrificially to Christ, we are, in a sense, anointing him?” In reply to that I would have to politely say that it probably is a bit too far to take it that way. The passage is speaking about what the woman did for Jesus at that point preparing him for the cross. We are not in any way preparing Jesus for his death. Rather, this passage is focusing on the the anointing that Jesus had in preparation of his death. This passage also does not refute giving to the poor since they will always be with us, but it is as you guys have been saying, it is focusing on what God desires right now rather than good possibilities. Giving to the poor is a good thing to do, but anointing Jesus was much more important. It is like the debate that Mary had with Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Mary listens at Jesus’ feet while Martha is stressed out with serving Jesus and his disciples. She gets so frustrated that she ends up complaining to Jesus about her predicament and to this Jesus responds by saying that both are good but Mary has chosen the better (10:41, 42). The woman could have sold that perfume and given it to the poor which is good, but it was far better for her to anoint Jesus with it.

  6. This story, along with the cursing of the fig tree, and a few others I can’t think of, represent the several places in the gospels that I trouble me. This might not sound very theological, but they trouble me because these are the passages in which Jesus says or does something that seems completely against the flow of how he does things up until that point. I just don’t sense enough significance (other than an actual physical anointing) for jesus to make this big of a deal out of the disciples reactions. To be honest, I see more value if it were more of a lesson for our own discipleship – something like about how our good deeds don’t mean anything without the pursuit of Jesus. But it just seems that for all the emphasis Jesus’ ministry puts on the kingdom of God and favoring the oppressed, the disciples effort is rebuked like a 180 degree turn versus just having a little off-center moment.

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