Mark 14:3-9 – The Anointing at Bethany

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 (perhaps based on 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 Mark 16, his body is buried without proper anointing (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 359).

Perhaps the closest parallel between the story in Luke is the 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 says that the money could have been given to the poor.  It is a tradition for Jews to give to the poor 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.  But what is Mark’s point in telling this story where he does in his Gospel?  There are some obvious foreshadowings of the suffering of Jesus which follows, but are there some other implications of this woman’s actions which merit the the high praise Jesus gives her?

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

  1. In the anointing at Bethany, the woman’s action is worthy of the high praise of Jesus gives because the condition of her heart is pure. As the post pointed out, the cost of the perfume was would have been high for the woman. Although Jesus was not concerned with the monetary cost of the sacrifice, Scripture does tell us he is concerned with what it cost the individual (Luke 21:3-4). I am also under the opinion that the anointing at Bethany in Mark and the anointing of the sinful woman in Luke are accounts of two different events; however, they do share great similarities. One of the great similarities, as previously mentioned, is the condition of these women’s heart. Both of these women are responding to the forgiveness they have received (assumed in Mark account but stated directly in Luke) from Jesus. This action is an outpouring of love, a response to the grace that has transformed their lives to the point they feel the need to humbly approach Jesus with the best they have to offer. The anointing of the head may also symbolize the Old Testament practice of anointing the new king by pouring oil on his head (1 Samuel 16) although I am not sure whether these two events have any true connection. Maybe someone more intelligent like a Jared Kusz could offer some insight on that one.

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    • I think that “anointing” is royal, certainly. The connection to 1 Sam, perhaps to the Davidic Covenant ought to be explored. (Solomon is the “son of David” who is anointed as king.

      But is Jesus going to “rule” as a result of this anointing?

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  2. I have personally never read this, i’ll be honest and as a first timer or personally reading the passage, I wonder how didn’t the disciples see what this women from Bethany saw and intended? How are they so ignorant, as to where God has to show them ” Hey not the poor are unimportant but, I will only be here for a little while longer. Again not to say the poor are unimportant but focus on me most of all, because of the little time I have left.” with a light metaphor that women wasn’t wasting the perfume.

    * Sometimes the disciples really bother me with their ignorance, not that they were horrible guys, but it just seems so obvious. That’s why having these lessons in scripture is so helpfully to us, in the way that we (the people reading it now) wouldn’t make ignorant mistakes.

    With Mark’s Markan Sandwiches, I find it interesting that this women from Bethany would see more important in Jesus than the money she could get from the perfume, and the Judas would see more importance in money or bribery than in Jesus. Good Job Mark!

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    • “but it just seems so obvious.” Sometimes hindsight is really 20/20! We “get it” because we are reading the whole story from beginning to end. No Pharisee had that advantage.

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  3. I also would think that Jesus saw this woman to have a pure and selfless heart and that she wanted to anoint Jesus because she knew that he was the Messiah and his death was coming. I agree with Drake, when it comes to the disciples, how come they thought that she was “wasting” perfume instead of seeing that she was using the perfume to anoint the Lord before his death? The woman was not wasting anything, she was anointing the Lord and she probably did not care what it would cost to her. And the words that Jesus spoke I think is critical to the story, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me” (vs. 6-7). Then Jesus goes along and says that she was anointing him before his burial. How come the disciple’s didn’t even think that this woman was doing a good deed instead of wasting the perfume on Jesus? They should have joined in and helped her out because this woman did what she could to prepare Jesus for his death that was to come.

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  4. The story of the anointing at Bethany is between two passages which discuss the plot and betrayal of Jesus. The anointing is symbolic and Jesus himself says, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Mark 14:8) She gave him something that was valuable to her, this ointment was worth more than three-hundred denarii. “This is an extravagant act since the perfume as costly and it was entirely used on the Lord.” (Long) When the disciples question her motives, Jesus rebukes them. He is more than worthy of the worship that this woman has given to him, and he deserves our very best. I found it very meaningful that later in the chapter Jesus performs the symbolic last supper. The woman at Bethany anoints Jesus preparing him for the grave, and Jesus symbolizes his death with the drinking of the wine and the breaking of the bread. Mark placed the story of the sinful woman in-between the plotting of Jesus arrest and the last supper, to symbolize the preparation of Jesus’ death and burial. Just as the woman gave up the sacrifice of value and money, Jesus gives something on which no price tag can label. Throughout chapter fourteen in Mark the themes of sacrifice and betrayal appear. Judas and Peter betray Jesus; the woman anoints the Messiah and the first communion takes place. I think that Mark put this story where it is to show an example of true worship, to have a beautiful thing amidst deceit and betrayal. This deceit and betrayal lead to death, but through death a beautiful thing happened.

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  5. The anointing of Jesus at Bethany is a very powerful story. Not only powerful, but very interesting and probably exciting for those witnessing. NIV translation states that Jesus was ‘reclining’ at the table. This gives the vision of relaxing and enjoying himself and his company during the Feast. And all of a sudden a women breaks a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ head. If it was such expensive perfume, I’d imagine it was quite potent as well. The different perspectives of both Jesus and others present at this event are fascinating. Those who witnessed this freaked out because of the value of the perfume. They rebuked her for the waste of the perfume that could have been used much more wisely. Jesus, on the other hand, perceives this a totally different way. It does seem more logical for the lady to sell the perfume and offer her sacrifice by giving to the poor. But, Jesus’ point is that he will not be around much longer. There will always be the poor. But, he is leaving soon and there won’t be another opportunity to do something like this again. The lady’s sacrifice reminds me of the widow giving all she had. Jesus states in verse 8, ‘She did what she could’. This potentially infers that she gave and offered what she had to offer. To Jesus this offering was so powerful and meaningful that he puts it into the category of the gospel. Not to say that the woman’s offering is as significant or vital as the gospel but, according to Jesus what she has done will be preached where the gospel is preached – which is throughout the world.

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  6. While I had never really taken notice of the differences beforehand, it seems clear that the four accounts of the anointing at Bethany at are not all based on one event when paying close attention to the details as well as reading the accounts one after the other. In Matthew 26, the anointing takes place at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper. The woman is anonymous and pours the perfume on his head only to be questioned and judged by the disciples who were present. It seems that the account given in Mark 14 is a recollection of the same anointing from Matthew 26 as it still takes place in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper and involves an anonymous woman pouring perfume on Jesus’ head. In Luke 7 however, we seem to have a different story with similar elements. Jesus is invited to have dinner with a Pharisee named Simon, and an anonymous woman whom we are told was a sinful woman comes to the house and wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and then proceeds to pour perfume on his feet as well. Simon questions Jesus’ authority by claiming that if Jesus knew her sin, he would not let her touch him. Jesus then goes on to rebuke Simon and to forgive the woman because of her faith and her love for the Lord. In the final account in John, we are told that Jesus is in Bethany at the home of Lazarus when Mary (this is the first account to actually identify the woman) pours perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipes it with her hair. In this account, Judas objects saying that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor—selfishly thinking of himself and the gain he would receive from this thievery.

    I could be incorrect, but it seems to me that we could have three different accounts of this story rather than just two. While the stories in Matthew and Mark seem to be a recollection of the same story as they have no conflicting details, it seems that both Luke and John could be their own stories. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ head is anointed with the perfume while in both Luke and John, his feet are anointed. While both Luke and John involve the pouring of perfume on Jesus’ feet, the Luke dinner takes place at the home of Simon the Pharisee and the John dinner at the home of Lazarus. In Luke, Simon is questioning Jesus’ authority while in John, Judas is the one questioning. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that both Matthew and Mark are recalling one story while both Luke and John are recalling separate stories with similar details making a total of three different stories.

    Focusing back specifically on the Mark account of the anointing at Bethany, Jesus describes this woman’s actions as a “beautiful thing” that she had done for him (vs. 6). Jesus then goes on to say in verse 8 that this woman was preparing him for burial. I wonder if this woman knew the significance of what she did that day or if she was simply adoring and worshipping her Savior. Did this woman know the symbolism of the pouring of perfume on his head, and did she understand that he was her Messiah who would soon die for all? Was she simply worshipping and showing adoration, or did she know her place in the divine plan? When Jesus rebuked the people present for shaming her, did she sit and listen to him tell of the significance of what she had just done as well as listen to him say that what had just happened would be told in memory of her throughout the world? What an honor if she was able to sit and listen to the things that Jesus had to say about her despite the rebuke that she received after performing this selfless act.

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  7. It seems that the account of this story has discrepancies in all 3 gospels. In Mark, Jesus is at the home of “Simon the Leper” while in Luke’s account Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee presumably named “Simon”. In Luke’s account the “sinful women” anoints Jesus’ feet while in Mark it is his head that is anointed. We see in John that the sinful women is Mary who also anoints Jesus’ feet with oil (nard). In Luke’s account we see that the women went into the house of Pharisee without permission and desperate to seek Jesus’ forgiveness for her sins. She ignored social customs to (in addition to knowing what the Pharisee’s thought of her) to get to Jesus and anoint him. In Mark we see the woman going into the house of a leper uninvited to apply the ointment to Jesus’ head. She knew how expensive the ointment was, I assume she knew it was wrong to just walk into a man’s house uninvited, and she surely humbled herself in recognizing her need for forgiveness. In the end, I wonder if we 3 different accounts of the anointing.

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  8. I find this whole story amazing and powerful. For someone to get down and wash someones dirty and gross feet is incredible. I do not get why the disciples would say she is wasting this perfume, when she was honoring her Savior. She had so much respect for him that she was willing to do this. This story is all around incredible to me. Whether or not she was a sinful should not matter because she was doing this out of honor and respect. Even though the different stories all do not coincide with each other this story still shows how much respect this woman had.

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  9. Jesus describes the act of worship as a beautiful thing because she is selfless in her sacrifice. Even though she is a sinful woman in the story, she still knows who Jesus’ is and knows that she is unworthy of having anything to do with Jesus, but yet is selfless in her sacrifice. She anoints Jesus because she knows that He is worthy even though she is not worthy of Him. The disciples complain that the oil had been wasted when it could have been sold and that the money could of been used to help the poor and even for other things. The fact that she used a very expensive oil to anoint Jesus, shows the sacrifice that Jesus would make later on. Her sacrifice is not just using her expensive oil to anoint Jesus, but serving Him with the very little time that He has left before His death.

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  10. I really do love this event in Scripture. And I especially love that Jesus calls her act “a beautiful thing” –because it is. She understands the idea of serving and being with someone anytime you can. This is even a concept that is sometimes understood by us today (although we often have the tendency to forget that). Not only to do these things and to serve any chance we get, but to give our best; to be all in and completely selfless. This woman gave the best, most expensive perfume, and we should do the same in our service. She knew that Jesus was worthy, as Anthony mentioned, and we need to keep this same reverence in mind as we go about our daily lives. I’m sure she knew that she could sell it and make more than enough money, but in the end that is not what it is about. She understood the implications and importance of giving fully and loving completely. And just as Jesus said that this would “be told, in memory of her”, I think she taught more of lesson than anyone could understand at the moment. Also, she was not afraid or willing to let anything stop her from serving her Lord. She was even willing to go into the house of a leper, in the account Mark gives, in order to do this act of service. Most people may have the thought of doing something nice, but they never follow through with it for one reason or another (or excuses) and she easily could have done that, but she did not. To me, she is one of my favorite examples of what it looks like to be a servant and I hope that one day, I can be as confident, selfless and giving as she was.

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  11. I think the account of Jesus anointing at Bethany (Mark 14) and the anointing by a sinful women (Luke 7:36-50) are two different accounts. I think that another implication that Mark could be getting at is to praise and give God and Jesus Christ all that we have. Before Jesus anointing at Bethany, Jesus talks about the day and hour of his return and the end of the age is unknown to us. Jesus tells his believer to be alert and on guard. This women poured expensive perfume on Jesus and she was willing to give Jesus the honor and praise that he deserves. This woman was not wasting her perfume because could have truly understood who Jesus was. I too find it very touching that Jesus describes this women’s act as a “beautiful thing.” I think that it is important when Jesus says, “But you will not always have me.” A lot of people in this world do not know or have Christ living in them through the Holy Spirit. Too often we forget the power of Christ that lives in us and the reason why this story about a woman pouring perfume on Jesus is important is to show others to value our faith and to value what Christ has done for us. At least for me, this story of this woman pouring perfume on Jesus is an act of praise and worship of Christ. She could of sold the perfume and spend that money on other things except she decides to praise the Lord through this act. I think that this woman’s intentions and heart would have to of been right in the sight of Christ because of the praise he gives the woman.

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    • This was a true act of faith. To take the perfume and humble herself and clean the feet of her savior is so amazing. The disciples seem upset by her “waste” of perfume but in return she was giving all that she had to Jesus. Offering a true sacrifice and the humbleness is so powerful in this part of scripture. When we are weak and have really nothing to offer , other than ourselves, He accepts it and He loves us in return.

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      • This was not a small, routine gesture of friendliness; this was a thought-out offering of praise and sacrifice. Long mentioned in class that this alabaster jar was something that you would not normally carry around with you, so she had probably been planning to do this for Jesus. She intended and made a conscious effort to demonstrate her complete submission to and respect for him. I like how you mentioned that “she was giving all that she had to Jesus.” It reminds me of the story a little earlier in Mark of the poor widow who “put in two very small copper coins,” who was praised by Jesus because she “put in everything—all she had to live on” (Mark 12:43-44). In the one case, we have a poor widow giving very little and being praised, and in the second case, we have an anonymous woman who gave much and is praised because “she did what she could” (Mark 14:8) as well. It is a good and convicting reminder to us to give of ourselves, perhaps especially to the point where it hurts. A sacrifice given by a heart that has submitted itself to God and is willing to give everything is pleasing to God, as seen by these two examples.

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  12. Jesus saw the woman anointing him as an act of pure worship. We do not have any indication of how wealthy the woman in the story is, but we can guess from what we know that the perfume cost her a pretty penny. If the woman was rich and had spent only a fraction of her money on the perfume, I imagine that Christ would have handled the situation differently. I think that the woman took her own money, and spent a great amount to buy this perfume, as to use it to anoint her Lord. The disciples see this action and rebuke her, for they say that the money could have been spent for giving to the poor. Jesus’ reply is not a reply against the giving to the poor. We know from much of what Jesus said in his three year ministry that he condoned helping the poor, and those in need. But he saw this woman, and her heart, and saw that she had spent her money on perfume in which she wished to anoint her Lord. Jesus is our Lord, he is the King of Kings, he is God. We cannot today physically use our money to buy Jesus perfume, or anything else of this world, so the way that we can show our love for our savior is by giving to the poor, and those who are in need. The disciples and those who lived with Jesus in the days he lived on earth, did have that opportunity. This woman did not buy this perfume selfishly, she bought it in an act of worship of he Lord. Where the disciples may have rebuked her, Jesus accepts her gift, a token of her faith.

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  13. I think that I when the author put this story in the place that he did it was to contrast as you said with the betrayal of Judas that is the bread in this Markan sandwich. I think it is framed this way because the author wants us to understand that Jesus’ time on earth was coming to an end. I believe that the perfume used on Jesus was to symbolize his near death and preparing his body for that. All this is happening as to try and get the attention of Jesus’ followers and say my time is short. This would make sense with what Jesus said about there always being homeless.

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  14. I read through all the comments, and the parts I agree with I don’t feel like reiterating and taking up space. So, I’ll let you know I agree with all the people who are right and continue from there. Mark’s point in telling this story is to show the importance of spending time and everything we have on Jesus and to show contrast of this action with the plot to kill Jesus and the betrayal of Jesus. It is a glimpse of beauty and worship in the middle of the darkness leading up to Jesus’ death. It is also purposefully placed and occurred at a time when Jesus’ anointing was crucial as he was about to become eternal king by way of the cross, and it was also necessary as a sign to the people that Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one, the King. It was proof that he is who he says he is and it was proof of this in the midst of the plot to kill Jesus and his betrayal. Her hope and assurance of this to pour out something so valuable on him was also a witness to who Jesus is, not to mention an example of what worship looked like. Helping the poor is an important role of the church, but firstly laying ourselves at the feet of Jesus and giving him all of us, our money, our time, our most valuable possessions. This wasn’t the only purpose, but in the account with the sinful woman there is also an aspect of acknowledging that Jesus has the authority to forgive her sins. And she knows that and worships and loves him not only for who he is, but because she knows he has the authority as king. She is forgiven because she “loved much” Luke 7:47. And he who loves little, is forgiven little. That in light of the Mark 14 account (even though they are different events with different responses from Jesus) might show the forgiveness for her in contrast with the forgiveness that Judas would receive. Though a poor correlation, still one we can imply as Jesus claims the woman’s act to be beautiful and worthy of proclamation to the whole world.

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  15. “Jesus describes this act of worship as a ‘beautiful thing,’” (Long). I find it funny how we look at the disciples and think that they were crazy to rebuke the women for such a beautiful thing. An important thing to remember is that they did not understand that Jesus was the Messiah. Therefore, they did not understand the importance of this act of worship. I also think it is crazy to think of how many times I have tried to be so ‘Biblical’ or ‘Christian’ and have forgotten to simply come as I am and worship God. Forget about being theologically correct but simply be amazing by the cross. I can sit here and get mad the the disciples but they did something that I often do. Forget to just humbly thank the Messiah.

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  16. I think Long makes a very good point that this anointing “is the only anointing that the Anointed one actually receives in Mark,” and, to me, this, under the most important reason of Christ’s death, is the reason for Mark’s inclusion of this as the “meat” for the Markan sandwich. Jesus just finishes talking about the end times and how “many will come in my name” (Mark 13:6), but that people need to guard themselves from the evils that will take place during this time, and how finally he himself will return “with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26). Then, immediately after the anointing episode, he partakes of the “Last Supper” with his disciples, and he remarks, “I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). It seems to me that this anointing with expensive perfume is meant to be a representation that he is, in fact, the Anointed One, the Messiah, who was prophesied in the Old Testament and is already now establishing the kingdom and going to establish the fully realized kingdom in the future. There will be many to claim to be him, as he said, but he is the real deal.

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