In Mark 14:3-9 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 Deuteronomy 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 foreshadowing 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?