What is the point of the Anointing at Bethany?

Why does this anonymous woman anoint Jesus in Mark 14:1-8? To honor a prestigious guest with oil is not unusual, but this is an extravagant act on the part of the woman. The oil is an “alabaster flask of perfume.” The version of the story in John 12 indicates the perfumed oil could have been sold for 300 denarii, or about a year’s wages. 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 could be held back; all of the oil was used to anoint Jesus.

Anointing at BethanyIt might be simply an honor given to a special guest at a pre-Passover gathering. But the connection with Passover may have more to do with the symbolism of a sacrificed lamb at Passover. Many of the animal sacrifices in the Hebrew Bible are accompanied by oil (daily sacrifices Exodus 29:38–42; the guilt offering Leviticus 14:12–13).

On the other hand, this anointing may anticipate Jesus coming as king. Kings were anointed when they began their roles. One particularly important example is 1 Chronicles 29:22, where Solomon is anointed as “prince of the people” by Zadok the high priest. Jesus will soon be mocked as a king (Mark 15:2, 12) and even crowned with thorns and given a royal robe (Mark 15:16-20). The charges on the cross will call Jesus the “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:26).

Ultimately, this anointing anticipates Jesus’ death and burial. This is how Jesus himself interprets the action in Matthew 26:12, although the purpose is left more open in the Gospel of Mark. (In Luke the story has nothing to do with the death and burial of Jesus). Since the dead were anointed with spices and oils (including myrrh), the woman’s action foreshadows the women who visit Jesus’ tomb in Mark 16:1 to anoint his body.

In Mark and Matthew, a disciple objects to the woman’s display of generosity saying the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In John 12, Judas is the disciple who objects, but he also reflects this common practice of almsgiving at feasts and festivals. For example, the intertestamental book Tobit describes the righteous Tobit risking his life to bury the dead at Pentecost. Alms giving is praised in Sirach and other Second Temple sources.

It is true that an expensive gift like this could have generated enough money to care for many poor people. That the bottle cost a year’s wages is important-this is more than a small gift honoring Jesus! Rather than spend money on an expensive, non-essential like a bottle of perfume, the money would be better used for ministry!

What is wrong with this objection? I do not think that the objection itself is wrong, although Judas’ motive was false. Judas seems to represent the thinking of a good Jewish person wanting to honor God at the time of the Passover by making good use of the money the perfume could bring.

9 thoughts on “What is the point of the Anointing at Bethany?

  1. After reading the context of this passage, this woman was intended to have this perfume and she was meant to anoint Jesus with it. After Judas objected the woman because of the monetary value of the perfume, Jesus responds: “Leave her alone, it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). This shows that there was a deeper meaning to what the woman was about to do. This shows the purpose of Jesus and foreshadows what will happen to him in the time of his crucifixion. I don’t argue that Judas’ objection was wrong because looking at the monetary value, it seemed foolish. But there was a better purpose for this that was above monetary value. Jesus later says: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). What Jesus is about to sacrifice is above the value that we see, which most of the time is money. There is no doubt that the value of the perfume could help many poor people but that wasn’t the point. The price that Jesus paid on the cross is so much more valuable than anything and he should be honored for his actions. Along with this, I think because Jesus allowed this action to happen that he confirmed the heart of the woman. Since she was willing to give an honor that sacrificed so much money, she proved that she knew Jesus is King.

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  2. I have never reflected on the fact of how expensive this perfume was. It’s interesting to think that Jesus was commanded his followers to care for the poor and yet allows an expensive bottle of perfume to be poured out in full on his feet. Gut reaction? Judas’ reaction. It seems wrong that Jesus would do this and neglect the giving of money to the poor, however, we fail to see the heart of the issue over money. Yes, we understand that Judas’ motives were wrong because his intent was not to give to the poor, but is our motives wrong when we feel like this objection to “wasting” money was wrong. I think it goes to what Travis is saying about the intent of the woman and the oil. Could we say that she was predestined to do this or is that going to far? Jesus valued this woman’s heart and sacrifice more than he valued the actual perfume. It was her intentions to adore and worship Jesus through this because of what he was going to do for her and for all people. It is true also, like Travis has noted that the poor will always be among us, both in the time of Jesus and even now, but Jesus was not going to be with them for always, so the woman showed her adoration by anointing his feet. Yes, he will return, but I think this passage can help us to examine our intentions with money and are interactions with Jesus and the poor. We should be seeking to glorify God in all that we do and yes serving and giving to the poor is among that, but it also can become a god in and of itself. For instance, I love serving God, but sometimes I can serve God too much that it diverts my focus away from seeking Him. Perhaps this is the sort of thing that Jesus wanted to address at the objections of Judas or the other disciples.

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  3. I love the picture that comes to mind when I think of Mary anointing Jesus with the perfume – such adoration and love. The question that Judas poses is valid but yet maybe not very timely. It is true that the money spent on the perfume could have been used for many other needs within ministry; however, this question reminds me of another scenario in Matthew 9. In verses 14-17 the disciples of John ask Jesus why His disciples are feasting while the Pharisees are fasting. In short, Jesus tells them tat the disciples need not fast when the Bridegroom is with them – it is a time of celebration. There will be a time of fasting when He is gone. I think this concept is applicable to Mary’s scenario as well. Her beloved Jesus was in her presence. She was showing Him her great love and adornment for Him by this precious gift – something she could not have done, in this way, had He not been there. The time would come when the money will be used for other things in ministry.

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  4. It was an exclusive action for a specific event; an anointing that awaited Jesus’ burial and public assertion of faith in him as Savior. We can obviously tell today that Jesus wasn’t kidding around when he said we will always have the poor among us, but we will not always have Him (John 12:8). Jesus was admiring Mary for her selfless act of worship. The core of worshiping Christ is to honor him with the greatest love, respect, and devotion and to be enthusiastic to sacrifice to him what is most valuable. Why do we give money to the church and the not the poor? Because we assume our church is caring for the needy and poor with that money. Well, why not just skip the middle man and give the money to the poor ourselves? If we start pondering what’s wrong with the protest of anointing our savior and king with expensive oil, then maybe we should read those passages again. Mary knew why she was anointing him and He explained why. He also highlighted why this was happening so his disciples would not take the action as ignoring or disregarding the needy. The objection seems okay from someone who has been tuning out every lesson from Jesus besides the ones on the poor/needy. We have to remember two things. Jesus was also a human being and knew what was considered valuable and honorable to possess in that time-frame. Also, if we start pondering objections from Judas and Jesus’ explanation to that objection, you could also ponder the entirety of the Bible.

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  5. It is interesting to see how much the perfume costs, and I could see why Judas would object for the woman to use all of the perfume on Jesus. Putting it into our world’s view, if a local charity only has $50,000 to spend on helping the poor this year, and then they go and use it all on one person instead of many, of course Judas is going to say something about using all of the perfume. I do think though that this passage is more of a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death than anything else. I think that because of what Jesus says in Mark 14:7 saying, “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.” Reading that right there is saying that I am not going to be around much longer, so yes I am going to use the good stuff for me right now. You will have plenty of time to go help the poor later on without me.

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  6. In the case of Judas, John says simply what the problem with this objection is. Judas was thinking of himself. “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it.” Because of this recording I don’t think Judas represented a good Jewish person waiting to honor God. Perhaps in the other recordings of Jesus being anointed a similar thing happened where Judas was mainly the one who objected and others were “good Jewish persons” concerned with giving to God and making good use of the money for the poor. In any case, Jesus’ response is the same, that the woman has honored Him. I think that’s what’s wrong with this objection. We should never be discouraged to give things that are costly to the Lord, even when giving something less makes more sense, or would be more helpful, as was the case with Mary and Martha when Mary just wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet instead of helping her sister serve. God is always more concerned with hearts of worship than whether or not our actions are socially acceptable, or even advisable. I’m sure God was very pleased when King David danced like a fool for His glory.

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  7. After reading this passage my initial reaction is similar to Judas’. Why waste such an expensive item, when the money could be used for something else. However, it is not the expensiveness of the item that is of importance. It is rather the act itself and the reasoning behind the act. The woman who poured the expensive oil on Jesus’ head was performing this act out of love and desire to honor Jesus. It did not matter to her how much money she was wasting, she wanted the best for Jesus, even if that meant costing her a year’s wages. I cannot imagine spending a year’s wages on something that seems so frivolous, but that only makes it more admirable. Yes, she could have used that money to serve the poor, but that was not the most important thing at the time. Jesus says in Mark 14:7, “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me”.

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