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.