Jesus is at a special meal hosted in the home of Simon the Leper in the village of Bethany (26:6). During the meal a woman anoints Jesus. Why is the anointing at Bethany important?
Bethany was a small village near Jerusalem (1.7 miles; John 11:18 has two miles). In Matthew 21:27, Jesus stayed in the village after clearing the temple. The name may come from two Aramaic words, beth and anya, meaning “house of the poor” or “poorhouse.” Matthew mentioned a healed leper in 8:1-4 (and 11:5 refers to healing lepers), but Simon the Leper is not mentioned by name. One problem: in John 12:1, the meal is hosted by Lazarus, not Simon the leper, and it is six days before Passover (John 12:1). Most Christian readers assume Simon the Leper is Lazarus (both are common names).
At some point during the mean, a woman anoints Jesus with an expensive perfume (26:7). In Matthew and Mark, the woman is unidentified. John 12:3 says the woman was Mary, Lazarus, and Martha’s sister.
She anoints Jesus with a “very expensive ointment” (ESV). This translates μύρον (Hebrew מֹטָה), which is sometimes rendered myrrh. We are familiar with myrrh from the three gifts of the Magi (Matthew 2:11, although the word is σμύρνα; BDAG says σμύρνα is the “the resinous gum of the bush ‘balsamodendron myrrha’”). Myrrh is associated with bridegrooms twice in the Hebrew Bible. In Song of Songs 3:6-7, Solomon’s litter, or the couch he is sitting on) is perfumed with both myrrh and frankincense. In Psalm 45:7-8, the bridegroom king’s robes “fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.”
In Mark 15:23 women tried to give wine mixed with myrrh to Jesus before the crucifixion. The mixture would act as a narcotic to dull the pain during the crucifixion. But myrrh is also used for anointing the dead before burial, John 19:39 says Joseph of Arimathea anointed Jesus with myrrh (σμύρνα) and aloes. The oil was in an alabaster flask (ἀλάβαστρος). Perfume was often stored in a long-neck container that must be broken (BDAG).
This is a public act of worship. She anoints Jesus’s head with an oil with a pungent aroma while Jesus is sitting as the guest of honor at a festive meal. Everyone is looking at what the woman is doing.
The disciples are offended at the waste of money (26:8-9) The disciples are indignant (ἀγανακτέω). In Matthew 20:14 the disciples were indignant because James and John asked to be seated at the best seats when the kingdom comes. The perfume could have been sold for much (Mark has 300 denarii), a sizable donation to the poor! Remember Bethany means “house of the poor,” so if the perfume was sold, it could support families right there in the village! The disciples might have remembered Jesus’s command to the rich man in Matthew 19:21, sell everything and give it to the poor (Nolland, Matthew, 1053).
Jesus praises the woman since she is preparing him for his burial (26:10-13). Jesus is not telling his disciples to not care for the poor (or worse, spend lots of money on your church or for other luxury goods!). “The poor you will always have with you” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:11. Since you will always have poor people in the land, be generous towards them and care for the needy!
But in this case, the woman’s action is prophetic. She is preparing him for his burial, and event that happens within 48 hours (26:12) .Her story will be told wherever the gospel is proclaimed in memory of her (26:13). There is a subtle reference to burial in this saying. “In memory of her” uses the noun μνημόσυνον. As in English, “a memorial” can be a memory, but also a monument set up to remember someone, like a modern tombstone. The related noun μνημεῖον (literally “token of remembrance,” BDAG) refers to a monument, but also a grave, and the word is used for Jesus’s tomb.
What is the happening in this story? Why is the anointing at Bethany important? Since the woman publicly anoints Jesus’s head, this may not be some random act of worship. Richard Bauckham suggested the woman acted “in association with others, who thought it best to take Jesus by surprise and so encourage him to undertake the messianic role about which he may have seemed to them very ambivalent” (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, 190-92) Kings were anointed with oil as they began their reign, and the word messiah means “anointed one.” The woman may be publicly announcing it is time for Jesus to step into his role as the long-awaited messiah.
One problem is the reaction of the disciples: they are indignant at the waste of money. Is this some evidence that the disciples who lived near Jerusalem (Simon (Lazarus), Mary and Martha) understood Jesus more messianically than the Galilean disciples? Simon does not object, the Galilean disciples do. Nolland says the varied background for anointing makes it impossible to be more precise about her intentions (Nolland, Matthew, 1052).
If Bauckham is right, then the disciples gathered at Simon’s home two days before Passover expected Jesus to do something during the festival. Since the triumphal entry Jesus has seemed poised to begin some messianic action, to act like a Davidic king and begin God’s judgment on the Temple aristocracy. The anointing therefore is a push in that direction.
It would be quite unexpected for a woman to anoint a king. But it would be completely expected for a woman to anoint a body for burial. It is possible the anointing was intended to encourage Jesus to be the messianic king everyone expected. But Jesus interprets the action as preparing his body for burial. This once again upends messianic expectations (recall Matthew 16:21-23): Peter rebuked Jesus when he first predicted his crucifixion.
Is it possible Judas was offended by Jesus rejecting the anointing as messianic, instead taking it as preparation for burial? Like Peter rebuking Jesus in Matthew 16, Judas may have been shocked that Jesus was going willing to his execution rather than beginning messianic judgment and inaugurating the renewed kingdom. If the woman’s action became known publicly, then the Temple authorities may have assumed this was the beginning of a messianic rebellion, Jesus might be about to lead his disciples into Jerusalem and cause some problems during Passover. This might speed up their plans, they need to arrest Jesus immediately.