The Anointing at Bethany – Mark 14:3-9

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 (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 chapter 16, he will not be available for anointing (Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, 359).

An 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 notes that the money could have been given to the poor, something that as traditional to do 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.

Cursing the Fig Tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21)

After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening.  As he is approaching Jerusalem the next morning, he sees a fig tree and expects to find a bit of fruit to eat, but there is none.  Jesus then pronounces a curse on the fig tree, telling it that it will no longer bear fruit

What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree?  This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that doesn’t bear fruit.  The context supplies the clue, Jesus enters the temple and condemns it as a den of thieves, setting up the conflict stories as he teaches in the temple.

The fig tree is barren, a frequent symbol in the Old Testament  of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4, for example), or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Ho 9:15-16).  The most likely allusion is to Isaiah 6.  There, the prophet describes Judah as a tree that will be cut down, but a remnant will remain (Isa 6:13).  Judah would fall, but a tiny remnant will remain.  Jesus has already quoted Isa 6 to describe his teaching in parables, so it is not a surprise that he would enact a parable with this fig tree based on Isaiah 6.

Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit, but does not find it. In the same way, he came to the nation looking for fruit, but did not find any.  The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off.  Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple.  Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign.

On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up.  There are a number of Old Testament allusions here (Ho 9:16, Job 18:16, 28:9, 31:12, Ezek 19:9 ).  The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah.

But is there a “righteous remnant” as was the case in Isaiah 6:13?  There are two ways of looking at this.  First, we could read this as a curse upon Israel as a whole.  They will no longer be God’s people and they are about to be replaced by the church.  This is possible, but it seems to me to be theologically driven.  Obviously from this side of the events it appears that the church replaced Israel, this parable talks about Israel being “cursed”, so it must predict the coming church.  I would like to avoid this as anachronistic – Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history.

A second, better way to look at the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples.  This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree.  Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him.  He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.