Nothing in Mark’s gospel happens in random order. He lays the story out carefully and uses exactly as many words as he wants and no more. Jesus has just warned his closest disciples to “Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37), when we learn that the religious leaders are actively seeking a way to arrest Jesus and kill him.
Next we find ourselves at dinner in Bethany, in the household of Simon (possibly a leper, certainly a sufferer from some skin disease, possibly already healed by Jesus), where dinner is being served. A woman came, or came in, with an alabaster container full of nard – a fragrant, expensive ointment – and now things get confusing for the casual Bible reader. Although this is the oldest recorded story of a woman anointing Jesus, the versions we are more likely to have heard, thanks to the Revised Common Lectionary are Luke’s and John’s. It’s understandable, I guess, given that there is a bit more narrative contained in the other two.
It’s also understandable because in this story the woman employs a different kind of agency, a disturbing agency. Whether she came into the house, or came into the room from another part of the house, she arrives with a goal, and she crushes it, both literally and figuratively.
Jesus was at Bethany visiting the house of Simon, who had a skin disease. During dinner, a woman came in with a vase made of alabaster and containing very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke open the vase and poured the perfume on his head. (Mark 14:3, CEB)
One of the alternate translations of the Greek word for broke is “crushed.” The alabaster vase or jar would have been round at the bottom, with a neck narrow enough to be broken in order to release the ointment. The woman came in ready to break it open; she came in ready to crush it on behalf of Jesus Christ.
Doing something that is actually awesome does not guarantee the acclamation of the gathered body, however, and “some” started to say she had wasted the ointment, that she should have sold it instead and given the money to the poor.
How many women who perform prophetic acts or speak prophetic words hear something just like this? Pastors, you know what I’m talking about, those times when it seems like people would prefer Clergy Barbie in the pulpit instead of the scholarly person of faith called to their community. If only that woman could have kept in her place, performing the kind of mild, charitable acts that offend no one. Instead, she made a scene, crushing the neck of the alabaster jar and filling the house with the expensive scent of perfume meant to cover the stench of death.
No wonder the men in the room looked for a way to criticize her. They don’t want to face what is coming. They want to dream of their own divine elevation. They want Jesus to be quiet already about dying. They have left him alone with what he knows. Only this woman steps forward to say, without words, “I understand. I am with you. I honor you.”
Jesus praised her, and according to Mark, he assumed that people would still be talking about her down through the years wherever the gospel was proclaimed. Instead, Luke and John moved her to the feet of Jesus. Luke made her an unreliable witness, a woman of the city, demonstrating her own need to be forgiven. John domesticated her, making her one of the sisters of Lazarus, part of a family scene. And the crafters of the Revised Common Lectionary left her out; in Mark’s version she appears only in the full reading of the Passion liturgy, and in Matthew’s nearly identical telling, the Passion liturgy begins just after her story.
She’s there for me, though, every Holy Week, and she? Keeps crushing it.
Holy One, this day, give me the courage to crush it, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
In the interests of full disclosure: I’ve written about the anointing woman before, starting with an exegesis paper in seminary and more recently in this space two years ago. I’ve led three retreats over the past year about the stories of women who anoint Jesus, which are found in varying form in all four gospels. (And I would gladly do so again, so please consider this an advertisement of my availability to come and lead a retreat day or weekend for your congregation or clergy group.)
I’m reading and blogging about Mark for Lent and using the Common English Bible because it messes with my expectations of familiar passages. I also sometimes refer to NRSV-based resources including The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and the New Interpreter’s Study Bible, as well as the online Greek interlinear Bible.
You can find the full schedule here, including links to earlier posts.