The Gospels (Mk 14:3-9; Mt 26:6-13) record for us a very touching story in the life of Jesus, the anointing at Bethany. The story takes place just before the passion of Jesus begins. Jesus, we are told, is having dinner at the house of Simon the leper. While he is reclining at the table to eat, a woman enters and anoints the head of Jesus with very expensive, fragrant, perfumed oil. The woman breaks open an alabaster jar and pours the oil over the head of Jesus, she does not just pour a little bit of the oil on his head, she empties the jar! Can you imagine the result? Jesus’ hair is now soaked with oil, perhaps the consistency of olive oil, and the aroma would most certainly have filled the room, and it would have been a strong aroma, certainly noticeable to all reclining around the table with Jesus.
It is interesting to ponder the cast of characters in the story. Who is Simon the leper? Obviously, his leprosy is no longer active; if it were, he would be forbidden by Jewish law to be in such close proximity to those without. Could he have been someone whom Jesus healed and is now expressing his gratefulness by hosting a banquet in Jesus’ honor? We can speculate that he was a man of means because he is able to host a meal for a number of people.
Also present are the disciples. They react with indignation. What a waste of ointment, they tell Jesus. The Gospels tell us that the ointment was worth 300 denarii, equivalent to one year’s wage for a laborer. They insist that the ointment should have been sold and the money used to care for the poor. After all, one year’s wage could feed a poor family for one year! In their anger, they scold the woman.
And who is the un-named woman? The Gospel of John names Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus as the women anointing Jesus with oil. (Jn 12:1 ff) But is this the woman of our story from Mark and Matthew? In our story, he is in the house of Simon the leper, and in John’s Gospel, it is Martha and Mary who are giving a dinner for Jesus, and Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and not his head. Luke’s story of anointing mentions a woman who was a sinner anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping his feet with her hair, resulting in the forgiveness of her sins. (Lk 7:36 ff) These seem to be separate incidents in the life of Jesus.
Was the woman one of those who had been following Jesus in his ministry? I like to think that she was, because Jesus said that she has anointed him for his burial, and if she had been a follower of Jesus, she most likely had heard either from Jesus directly, or from others the predictions that Jesus had made regarding his passion. Perhaps she was an astute follower.
How does Jesus interact with each of our characters? His interaction with each of the characters is a plot within the plot. As far as his interaction with Simon, we see that Jesus has accepted his hospitality. He is reclining at his table, and undoubtedly, the guests are sitting there spellbound by his presence and his teaching. Imagine Simon and his guests being astounded and talking about his being healed by Jesus. Bethany is the town where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, so he must have had quite the reputation in that village. Simon was most likely very pleased that he could host this great man.
The disciples get a rebuke from Jesus. This woman has done a great thing for me, he tells them. Jesus commends her for lavishing her attention on him and tells the disciples that they should take after her example. The poor will always be with them, but Jesus’ time for death is approaching. In his rebuke he teaches them a lesson, it is the greater good to put Jesus first, and to love him with all one has.
Jesus shows great compassion and admiration to the woman. He makes it known that she has done a great thing for him. Not only that, but he tells them that she will be remembered always for her act of kindness towards him. He graciously accepts her generous gift. The fact that the woman broke the alabaster jar indicates that it was meant for a singular use, no one else would ever be anointed again with oil from that jar. Jesus has accepted the lavish loving act the woman has shown to him. Now hold on to your seat. The Gospels report, immediately after this touching story recalling an outpouring of love, an incident that also is remembered for all time. Judas arranges the betrayal of Jesus. The transition is stark and raw.
What can we learn from this incident in the life of Jesus? Yes, in his rebuke to the disciples we can learn that we should put Jesus above all else. Yes we can learn from the woman, that when we lavish our love and attention on Jesus, he will graciously accept our love and we too will be remembered always, in the book of life, with eternal life in the kingdom of God. Yes, we can learn from Simon to show our appreciation to Jesus for all that he has done for us. But is that all there is to learn from this story?
In his book, The Holy Longing, Fr. Ron Rolheiser reflects on the anointing of Jesus. “What Jesus is saying, in effect, might be paraphrased this way: “When I come to die, I will be more ready for death because tonight, of all nights in my life, I’m experiencing the reason this universe was made, the giving and receiving of love and affection, pure gift. This is a moment to die for!”
Fr. Rolheiser also points out an irony in the story. If the women had gone to the tomb of Jesus after his death and anointed his body with the expensive oil, no one would question what she had done. It was perfectly acceptable to show love and respect to a dead body, and she would have been admired for showing such care for Jesus after his death. To show this respect and affection, however, while Jesus was still alive was scandalous. “Nothing has changed in two thousand years. We still save our best compliments and flowers for the funeral. Jesus’ challenge here is for us to anoint each other while we are still alive: Shower those you love with affection and flowers while they are alive, not at their funerals.”
How many times have we heard it said at a funeral, “If only I had told him I loved him before he died” or “I never got a chance to say good-bye”. Imagine how much more prepared for death we could make those we love if we let them know while they are still alive! Not just when they are approaching death or seriously ill, but while they are alive and vibrant. How much more prepared for our own death will we be knowing that we anointed those we love while they were still alive, and avoid the remorse of not having done so?
We can see that this can relate to our personal relationships, but does this also relate to our relationship as Church? Fr. Rolheiser says that it does. There are those people who attend Church as a social event. These people are criticized by some as missing the meaning of why we go to Mass on Sunday. Fr. Rolheiser, however, insists that one reason we go is to not be alone. We go to Church, he says, to anoint each other. “They like to go to church simply to socialize, to see people, to chat with people, and to enjoy the coffee, juice and doughnuts after the service. Not bad. Together with worshiping God, this is one of the more salient reasons for being there. We go to church to tell people we love them and, hopefully, to hear them tell us the same thing. In the end, we go to church to help ready each other for death.”