13 March 2016

John 12:1-8

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (v. 3)

Psalm: Psalm 126


In Arthur Conan Doyle's 'A Scandal in Bohemia', Dr John Watson writes of the enigmatic Irene Adler: "To Sherlock Holmes she is alwaysthewoman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name." 

The narrative of 'the woman' who caused outrage by anointing Jesus' feet with costly perfume (worth around a year's wages for a labourer) appears in all four Gospels. But who was she? According to Matthew (Matthew 26:6-13) and Mark (Mark 14:3-9), she was simply "a woman". Luke (Luke 7:36-50) paints a slightly more vivid picture, telling us that she was "a sinner", from which some have drawn the conclusion that her actions constituted a symbolic attempt to atone for her misdeeds. Only John's Gospel tells us that 'the woman' had a name - Mary - and identifies her as the sister of Martha and Lazarus (whom, in the previous chapter, Jesus raised from the dead). John tells us that "Jesus loved Martha and her sister [Mary] and Lazarus" (John 11:5). The difference between an anonymous woman breaking into a dinner party to pour perfume on Jesus' feet - perhaps as an act of repentance - and one of Jesus' closest friends tenderly anointing him before his journey towards Jerusalem (and, as we now know, a brutal death) has led some to argue that these must be two separate events and two different women.

Not content with two, popular culture has added a third woman to the mix. Paintings of Mary Magdalene frequently depict her with a jar of perfume, linking her to 'the woman' and her supposed sins (commentators and painters alike have greatly enjoyed imagining what exactly these sins might have been). In fact, this Mary's story in the Bible is that of a woman, liberated from seven demons, and who supported Jesus throughout his ministry (Luke 8:2-3), stood at the foot of the cross (John 19:25) and (by some accounts) was the first to witness to Jesus' resurrection (John 20:1-18).

The story of 'the woman' is a reminder of the ease with which stories can become blurred and distorted. But more importantly, it is a reminder of the enduring potency of an act of extravagant love.

To Ponder

  • What do you think made this story so special that it found its way (in one way or another) into all four Gospels?
  • Try searching online for paintings of Mary Magdalene. What do you think these paintings are trying to tell us about Mary? And what do you think they might be trying to tell us about Jesus (by association)?
  • How important is it to 'get at' the literal facts and historical figures behind each story?

Bible notes author

Naomi Oates

Naomi Oates has worked for the Connexional Team in a variety of guises since 2012, currently as the Executive Officer to the Secretary of the Conference. She is also training part-time for presbyteral ministry.