by Gary McCary | 26 June 2019 |
The Greek word christos is equivalent to the Hebrew word for messiah, mashiach, and means “anointed one.” In the 3rd/2nd century BCE, those who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint) translated mashiach as the Greek christos. When the authors of the New Testament used the term Jesus Christ they were telling us that, in their view, Jesus of Nazareth was the anointed one prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures.
But this raises an important question: if Jesus is the anointed one, when, and by whom, was he anointed?
For the authors of the four gospels, the final week of Jesus’ life prior to his execution is filled with activity. The gospel accounts vary, but there appears to be enough of a textual composite to sketch a passion week picture.
There is, of course, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where Jesus rides on a donkey, palm branches and other greenery in the hands of an adoring crowd. There is the story of Jesus going into the temple and driving out those who had turned it into a marketplace. Jesus curses a fig tree that had no fruit. Then there is the Mount of Olives, where Jesus tells his disciples about the time of the end in what we call the Olivet Discourse. There are accounts of Jesus in dialogue with the Pharisees during this final week. And there is the upper room Last Supper, followed by the gut-wrenching prayer experience in Gethsemane. Then the arrest, trials, the agonizing journey to Golgotha, and the crucifixion. These are the major events of the Passion Week.
However, in Mark’s account an event occurs which has a parallel in the other gospels, but which Mark places right in the middle of Jesus’ final week. It is the story of Jesus having his head anointed with perfume—and the one doing the anointing is a woman.
Women in Jesus’ World
Before looking at Mark’s story we must remind ourselves of the the place and plight of women in the world of Jesus’ day, and in particular, of women in Palestinian Judaism.
In the 1st century all cultures were patriarchal, as it appears they had been from the beginning of recorded history. Women were subordinated first to their fathers, then to their husbands. However, their socioeconomic status varied according to culture. Egyptian women, for example, were equal to men in that they could buy, sell, borrow, and lend. They could petition the government for help, initiate a divorce, and pay taxes. The eldest daughter was permitted to be a legitimate heir.
In Rome, both daughters and sons were educated, boys until the age of 17, girls until 13, when they were expected to marry. A Roman woman couldn’t conduct business in her own name, but could enlist the help of a male relative or friend who served as her agent. Women did not have inheritance rights or the right to divorce. Roman women were not permitted to vote or hold public office.
Then we come to Palestine. Hebrew women were among the poorest in the world in Jesus’ day. This was because they had no inheritance rights and could be divorced for the flimsiest of reasons. Yet Hebrew women were not allowed to divorce their husbands. In a culture in which women did not survive unless they were linked to the patriarchal household, it was disastrous to be divorced. A Hebrew woman had minimal to no property rights. Theoretically she could inherit land, but in practice male heirs had precedence. Even if she did inherit property, her husband had the right to its use and its fruits. A woman’s primary sphere was in the home, where hospitality was her special care.
To a large degree, Hebrew women were invisible and powerless.
Jesus and Patriarchy
Invisible and powerless to nearly everyone but Jesus! His behavior toward women, even viewed through the male lens of the Gospel texts, is remarkable. Jesus welcomed women into his orbit. Female disciples were part of his entourage (Luke 8:1-3). His radical inclusion of women is best illustrated in a story involving Mary and Martha, two sisters living in Bethany. While visiting at their home, Mary assumed a place at Jesus’ feet, the place traditionally taken by male rabbinical students. Martha, working hard throughout the house, protests. But Jesus praises Mary’s thirst to learn more about God, suggesting that girls ought to be educated just like boys (Luke 10:38-42).
Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus challenging deep-seated patriarchal assumptions: that only women bear the burden of sexual sin; that Samaritan and Canaanite women are to be shunned; that bleeding women are not to be touched; that a man could divorce a woman for any offense, on a whim. On this last point, Jesus’ teaching that only for adultery is divorce allowed turns out to be markedly protective of women—who, according to Hillel, could be divorced if they burned the dinner.
And then there are the resurrection accounts of all four Gospel authors. It is upon the testimony of women that the good news of Jesus’ resurrection depends. At first the male disciples refuse to believe these women evangelists. (And still today, some male disciples refuse to hear the good news if it is proclaimed by women. But I digress.)
Everywhere in the Gospels Jesus challenges patriarchy. But more than that, Jesus challenged any kind of dominion of one person over another. In short, Jesus practiced and taught equality in all things. He was an equal rights champion.
The Dinner Party
And so we come to a dinner party at the home of Simon the Leper.
The various accounts of the story are told in all four Gospels. According to most scholars, Mark was the earliest Gospel to have been written (around 70 CE). The brevity of Mark’s Gospel is an attractive element for the reader. The story is told in Mark 14:1-9.
Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the people may riot.” (vv. 1-2)
While some may debate the placement of this story in Mark, most scholars say that Mark was the earliest of the gospels, and the source for at least some of the stories in the others. Let us simply step into the narrative where Mark wants us to: some time after Palm Sunday and before the Last Supper. The Jewish leaders are looking for a way to get rid of Jesus. They would prefer to do it at a time other than the Feast (Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were overlapping celebrations in Jesus’ day). The text says leaders feared that with the crowds in Jerusalem during the Feast, people sympathetic to Jesus’ ministry might cause a major disturbance.
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. (v. 3)
Bethany is also the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It is possible that Jesus had made many friends here over the years, and that a healed leper named Simon was one of them. Perhaps Simon had been healed of his leprosy by Jesus himself. Whatever the case, Simon has invited Jesus and others to his home for a meal. A woman is there. Who is she? Mark declines to name her.
A Spiritual Romance
Based on her actions it appears that she is in love. Whether it is romantic love or not is beside the point, for without question there is a romance about the story. We speak of people who love train travel and are caught up in the romance of the rails. We don’t typically think of that type of romance as having any sort of erotic flavor to it. But the romance hovering about this story is palpable. This woman knows Jesus. She knows that in the eyes of most men she is nothing but property. She knows that Jesus has shattered that barrier by word and action. It is likely that she has had some sort of friendship with Jesus for a period of time. And she is grateful—filled with more gratitude than mere words can express. Perhaps a priceless gift might suffice—along with tears?
There are numerous romantic, erotic or semi-erotic moments in Scripture—the story of Ruth’s night with Boaz recorded in the Book of Ruth chapter 3 comes to mind. Might this story fall into that category? This unnamed woman loves Jesus. She may sense that, with so many powerful men in Jerusalem wanting him dead, he has only a short time to live.
She has somehow come into possession of a costly bottle of perfume. She steps up to Jesus, breaks open the jar, and pours the perfume on his head. No doubt the fragrance fills the room. We are caught up in the moment. So much is going on. What we tend to miss is this: Jesus has been anointed. He is now “the anointed one.”
Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. (vv. 4-5)
Of course they rebuked her! She has one-upped them—especially the host. They haven’t done anything so sacrificial in their entire lives! And they certainly hadn’t done anything for Jesus—except perhaps host a meal (in which, of course, the women had to do all of the work). A woman has stolen the spotlight. And they are indignant. Their knee-jerk comment about helping the poor rings hollow. One has to wonder just how much compassion for the poor those men actually had. When we read the Gospels we are left with the impression that helping the poor wasn’t on any man’s priority list.
The Only Anointing
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me! She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (vv. 6-9)
This will be the only anointing Jesus receives while he lives. The women who wanted to anoint his body early Easter Sunday were, in a sense, too late (Mark 16:1). Jesus is risen! The only anointing he needed had already been done.
Wherever the gospel is preached, “what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” High praise for a nameless woman performing a wastefully extravagant act. But Jesus says that her act is timeless. She is as important as any man in Christ’s life. Women have been restored to their original dignity (Genesis 1:27) by Jesus, who had little interest in social stratification.
This episode in his life recalibrates Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus the Christ—the anointed one. And he becomes the Christ because of her! In an age—and in a religion—where men predominantly anoint and ordain men to positions of service in the church, we have the story of a woman anointing the man of Nazareth,and that act of love becomes almost a sacrament of ordination in Jesus’ life.
For it was by a woman that Jesus was ordained the Christ.
Gary McCary has been Senior Pastor of the Tierrasanta Adventist Church in San Diego for the past 28 years. He enjoys walking, bowling, and reading biographies. He and his wife Diane (Dutcher) have 4 children and one grandchild.