Thowback Thursday: The Anointing at Bethany

Woman pouring precious perfumed oil over Jesus' head from an alabaster vase

(Author’s note: This is an article I originally published in 2006. I am re-posting it on this blog for the first time.)

Jesus tells us that the story of the anointing at Bethany will be told wherever the gospel is proclaimed. That makes this a pretty significant event. Is there more to this story than what we see on the surface? What can we learn about Jesus’ life and death by taking an in-depth look at this incident?

The anointing of Jesus by the sinful woman at Bethany is a story that students of the bible recognize. Most have read it numerous times. Some version of the story is found in each of the gospel accounts. For that reason alone, it is part of an exclusive club among the incidents of Jesus life.

The characters in this story reveal much about their own lives and also the way we react when confronted with claims of Christ. Do we confess our sinful state and fall at his feet in worship and adoration, or do we complain about what He demands to honor Him? By looking closely at this story, we discover clues concerning our actions when we find that we are in His presence.

The first account of this story is found in the gospel of Matthew.

Matt. 26: 6-13 NKJV

6 And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. 8 But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.” 10 But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. 11 For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. 12 For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. 13 Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”

In Matthew’s account, we learn much about where this happened. We note that it happened in Bethany, a small community within walking distant of Jerusalem. It may have been, to use a more modern vernacular, a bedroom community where the powerful people of Jerusalem escaped the noise and bustle of the city to rejuvenate. Most of the neighbors that lived here assuredly knew each other and the gossip about each others lives probably flowed freely.

We also note not only the town, but the specific home in which the incident took place. It was the home of man named Simon. We also learn he was a leper. Lepers were usually outcasts, but Simon seems to enjoy the company of others, even hosting this banquet for Jesus. It is possible the name, Simon the leper, refers to his former condition, being healed by Jesus or one of the apostles as Jesus had given them that power. (Matt. 10: 8)

The main incident in the story is that of a woman anointing Jesus with an expensive perfume. This was seen as extravagant to at least some of the disciples. Jesus, however, defends the action. He knew the woman’s heart and was touched by her act of devotion. He also predicts that her story would be told as an intimate part of the gospel. Though we see others worshipping Jesus in the gospels, we see here the most exuberant expression of love to him shown in the gospel story. We should take note.

In the gospel of Mark, the story reads:

Mark 14: 3-9 NKJV

3 And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. 4 But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? 5 For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. 7 For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. 8 She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. 9 Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”

In this account we see a little more of what actually took place. We learn that the perfume was spikenard and that it was worth almost a year’s wages. Spikenard, according to Vine’s Expository Dictionary of N. T. Words and others, is imported from India and would not be setting around in the typical first century home in Judea. This act of adoration may be akin to dropping the keys of your brand new BMW into the collection plate. This is not something the typical devotee is going to do. Because it was out of the ordinary, she was criticized sharply.

Those that criticized her may not only have been critical of her, but critical of the Lord as well. Implicit in their thoughts is, “How could he accept that from her? That was probably the most valuable thing she owned! Why would he receive such tribute? Couldn’t this gift have been given to someone who really needed it? Who does He think He is?!”

Also, this took place about a week from His crucifixion as we will see later. Notice the reference he makes to his burial. Jesus knew that this night was a significant event leading to his betrayal and death.

Luke 7: 36-50 NKJV

36 Then one of the Pharisees asked Him to eat with him. And He went to the Pharisee’s house, and sat down to eat. 37 And behold, a woman in the city who was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at the table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil, 38 and stood at His feet behind Him weeping; and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he spoke to himself, saying, “This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answered and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” So he said, “Teacher, say it.” 41 “There was a certain creditor who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have rightly judged.” 44 Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. 45 You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. 47 Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Luke’s gospel does not place this story in the same chronological order as the others. Instead of at the end of Jesus ministry, it is placed in the middle of it. All the other gospels place the story after the Pharisees plot to kill Jesus. I think that Luke did this to coincide with the theme of Jesus fellowshipping with sinners. This is more typical of Luke’s writing in general and this section of scripture in particular.

While Luke may not tell us much about when this takes place, he does give us more insight into who was there. It is in this passage that we learn that Simon the leper is actually a Pharisee. Since leprosy was often viewed as a judgment for sin, it is doubtful that Simon would still be considered a Pharisee in good standing if he still had the disease. Another indication that Simon is a former leper and not a current one is that the others in the story are there to eat dinner. While Jesus might not have balked at dining with a leper, surely the other loyal Jews in his company would have. Good Jews did not eat meals with lepers. We also learn something about the woman. She was a sinner, a worse sinner than most, at least in the opinion of others present.

We also see Jesus being more confrontational to Simon the Pharisee about his unspoken arrogance. Unspoken or not, Jesus could hear it. How many of us would be embarrassed if another could read our thoughts about other people? What sin would be revealed in us? This banter between Simon and Jesus must have been a very humiliating moment for the Pharisee. You can also hear the indignation in the gasps of the other dinner guests as Jesus forgives the woman’s sins.

John 12: 1-9 NKJV

1 Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead,* whom He had raised from the dead. 2 There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. 3 Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. 4 Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, 5 “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. 7 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. 8 For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.” 9 Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead.

Our final account of the story gives us more insight into what took place at this fateful dinner. We learn exactly when this dinner took place. It was six days before the Passover celebration in Jerusalem. The next day, the followers of Jesus would set up a gauntlet of praise and adoration that Jesus would pass through on a donkey as he entered the city for the final Passover of His life.

We also learn exactly who the characters are. We now know that this dinner in the home of the Pharisee Simon the leper, was held in Bethany, the home village of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. A short time earlier, Jesus had come to Bethany and raised Lazarus from the dead. Here we see Martha being Martha, serving the dinner. Lazarus is imbibing with Simon and Jesus and the other guests. They are quite the spectacle for the locals. The man who was dead, but now alive and the one who had brought him back to life.

In none of the accounts are we told of what sin Mary is so ashamed and seeks so sincerely to be forgiven. It surely must have been the talk of the town. It must have caused quite a stir when the weeping Mary appeared in the doorway of the house holding her alabaster flask and its precious contents. She comes to Jesus and doesn’t simply pour some of the contents of the flask out, but breaks the flask over the head of her Savior and allows the fragrance to flow down to His feet. Still crying, she kneels behind him, tears streaming from her eyes and causing tiny splashes on Jesus’ feet. Suddenly, seeing the mud on his feet caused by the dust of the Palestinian countryside through which they had walked and the moisture of the tears, she looks about for something with which to clean them. Not seeing anything, she takes her hair and wipes the mud away. She gently caresses and kisses the feet, oblivious to gaping stares of those around her.

A murmur begins in the crowd. Judas Iscariot is the first to speak out loud. To no one in particular, he says, “What a waste! We could have sold that spikenard for a fortune and done something worthwhile with it, like feed the poor.” John explains Judas real motive was to dip into the proceeds from the sale to fill his own pockets. Some of the other disciples mutter agreement as they do not yet realize in whose presence they are dining.
They do not know their agreement is taking worship and adoration from the very essence of goodness and is siding with the devil in flesh.

Jesus interrupts their thoughts about the wasted fortune with an inquiry of His host, Simon. Jesus asks the embarrassing question about who shows greater love, the one who is grateful for much or the one who is grateful for little. Simon answers correctly. But then Jesus explains that He is speaking about Mary and Simon. Mary is willing to create such a display because of her great love for Him. Simon would not stoop to honor his guest by cleaning His feet.

Let’s interrupt the narrative for a moment and notice something else. Judas Iscariot is here named as Simon’s son. He is only called this three times in the scripture, all by John. He is first referred to as the son of Simon when Jesus states that one of the twelve is a devil. (John 6: 70, 71). He is referred to as Simon’s son here and the third time is when Jesus reveals him to the other disciples at the last supper and sends him out to betray Him. (John 13: 2). All mention Judas’ parentage in connection with his betrayal. Could the Simon that is Judas’ father be Simon the leper, the Pharisee who is rebuked and humiliated in front of his dinner guests? Was Judas convinced to commit such a heinous act of betrayal by his humiliated Pharisee father? It is an intriguing possibility.

However, we must point out that Simon, the Greek version of the name, or Simeon, the Hebrew, is a common name among first century Jews. At least two of the twelve apostles were named Simon. Other prominent Simons were Simeon, the old man who rejoiced at seeing baby Jesus at the temple, Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross, Simon the sorcerer, an early believer rebuked by Peter, and Simeon, one of the leaders at the early Antioch church. Judas’ father could have been any of the hundreds or thousands of Simons running around first century Israel. But Judas seeing Jesus accepting such lavish adoration and openly rebuking his father publicly, may have hardened his heart enough that he could have been deceived into betraying the Lord to those who were seeking to kill Him.

Even if Judas Iscariot and Simon the Leper were totally unrelated, it appears that something that happened that night pushed Judas over the edge and gave him an incentive to betray our Lord. It could have been Jesus’ rejection of the idea of selling the perfume. We know Judas had an issue with money and to see so much wasted, in his opinion, convinced him that Jesus was not the Savior many had hoped. Or maybe the loss of so much potential to steal made him look for income from other sources. Whatever the workings of Judas’ psyche, it seems the anointing at Bethany played a significant role in the betrayal of the Lord Jesus.

How do you and I react when we are confronted with the claims of Jesus? Do we sacrifice everything we own to find forgiveness and give him adoration? Or do we claim he has asked too much of us, embarrassed us in front of others, or wasted the potential of what we could have had? If we are truly honest, it is probably sometimes the first, sometimes the latter. Let us commit this day to be identified with the adoring Mary and shun the bitter Judas in all of our hearts.

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