It’s time for another Markan sandwich! Today’s text, Jesus being anointed at Bethany, is sandwiched between the plotting of Jesus’ death and betrayal.
Our passage today begins on an ominous note. The chief priests and scribes are looking for a “sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him”. In earlier passages, Mark shares with us, the reader, that the large crowds following Jesus is making the scribes and priest anxious. He is a threat to their power and so they need to figure out a way to have him killed. However, there is a slight issue. It is two days before the Passover festival, meaning there are large crowds of people everywhere, many of whom might have greeted Jesus with palm waving on Sunday. If the priests try to arrest Jesus in front of the crowds, more than likely there will be a riot. Therefore, their only opportunity to arrest him will be when he is away from the city—perhaps at time when he is alone with his disciples. In order to “get to him” and know where he will be when he is not in the city, is to get help from someone on the inside, perhaps one of the disciples themselves.
With the Passover only two days away, Jesus is seen reclining at table in the home of Simon the Leper (one who is not mentioned till now–is this someone who Jesus once healed? He is obviously healed, otherwise he would not be permitted to at home), on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. While they are eating dinner, an anonymous woman, probably someone Jesus does not know, breaks open her alabaster jar (usually it is sealed so well “for shipping” that one had to break* the very delicate neck of the flask to open it) of costly spikenard and begins poring it on his head (though out the Old Testament we see king sand prophets being anointed with oil on their head).
It is obvious from the response of those present that they know and hold our perfume sentiment of “a little dab will do ya”. Jesus quickly comes to her defense, saying she has done a “beautiful thing” to him. And he continues with, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preacher throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Yet, interestingly, her name is not recorded).
Marcus Borg and John Crossan in their book, The Last Week, suggest that Mark presents this story to contrast and highlight the failure of the core, inner group of disciples to understand what Jesus was teaching them:
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”Mark 8:31
Up to this point, Jesus teaches about his rejection, suffering, death and resurrection three times in the Gospel of Mark (Mark: 8:31, Mark 9:31, and Mark 10:33-34). Each time, the disciples do not hear it or understand what is being said. But finally, at last, on the day before everything is about to go down, this unnamed woman demonstrates her loyalty and intimate connection/bond with Jesus. She does what, in fact, the disciples should be doing.
Today’s passage ends with Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples, going to the chief priests “to betray Jesus to them”. Mark has painted a triptych for us. To the left, we see greed, desire for power, and ill intent, as the priests are plotting to kill Jesus. To the right, we see intimate betrayal, as Judas has made up his mind to deliver Jesus into the hands who seek to kill him. And in the middle, we have an unnamed woman. The one who meekly approaches Jesus while he is eating, and without speaking begins to show her devotion. Although she is unnamed and anonymous, she will be remembered in every place where believers in Christ remember his death and resurrection.
*There was also an Eastern custom that if a vessel was used to serve a distinguished guest it should be destroyed so that it can never be used for anyone of lesser importance.