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John 12:1-11

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the old game called Telephone. It was a staple of sleepovers and church teen parties when I was young (in dinosaur times). You and your friends stand in a straight line. Then a person at one end whispers a message to the person next to them. That person in turn whispers it to the next person, over and over until the message reaches the last person in line, who repeats the message out loud so it can be compared to the original message. Rarely were the two exactly the same. And the more people in the line, the less likely they would match. (Clearly, the teen parties at my church got pretty wild!)

When studying the Gospels, we sometimes forget that what we have written down in the text originated in oral tradition–stories told by mouth and handed down from generation to generation–long before they were ever written down. And orally-relayed material tends to change and morph over time. Details get forgotten–or embellished; settings change; the purpose or “moral” of the story is altered. In the case of the Gospels, by comparing versions of the same story, we can sometimes see tell-tale signs that they have circulated in oral tradition. Perhaps nowhere in the Gospels is this more obvious than in the story of the woman anointing Jesus.

Our passage today is the Johannine version in John 12:1-11. However, this is one of the rare stories that appears in all four Synoptic Gospels (cf. Matt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Lk 7:36-50), although you might be forgiven for not realizing that as the details differ quite a bit between the four. All four tell of a woman who anoints Jesus with an expensive ointment. However, the other details of the stories vary widely, including the location, when it took place, what part of Jesus’ body was anointed, the “moral” or point of the story, and more. But perhaps most importantly, the versions don’t even agree on the identity of the woman doing the anointing! To illuminate what makes the Johannine telling of this story unique, and thereby help us toward understanding the Fourth Evangelist’s point, we will first examine some of these differences.

First, the Gospels differ about when and where this event took place. Matthew and Mark both set this story at the end of a long section of Jesus’ teaching and preaching (Mt 21:18-26:5; Mk 11:12-14:1) after his arrival in Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-10; Mk 11:1-11). Thus, it takes place during the last week of his life, near to the events of his Passion. However, Luke puts the story very early in the narrative of Jesus’ life, immediately after John the Baptist sends his disciples to question Jesus (Lk 7:18-35). For John, the event takes place immediately before Jesus enters Jerusalem and right after the raising of Lazarus (Jn 11).

All of the Gospels set this story in the context of a banquet at a private house, but differ as to the identity of the host. Matthew, Mark, and John all set the story in Bethany, either in Lazarus’ house (Jn 12:1) or in the house of Simon the Leper (Mt 26:6; Mk 14:3). Luke is the outlier, setting the narrative at the house of one of the Pharisees, although we’re not told in what town (Lk 7:36). There are other minor differences which likely arose to help support the theological point being made (whether Jesus was anointed on his feet or his head, for example; Mt and Mk have “head”; Lk and John have “feet”). But the two most important differences are in who was doing the anointing and Jesus’ theological interpretation of the event.

If you’ve never examined these four stories side by side you may be surprised to find that they have different women as the lead character. Through history, the identity of this woman has been conflated into either one generic unnamed woman (even though John’s woman is actually named) or has somehow miraculously been identified as Mary Magdalene through a convoluted set of assumptions that paint her as a prostitute (which we have no biblical or historical evidence to support). But in reality, the choice of leading lady in each story is quite intentional, playing into its overall theological interpretation.

In Matthew and Mark, the woman with the alabaster jar is unnamed, and we are given nary a hint as to her identity or character (Mt 26:7; Mk 14:3). In Luke the woman is also unnamed; however, we are given a few clues to the type of woman she is. Specifically, the narrator tells us she was “a sinner” and “a woman of the city” (Lk 7:37). This, combined with the fact that the other men at the table seem to know who she is (cf v. 39), has led some to assume that she was a town prostitute. While that possibility can’t be ruled out, we don’t have enough information to know for sure. What’s important for the theological interpretation is that she’s a sinner who is asking for forgiveness. But in John’s narrative, the main character is a woman we already know, and have, in fact, encountered in the previous story: Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha (Jn 12:3).

Finally, the theological interpretation of the stories varies. In Matthew, Mark, and John the emphasis is on the fact that the woman is preparing Jesus for his coming burial; hence, the use of “nard” in Mark and John, or expensive ointment in Matthew and Luke, which were typically reserved for preparing corpses. In all three, someone asks why the expensive product was not sold and the money given to the poor; pouring it over a living man seemed like an extravagant waste. In all three Jesus reproaches the questioner(s) saying that the woman has done the right thing, uttering some version of the famous line: “the poor you will always have with you; you will not always have me” (Mt 26:10-11; Mk 14:6-7; Jn 12:7-8).

However, the Lukan account takes a unique detour from this template. The point of the story has nothing to do with the cost of the ointment or the state of the poor. Instead, the host questions to himself why Jesus would allow such a woman to touch him; if he’s a prophet he should know the kind of woman she is (Lk 7:39). Jesus, knowing his thoughts, responds with a parable about forgiveness (vv. 40-43). Then, he points out the woman’s repentance (vv. 44-47) and pronounces her sins forgiven (v. 48). The point is that “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (v. 47, NIV). So Luke takes a story that, in one version, is about the poor and Jesus’ upcoming passion and death, and turns it on its ear to make it about the forgiveness of sins and gratitude.

So, with all this as background context, what should we make of John’s version of the story? It shares many similarities with Matthew and Mark’s version. The main deviations are the identity of the woman and the location of the dinner, which are necessarily tied together. But there are a few subtler distinctly Johannine touches which might point us to how the Evangelist saw this story fitting into his larger narrative.

First of all, John goes into more detail about the actual anointing, recounting Mary’s specific actions, which paint a much more sensory picture of the event than any of the Synoptics. One element of significance occurs when Mary breaks open the vessel containing the nard and we’re told: “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (12:3). This poignant detail helps put the reader in the house, at the banquet. We can not only visualize what it might have looked like but actually smell the scene as well.

The second detail comes when the narrator recounts how Mary actually performed the anointing. Matthew and Mark simply tell us that the nameless woman “poured” the ointment (or nard) over Jesus (Mt 26:7; Mk 14:3). But Luke and John are more descriptive: the woman in each story goes beyond simply anointing Jesus’ feet, but proceeds to wipe them with her own hair (Lk 7:38; Jn 12:3). This is a seemingly odd action that has the ring of verisimilitude to it—the kind of visual detail that the witnesses to the event would have remembered long after. But what is the meaning of it?

Scholars have examined this question for centuries, and we don’t have space to review all the possibilities here. However, two things about this action seem especially relevant. First, the act of Mary uncovering her hair and letting down in front of a room full of men would most certainly have been scandalous in that culture. It would still be scandalous in some Middle Eastern countries today! A banquet such as this would have only been attended by men; women, if they were invited, would have eaten together in a separate space. The only women present at the men’s dinner would be those doing the serving (as we’re told Martha did; v. 2).

Only undevout or sinful women would show their hair to men they weren’t related to. (This fact likely plays into interpretations of the Lukan account that equate the woman with a prostitute.) So this is where Mary’s specific identity becomes important. It’s one thing for an unknown woman, whether she’s identified as sinful or not, to take this kind of action. It’s a completely different thing for one who has been portrayed so far as extremely devout, even as a disciple of Jesus, constantly sitting at his feet absorbing his teachings (Lk 10:39). She also showed great reverence and devotion to Jesus after the death of her brother Lazarus, falling down at his feet (Jn 11:29-32). Indeed, every time Mary is mentioned in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet in one way or another, a sign of her humility and devotion.

As a further demonstration of her humility, Mary proceeds to enact a symbolic washing of Jesus’ feet, using the ointment to symbolize the water of fo