‘Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’ (Mark 14:9)
Jesus’ words about the woman who pours perfume on him in the days before his death have been borne out by her story’s inclusion in the gospels, but beyond the broad strokes it’s hard to establish much about her.
All four gospels have a version of the account, but the details differ – in one or two instances, enough to lead some commentators to believe that there are two separate accounts recorded here. Mark’s version (generally accepted to be the earliest of the gospels to be written down, and the simplest in terms of language and structure) has these words:
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of 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.
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.
‘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. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’ (Mark 14:3-9)
Other gospels add further details that clarify or, sometimes, confuse what goes on. Luke 7:36-50 includes the detail that the woman had lived a sinful life, and the general thinking is that this implies prostitution. It may show a fixation on the part of predominantly male commentators through the centuries – or perhaps a lack of their confidence in the opposite sex – that the extent of a woman’s imagination in the vast potential scope of living a ‘sinful life’ is limited to sexual immorality; nevertheless, that is the consensus.
Jesus uses the opportunity to make a point about sin and forgiveness, as well as his host’s hospitality. (In this instance, Simon is identified as a Pharisee, not a leper, though presumably it’s possible to be both at the same time.) Those who have been forgiven much love much, and those who invite a guest into their home should provide a better standard of welcome than the local prostitute, even if she is a wealthy one.
In John 12:1-8, the woman is identified as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; she is not described as sinful. In the same account, the one who complains about the waste is named as Judas. Other differences between the four accounts include whether the perfume is poured on Jesus’ head or feet, whether she wets his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, and the significance Jesus attributes to the episode (giving to the poor; forgiveness and hospitality; foreshadowing his death).
Mary – and if so, which one?
The woman has no name in Matthew and Mark’s accounts, and no other information is given about her background. Luke describes her as a ‘sinful woman’, whilst John identifies her as Mary of Bethany. John 11:2 also notes: ‘This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.’ Whilst not giving the woman’s name, Matthew and Mark do state the venue, which is in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper.
A long-standing tradition holds that this Mary is also Mary Magdalene, out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9). This identification appears to be based on little more than the fact that they have the same name. Mary was a very popular name, and several are mentioned in the gospels and New Testament (the mother of Jesus, Mary from Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, amongst others). However, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that Mary Magdalene was either a prostitute or Mary from Bethany, and her reputation seems to rest on nothing more than it being a convenient way to reduce the number of people with the same name.
What’s in a nard?
The gospels record that the perfume is made from pure nard, and its bottle is alabaster. This is obviously meant to underscore its enormous value. An alabastron was a small jar, typically made of alabaster or glass, probably imported from Greece. Nard or spikenard is an oil from a plant native to the Himalayas, which has been used as a perfume, incense and medicine for millennia. Aside from the reference in the gospels, it is also mentioned in the Song of Solomon (1:12 and 4:13).
Those present say the bottle of perfume is worth more than 300 denarii. At the time of Jesus, a denarius contained 3.9 grams of silver. 300 denarii would therefore represent a little over a kilogram of silver and would fetch somewhere in the region of £480 today. However, a better metric of its value is that the denarius was the standard pay for a day’s wages in Jesus’ time (see Matthew 20:2). 300 denarii would have been equal to a year’s pay for most people. This would roughly equate to today’s median wage of around £25,000. The woman’s alabastron of nard was clearly a rare and expensive import. (For comparison, the most expensive perfume available for retail purchase today is Clive Christian’s Imperial Majesty, at $215,000 for a 5-carat diamond-studded 16 oz bottle. Its unique scent combines jasmine, cardamom, carnation, lemon, bergamot and benzoin – a balsamic resin obtained from bark of trees in the genus Styrax – essentially making a very expensive form of herbal tea.)
Why does she have it? Is it one of the tools of her trade, assuming she has not been misrepresented by the commentators, or a family heirloom? The bottle is unopened, suggesting that perhaps it had not been intended for everyday use, but as an investment or store of wealth.
Wherever it comes from, this extravagance raises eyebrows, and ‘some of those present’ complain that the money could have been put to better use (it’s easy to spend money that isn’t yours). Jesus answers the woman’s critics first by drawing attention to his imminent death, and second by quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, ‘You will always have the poor among you.’ They have missed the point, he indicates: the good has been the enemy of the best.
Venturing further into the realm of speculation, there’s a subtext here. ‘You will always have the poor with you, and you can help them any time you want,’ says Jesus. Is there a further implication: ‘You complain about how this woman uses her wealth. How are you using yours? When was the last time the poor were the beneficiaries of your generosity?’
Knowing that Judas was the ringleader in the grumbling adds yet another dimension to it. John 12:6 adds this detail: ‘He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.’ Is it possible to read in some irony or even sarcasm here – especially in the light of coming events? ‘Judas, I appreciate your concern over my imminent death, really. But don’t worry – there are still going to be lots of poor people for you to look after once you’ve had me crucified, and you’ll even have an extra 30 silver pieces to give them.’
There are any number of possible applications from this passage, which represents an uncomfortable reminder to anyone who has ever adopted a holier-than-thou attitude.
Firstly, there will be times we are tempted to take a good course of action and pass over one that is even better. Selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would have been a generous gesture and a way of honouring Jesus; the extravagance of ‘wasting’ it by pouring it on him was an even better one. There are times when celebrating an event, or marking it in some way, is right – even if that money could have been used for another good purpose. Immediate priorities may take precedence over the long-term ‘big picture’, as they do here.
Related to this is the way we use our money, and the way we react to other people using theirs as they see fit. It’s easy to judge people for the way they spend their money. Do we hold ourselves to the same standards? How generous are we with what we have? If others knew the details of our finances, where would they see us on the spectrum that lies between the wealthy and the widow in Mark 14:41-44?
Lastly, there’s an insight into the way the human mind works. Judas reacts vehemently to the ‘waste’, claiming that the money should have been given to the poor. However, we are more than capable of deluding ourselves and certainly adept at misleading other people. ‘All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.’ (Proverbs 16:2)
Judas’ anger hid the less charitable motive of greed. His anger was not at the lost opportunity to feed hungry people, but at his own personal loss. It is easy to place a convenient explanation on an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction without questioning it properly, especially when the reality may not reflect so well on us. Understanding even our own feelings may require reflection and help from God and others. ‘The purposes of a person's heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out.’ (Proverbs 20:5)
This article was originally featured in our January 2018 Engage Newsletter.