Let’s think for a moment about the woman in the story. In Mark’s version of the story, the woman is unnamed and unknown. We don’t know who she is. She could be one of the disciples, someone that Jesus healed or helped, she could be his lover, she could his patron—sponsoring his work in the countryside. How we imagine this woman changes how we hear this story.
Let’s imagine for a moment that this woman is poor and that she has had some interaction with Jesus previously. Perhaps Jesus healed her or a family member. Maybe she witnessed Jesus feeding huge crowds of people with only a few morsels of food. Maybe she heard him preaching outside the temple. Whatever their previous relationship, she is drawn to him. She recognizes something special in him. She is poor. She and her family work hard for every bit of their money. There isn’t much to spare so maybe she goes to her friends and neighbours—who have also experienced and witnessed Jesus’ love for people and asks them each for one coin so that they can buy perfume as a gift for a worn out and tired healer who has done so much for them. And so the whole community contributes to this gift. She couldn’t have purchased it on her own.
And then, she goes to the home where Jesus is staying. She peeks through the open door to see what’s happening in the house. There are many men about—all talking and drinking and eating. She covers her head like a servant woman and steps cautiously inside hoping that no one questions her presence or sends her away. As she crosses the room to where Jesus sits, she gains some confidence. Finally, she stands in front of him and pours the perfume over him as she professes her love for him.
The perfume fills the air and silence falls as people in the room watch the scene unfolding. After a moment of shocked silence, a voice from the other side of the room speaks, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way. Why did you go and spend your own money and your neighbours money in such foolish ways? You yourself are poor and you have wasted a whole year’s wages. Now you will need to rely on our charity and the charity of others. If you had saved your money and looked after yourself and your family, we wouldn’t have to.” And the voices grow louder in anger. A weary and tired Jesus speaks, “Leave her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”
Now imagine the story again. This time imagine that the woman in question is wealthy. She doesn’t normally interact with the peasants but her servant girl was near death and was healed by Jesus. The girl is valuable to her and the woman is grateful to have her restored to her work again. After all it is hard to find good servants.
There’s a rumour that Jesus is visiting the home of a neighbour tonight. She thinks about what she might do for this poor peasant healer. He gives so much to others but he certainly doesn’t have either the time or money to engage in a little luxury pampering. She goes to the cupboard where she always keeps a well-stocked supply of perfume. She pulls out the most expensive bottle on the shelf. She calls for a slave to accompany her and leaves her home being carried in a litter. She arrives at her neighbour’s home and walks with confidence into the gathering of men. She walks across the room and stands before Jesus. Here she opens the perfume and pours it over Jesus. She rubs it into his sore shoulders and expresses her gratitude at having her serving girl returned to her.
The perfume fills the air and silence falls. This well-known, wealthy woman has dared to touch a dirty, poor peasant. Into the silence a voice speaks. “Why did you waste the perfume on a peasant who won’t appreciate it and will be dirty and smelly again in a few hours? Jesus has always taught that we should sell everything and give the money to the poor and now here you are indulging him. It goes against everything his taught us.” And the voices rise in anger against her.
Finally, Jesus speaks into the fray. “Leave her alone; why do you trouble her? She has cared for me in a way that you could not. You always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”
The story sounds different depending on the status of the woman. If she was poor, she shouldn’t have been able to enter the room with Jesus and the disciples. She shouldn’t have had access to the perfume in the first place. She shouldn’t have wasted scarce money on something so extravagant. A few weeks ago we heard how Jesus watched the wealthy people make their offerings and then how he noticed a poor woman giving such a small amount. If the woman in this story was poor, her gift to Jesus is valuable, not only because of her care for Jesus but also because it cost her so much.
If the woman was wealthy she shouldn’t have cared about a poor peasant healer like Jesus but she could get away with it. If the woman was wealthy, why didn’t Jesus tell her to sell the perfume—along with everything else she owned—and give the money to the poor?
Either way, this is a story that seems inconsistent with the Jesus we know. The Jesus we know always sides with the poor, the outcast, the widows, the orphans. And yet here Jesus chooses to affirm this woman—whoever she is—in caring for him. I wonder as the events of Holy Week begin to unfold if Jesus had a sense that he was on a path that was leading him to death. I wonder if Jesus felt tired, maybe afraid, maybe alone—even surrounded by his friends. He’s worked hard and now everything seems to be falling apart. The disciples haven’t understood his message. They are still looking for a way to overthrow the empire. They are still arguing about who will be the greatest.
Here’s a woman who saw Jesus as a human. She may have recognized the path that leads towards death and the cross. She may have recognized his weariness and his very human need to be loved for who he is. Jesus had already given so much of himself to heal others and she saw an opportunity to care for him.
The woman crossed so many boundaries in order to care for Jesus. She stepped outside the rules she had been taught all her life—rules about her proper place as woman, as a poor or wealthy person. Jesus himself was a rule breaker who crossed boundaries. Here is a woman following in those footsteps.
Sometimes we get the idea that our faith gives us rules to live by. Sometimes our faith teaches us to only associate with people like ourselves—respectable people. The disciples who had been following Jesus around didn’t get the message but the woman crossed many boundaries and risked her proper place in the society in order to show Jesus that she understood his message of love.