There are two stories in the New Testament about a woman who anoints Jesus with oil. In the first anointing, Jesus is at table in the house of a Pharisee when “a sinful woman in the city” bathes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with oil from an alabaster jar (Luke 7:36-50).
The second anointing, which occurred at a dinner in Bethany at the beginning of Passion Week, is recounted in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. Neither Matthew nor Mark identify the woman, who broke an alabaster jar and poured the genuine spikenard within on to Jesus’ head. Spikenard is an expensive essential oil that was used for perfumes, for medicinal ointments, and in religious ceremonies.
John 12:1-8 identifies the woman in the second anointing as Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and in a clear reference to the first anointing, says that she anointed Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. In fact, prior to this event, John 11:2 says, “Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.” My Bible actually has a very stupid footnote saying that John 11:2 refers to the second anointing … which hasn’t happened yet in the story. It makes no grammatical or narrative sense to ascribe John 11:2 to the second anointing. So what was going on?
I believe the sinful woman in the first anointing was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Some say she was a prostitute, but the text doesn’t say that. She is also often identified as Mary Magdalene, but that doesn’t work either. Directly after the anointing scene, Mary Magdalene is named and described as a woman “from whom seven demons had gone out.” If she had also been the woman at the anointing, there was no reason not to name her.
So why were the Synoptic writers so cagey about identifying her? I’m guessing that Mary was young and very pretty, that she maybe fell in love with and/or was seduced by someone who wouldn’t marry her (e.g., a Roman soldier), and had moved in with him. IOW, she had not only thrown away the most valuable commodities a Jewish woman had – i.e., her virginity and her reputation – but also had brought shame on her whole family, possibly tainting her siblings’ ability to find spouses. When the Synoptics were written, she was a very prominent member of the Christian community. Everybody knew about Lazarus who had been raised from the dead! So I’m thinking that Matthew, Mark, and Luke decided that, since Mary had repented and amended her life, there was no reason to identify her as the sinful woman.
This begs the question of why John did identify her very clearly as the woman in both anointing stories. Well, John wrote later, years after the Synoptics had been circulated widely. I’d guess that the Christians were gossiping about who the sinful woman might have been and John thought it was important to stop them pointing fingers at various members of the community. Also, maybe Mary had passed on or had told him she didn’t care who knew what.
Having repented, very publicly with the first anointing, Mary would have had little choice but to return to her family. In fact, they may only have accepted her back because Jesus wanted it. As I imagined how they would have felt about welcoming home their black sheep of a little sister, it shed a lot of light on the famous Martha and Mary story told in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus and His numerous disciples appear to have dropped in on Lazarus, no doubt creating a hectic “what am I going to feed them?!” problem for Martha, the female head of house. It’s not like she had a microwave or carry out joint around the corner!
But rather than helping, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Martha is clearly annoyed and says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” But Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, he rebukes Martha, who has been doing all the work! I’m far from the only person to be bothered by this.
But let’s imagine for a moment what Mary’s life would have been like after she was forced to crawl home in disgrace and live under the thumb of her bitter and resentful big sister. To me, Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet was not about shirking her duties, but about a very lonely young woman who badly needed some love. And I think that when Jesus chastised Martha, He was not talking about the meal, but about her angry and unforgiving attitude toward her sister.
I also have a theory about why Mary actually broke the alabaster jar and used up all of the spikenard at the second anointing. A pricey jar of perfume is the kind of gift a well-to-do lover would give to a mistress he had no intention of marrying. Maybe he was a handsome Roman officer who either had a wife back home already or whose family had someone of good lineage picked out for when he got done with his military service. There was no way he would ever take a Jewess home to Mater, nor would he care what kind of life he condemned a discarded woman to after he dumped her.
If my scenario is correct, she gave up everything for what she no doubt thought was True Love. During the first anointing, when she poured out some of the perfume her lover gave her on to Jesus’ feet, she demonstrated she was ready to live a righteous life again. But I’m thinking she kept the jar, which she had not emptied, because she still had warm, romantic memories of her lover. In time, she realized she had to fully repent of every aspect of her sin and demonstrated she had done so by breaking and totally emptying the jar.