I would imagine that anyone who knows even a little about the gospel accounts of Jesus remember that he was anointed by at least one woman. Before reading the stories in each of the gospels write out the story as you recall it. Then go to a gospel parallels (where the stories are placed side by side for easier comparison) or read each of the gospel's stories.
Four accounts of a woman anointing Jesus occur in the gospels: Matthew 26:1-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-39; and John 12:1-8. Compare the following elements of the stories:
- time setting
- identity of the woman and any other character
- substance used for the anointing and its cost
- relationship of the anointing to burial.
Discussions about the relationships of these stories abound. But trust your own instincts prior to seeing what others have
said. If one assumes Mark is the oldest gospel (which I do) then it is clear that Matthew is highly dependent on the
Markan account. Luke presents some different elements. I assume that John was the last of the gospels to reach a form something like we have today. If that assumption is understood the Gospel of John uses both the Matthew/Mark understandings as well as elements from Luke.
I agree with those who think there were two occasions of anointing. One took place in Bethany and the other in Galilee. Even that simple observation will not disentangle the web we find in these four gospel stories. We should not be troubled by the web because it demonstrates the liveliness of the traditions surrounding Jesus. In the Galilee anointing the action concerns a woman of questionable reputation (Luke's account). The Bethany story is in both Matthew/Mark and John. But in John, Mary does something that no "respectable" woman would have done in a public setting. She lets down her hair. Most of us are probably surprised. To those long ago they would have found this offensive. Furthermore she anoints Jesus feet, unlike Matthew/Mark, and proceeds to dry his feet with her hair. (This is the only occasion we hear about any such thing in public.)
So the woman is named (Mary) in John's gospel, You could say Mary does something that places her more in line with the sinful woman in Luke's account. John's Mary even goes beyond the so-called sinful woman in Luke. She dries Jesus feet with her hair. On the other hand, it is equally clear that John's account implies that Mary is expressing her great love for Jesus. If for nothing else than the raising of Lazarus in John 11:1ff. The selection of the exceptionally expensive perfume for the anointing is another signal of the importance of her action.
Another infamous character appears in Luke's story, namely Judas. He is always the "bad" guy. John even makes him more despicable by the parenthetical remarks (John 12:4-6). Judas criticizes Mary's action with the question regarding the care of the poor. His question seems very consistent with what we might have expected Jesus to say given Mary's use of the very expensive anointing perfume. Instead Jesus rebuffs Judas, “The poor you have with you always but you do not always have me.” This response seems a little unlike the Jesus we know in other gospel stories. However, Jesus explains that Mary has done the anointing in preparation for Jesus burial.
All the gospel writers knew Jesus was dead when they wrote their gospels. This fact almost goes without saying. So a meal where the anointing took place is something to be treasured. As one interpreter said this story in John is in some sense the Last Supper, not for the disciples, but for these people. So Mary's act in John signals the last time to have a social interaction with the human Jesus here on earth. It was Mary's last time to show her deep love for Jesus. She was being extravagant for a purpose. She was not denying the concern for the poor.
In each of the gospel stories regarding the anointing we have two characters or sides. On the surface seemingly the good is pitted against the bad. But the sides do not easily line up as the good against the bad. John's addition to the negative picture painted of Judas. As though we needed more negative regarding Judas!
We are left asking, "What are we to make of the story in John?" The socially unacceptable picture of Mary letting down her hair and anointing Jesus feet and being wasteful while using it as a means to show her love for Jesus. The immediacy of her extraordinary action does not enable us to give up the mission to the poor. It does enable us to see that there are times when the urgency of a need (here to anoint the one about to die) takes precedence. In fact it calls to mind Mark's gospel where Jesus never does get anointed (Mark 16:1ff.). So are there times when urgency trumps the ever present need of so many good causes?
In summary several points are worth drawing together. First, the dilemma of John's story is one we face over and over again. Can you think of contemporary examples? Are there examples of urgency where we must respond as Mary responded? Second, in a strange way the ambiguities of the story remind us that Judas was not saved by any generosity of his own. He was saved by a kind of love that even Mary could not demonstrate in her anointing. Judas, like Mary, like us, are saved through God's love of his only begotten son. Third, one wonders if in some way Mary's anointing act served also as a precursor to Jesus washing the disciple's feet in John 13:1-20.