In today’s reading, we have a story of extravagant devotion surrounded by stories of treachery. The scheming of the chief priests and elders is teamed with the betrayal of Judas, and against this background, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with perfume shines all the more brightly. Commentators point to different reasons for the anointing. One reading is that anointing the heads of guests was a common courtesy in this culture. If this is the case, the woman is “extending to [Jesus] customary courtesy with uncustomary extravagance.” (David Garland, The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 516). Another understanding points to the anointing of kings. David Garland points to the irony of this understanding in saying, “A woman, not a priest or an authorized prophet anoints Jesus in the home of a leper.” (Garland, 516) The king is being anointed by the wrong person in the wrong place! And yet this could well be a fitting kingly anointing for the Messiah that Jesus is proving to be. Ultimately, Jesus gives a different explanation of the woman’s action: it is for his burial. The death of Jesus looms large in the scheming and betrayal of Judas and the powers that be. It also looms large here in a beautiful act of devotion. Jesus has set his face toward the cross.
As the woman anoints Jesus extravagantly with an entire jar of “very expensive perfume” (14:3, NIV), she is criticized by those also present. Couldn’t something so costly have been used more wisely? It could have gone to support the poor! At this point, the same Jesus who instructed the rich young man to sell all of his possessions and give to the poor defends the woman’s gift. She has done a “beautiful thing” (14:6), and Jesus will not stand for her rebuke. Instead, he promises that she will be remembered wherever the gospel is proclaimed.
It is important to note that Jesus does not in this moment pit devotion to himself against caring for the poor, as if the two are mutually exclusive, and his statement about the poor being always with you is not an excuse for ignoring their plight. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus takes a child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me…” (9:37) Garland points out that children in this society “had now power, no status, and few rights.” (Garland, 367) In identifying himself with children, Jesus identifies himself with the least, and care for the least also stands as care for Jesus! A similar argument can be made in regard to Matthew 25:31-46. In this light, caring for the poor and more widely the least can itself be understood as an expression of devotion to Jesus.
The story of the woman puts extravagant devotion on display and challenges us to consider our own. Is Jesus worth such an extravagant gift in our own eyes? Or would we find ourselves among the scoffers?