The story of the anointing of Jesus is found in all four Gospels. Yet, the manner of the anointing, the reason for the anointing and the anointing on the head as mentioned by Mark and Matthew and the feet as mentioned by Luke and John indicate that each evangelist interprets the anointing differently. While in Mark and Matthew the anointing is as a preparation for the burial of Jesus’ body and is thus just before the Passion, in Luke the anointing of the feet of Jesus by a sinful woman is an explication of her love and respect for Jesus and his love for her shown in the forgiveness of her sins. The woman is named only in the Gospel of John and is not Mary Magdalene. In John, she is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Though it is not the head but the feet of Jesus which Mary anoints, the focus of the anointing here is the “hour” of Jesus. The dinner that Jesus is attending here is an anticipation of the last dinner that he will have with his disciples soon.
The story begins with the dinner given for Jesus by Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. The anointing by Mary is narrated immediately after this. Though Mark also points to the quality of the ointment, only John mentions the quantity. By wiping the feet of Jesus with her hair, Mary anticipates the wiping of the disciples’ feet by Jesus at the last supper. The anointing here therefore points to the washing and wiping of the feet of the disciples by Jesus. The protest about the extravagance of the gesture is voiced in John by Judas alone. This is already an anticipation of the betrayer’s role that Judas will play later in the garden. The protest of Judas is not genuine, because his concern stems from his own desire to steal. Jesus’ response to Judas is to point to the revelatory significance of Mary’s act. It is an anticipation of the final anointing after the death of Jesus and thus confirms that it will take place. Jesus also reminds his disciples of the limited time before his “hour” and invites them to recognize it like Mary did. They need to respond like her.
Since many of the Jews were going to Jesus and began to believe in him, the chief priests make plans to kill Jesus. They also plan to kill Lazarus so as not to leave any trace of the miraculous powers of Jesus and also to stop people from believing in him.
The contrast between the insight of Mary and the blindness of Judas is brought out powerfully in this story. She recognizes who Jesus is and the fate that awaits him and so acts accordingly. Judas on the other hand has closed himself to the revelation of God in Jesus and thus can only act to suit his selfish interests. The anointing of the feet by Mary and the wiping them with her hair is also an indication of the action of a true disciple of Jesus. She anticipates what her master and Lord will do and does it. She does not need to be taught it like the other disciples at the last supper. She has learnt it by observing the actions of the Lord. Judas on the other has shown that he is not a true disciple because he is able to see only the negative in the loving action of service and reaching out. His only response is therefore to protest.
The love command was not only spoken of by Jesus but lived out by him throughout his life. The best manner in which that love command was manifested was not only in the washing of the feet of his disciples, but in the spreading out of his arms in total surrender and unconditional love. This is the love to which we as disciples are challenged today. We can decide to respond like Mary because we are convinced and have experienced the unconditional love of God ourselves, or we can be like Judas who focus on our own selfish interests and so miss out on the beauty and reality of unconditional love.