On Sunday, Jesus had entered Jerusalem triumphantly only to walk into the temple, see everything, and then go back to Bethany apparently frustrated. On Monday Jesus returned to the temple and angrily cleansed it. On Tuesday, as Jesus taught in the temple courts, the authorities confronted him about his actions, his relation to Rome and his theology. That day Jesus exited the temple in disgust as he saw how the temple system gave status to the rich but oppressed the poor. On his way to Bethany, Jesus sat opposite the temple on the Mt. of Olives and announced a coming judgment against it.
Apparently, on Wednesday Jesus stayed in Bethany, but on Thursday evening he would again go to Jerusalem in order to eat the Passover with his disciples. But Wednesday was a significant day—a day of preparation just as Thursday was a preparation day for the Passover as Thursday evening Jesus would eat a last Passover with his disciples. Within twenty-four hours Jesus would be buried in a tomb.
Wednesday—the day Jesus does not go to Jerusalem—is ominous. The narrative heightens the tension as it begins the passion (suffering) story of Jesus. On a day when Jesus is inactive, his opponents are not. On a day when Jesus is relaxing with his disciples in Bethany, a woman recognizes the foreboding mood and anoints Jesus for his burial. On a day when the “gospel” is proclaimed by this woman, Judas makes a deal to hand Jesus over to the temple authorities. On a day when a female disciple loves Jesus, another (male) disciple betrays him. Wednesday is preparation day for the passion of Jesus.
The narrative emphasizes the action of the woman by situating it between the intent of the authorities to kill Jesus (14:1-2) and the betrayal by Judas (14:10-11). The two book-ends contextualize the woman’s gift and shape our understanding of it.
The temple authorities want to kill Jesus but they fear a riot if they move against him publicly during the festival season Jerusalem is filled with thousands of pilgrims. Presumably they were going to wait till after the Passover or perhaps they were simply looking for a more covert way of arresting him. They seized the opportunity that Judas offered them.
It is very difficult to read the motives of Judas in this “betrayal” in Mark. Judas is one of the twelve (emphasized 3x in Mark 14:10, 20, 43). It is possible that Judas was motivated by money, but it is also possible that Judas was attempting to create a climatic confrontation between Jesus and the authorities. Perhaps he was certain that Jesus would triumph and he never thought that Jesus would actually die as a result of his actions. This would explain his eventual suicide as he bore the guilt of his misconceived plan. Or, perhaps, he was a disappointed disciple who thought Jesus’ judgment against the temple and his rejection of potential revolt against Roman oppression did not fit his idea of a Davidic Messiah. Or, perhaps he was simply greedy and was disturbed by the use of the expensive oil when the woman anointed Jesus. Whatever may be the case (and at this point the text gives us very little with which to work), Judas gave them access to the private movements of Jesus. Consequently, the authorities will be able to arrest Jesus privately in the dead of night rather than publicly at the height of the festival.
Myers (Binding the Strong Man, 359) notes, quite stunningly, that this occasion is a moment when the “politically ‘least’ (women) assumes the position of the ‘greatest’” by anointing Jesus as if she were a prophet anointing a king of Israel (e.g., Samuel anointing Saul and David). She does not anoint his feet, but his head. This is, perhaps, a Messianic anointing. It is actually quite a stunning moment if we read this way.
At the same time, this acts prepares Jesus’ body for burial. It is difficult for us to imagine the fear, excitement and tension that filled Jerusalem during those days. The anger of the temple authorities was probably well-known and their intent may have been surmised by many. This woman recognizes the danger Jesus faces and perhaps anticipates a criminal death for him as criminals generally did not receive a proper burial but were thrown into common graves. She may have even heard Jesus talking with his disciples about his coming death (though there is no record that Jesus spoke of such things after his arrival in Bethany and Jerusalem). Whatever may be the case, Jesus interprets her actions as burial preparation.
Unlike the disciples, who are seemingly oblivious to the dangers Jesus faces in Jerusalem and out of tune with their master’s earlier predictions, this woman anticipates the coming days and recognizes their danger. She alone demonstrates a loving care for Jesus in the midst of his trials about which the disciples are relatively indifferent. She affirms community with Jesus and demonstrates her solidarity with the suffering servant of Israel. The disciples, on the other hand, will shortly desert their master. While the disciples miss the “gospel” in this moment, this woman does not.
Indeed, they—“some of those present”—totally miss the point as their concern is focused on the poor and the extravagance of the gift. No doubt their concern for the poor and extravagance are shaped by their time with Jesus in his ministry, his evaluation of the widow as a victim in contrast to the wealth of other temple contributors, and the tradition that during the Passover the devout share with the poor. These are legitimate concerns, but they are overshadowed by the impending death and burial of Jesus. The woman’s demonstration of loyalty and solidarity, the messianic anointing, and the preparation for burial outweigh, in this moment, gifts for the poor.
Jesus’ statement, often misunderstood as a kind of ambivalence toward the poor, simply recognizes what the Torah does (Deuteronomy 15:11)—there will always be poor. And, indeed, there are always poor because there are always oppressors of one sort or another (though there are other reasons as well why there are poor). The poor are a legitimate concern and disciples should help them whenever they can, but this woman, according to Jesus, seized the moment, saw its import, and acted to love Jesus. She perceived that Jesus’ death was imminent.
This expensive gift is both a tender moment of love and a proclamation. The woman loved Jesus in this anointing and anointed Jesus as proclamation. The significance of the gift is noted by Jesus—the woman will be remembered wherever the “gospel” is preached.
The preaching of the “gospel”—which to this point in the narrative of Mark has been about the good news of the kingdom of God—now involves the meaning of this woman’s loving act. It is the announcement of the suffering Messiah. The one who is anointed as Messiah is also prepared—in the same act—for burial. The gospel, as Mark’s narrative climaxes, also includes the heralding of the death of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. The gospel bears witness to the suffering servant of Israel. The gospel includes both the announcement of the kingdom of God and the suffering of the Son of God.