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Gospel Reflections » International

“She Had To Keep This Scent For The Day Of My Burial”

March 25, 2013

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The episode of Jesus’s feet being washed and anointed by a woman while he was at a meal with his disciples is one of the most enigmatic scenes in the Gospel. To start with, there are multiple and conflicting traditions. Was the woman Mary, his friend from Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as John implies? Or was she someone unknown, who barged into the home of Simon the leper, as Mark says? Did she pour the oil over his head, or over his feet? Was this done to anticipate the anointing at his death and burial?


There are more questions than we can answer, but the discrepancies in the story need not detain us. The main teachings of the episode are two:


Firstly: the disciples, typically insensitive males, take exception to the excessive show of devotion from this female. “Why such a waste?” they ask. “Shouldn’t the money she spent on the perfume be given to the poor instead?” Interestingly, the objections are led by Judas, who, as is pointed out, didn’t so much as have the poor in mind as his own wishes. For he used to steal out of the common purse for his own use. Jesus has nothing but rebukes for his disciples. Religion is more than helping the poor, more than social work, he says. There is a space in religion for the heart to reveal itself -- and this is why he praises the woman’s gesture.


Secondly, the woman’s display of affection was public and transparent. It was also excessive, or so the disciples felt. But not Jesus. He is not embarrassed by it at all – as we might be if a strange woman grabbed our feet in public, and anointed us with perfume. Once again, Jesus has no patience with being ‘politically correct’. He praises the woman in unambiguous terms. “It’s a fine thing she has done for me,” he says. “She has done what lay within her power. She has anointed my body beforehand for burial. I tell you this, wherever in all the world the Gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as her memorial.”


Scattered throughout the Gospel are the prayers and deeds of the ‘plain men and women’. They are ordinary people. Often we don’t even know their names. Some of them are in desperate need. Others, like in this Gospel story, want to express what their heart feels, and they will not be pushed aside. What they ask and what they do has resounded through the centuries, and remembered with joy wherever the Gospel is proclaimed.

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