Faith Matters: The anointing woman

  • The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm of the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew in Greenfield. Staff file photo/PAUL FRANZ

Associate Rector, The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew
Published: 4/4/2022 9:56:05 AM
Modified: 4/4/2022 9:55:27 AM

(Each Saturday, a faith leader offers a personal perspective in this space. To become part of this series, email

The gospel text for this Sunday in many Christian denominations is John’s account of the woman who anoints Jesus. As with other texts for these days approaching Holy Week, it is somber in tone, and this story is particularly poignant. In it, a woman anoints Jesus with perfumed oil (a rather shockingly intimate gesture). Another disciple objects to the action as representing a waste of funds that could have gone to the poor, and Jesus defends the expenditure on the oil as preparation for his burial.

I love this story not only for its emotional power and for its portrayal of Jesus’ humanity in the days before his death, but also because it provides a fascinating example of the ways in which the biblical narrative evolved and was shaped by the dynamics of a young Christian movement wrestling to understand a memory that did not fit their religious and cultural paradigms.

All four New Testament gospels include an anointing story, but they differ in the details. Mark’s account (Mk 14:3-9) is chronologically the earliest written. In it, an unnamed woman anoints Jesus’ head and the disciples, collectively, object to the gesture as wasteful. Jesus silences them, stating that “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” He then goes on to observe that “what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Matthew’s account (Matt 26:6-13) is virtually identical.

Luke’s gospel includes an anointing story (Lk 7:36-50) but the details are strikingly different. In it, the anointer is described as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.” Instead of anointing Jesus’ head, she anoints his feet after bathing them with her tears and drying them with her hair. When the homeowner criticizes Jesus for allowing himself to be touched by a sinner, Jesus responds by justifying her action as one of gratitude for the forgiveness of her sins.

Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Harvard professor of divinity, offers a compelling analysis of this change in the story. Noting that in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures the prophet designates the king by anointing his head, as Samuel did with David, she interprets Mark’s anointing narrative as representing the woman’s prophetic recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Further, Schussler-Fiorenza observes, in pairing the action with oil used at the time of burial, the woman is alone among the disciples in understanding Jesus’ messiahship to be one of suffering and death. “It was a politically dangerous story” for a patriarchal Greco-Roman audience, she contends, to have the woman disciple in the role of prophet and to have Jesus lift her up for remembrance. The memory was thus transformed by Luke, she suggests, into the more palatable narrative of the woman as sinner.

John’s account of the anointing (Jn 12:1-8), written decades after Mark, Matthew and Luke, seems to be the compromise version. John returns to the tradition of the anointing representing the woman’s preparation of Jesus’ body for burial, but tells the less controversial story that it is Jesus’ feet that are anointed. He also places the event at the home of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and identifies Mary as the anointing woman, implying that her attention is a gesture of support; during a trying week, she sees him.

The biblical narrative never fails to challenge us with its complexity, and it so often calls to us, as well, with its abiding wisdom. A gesture of love and recognition in a difficult time and place is a good idea for all of us.

About the church

The Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew is an emerging church community in Greenfield. We believe that God is calling us to cultivate a community of love, joy, hope and healing. Jesus is our model for a life of faith, compassion, hospitality and service. We strive to be affirming and accessible, welcoming and inclusive; we seek to promote reconciliation, exercise responsible stewardship, and embrace ancient traditions for modern lives. All are invited and welcomed. We worship in-person on Sundays at 10 a.m., and the services are also live-streamed on our Facebook page. 8 Church St., Greenfield. 413-773 3925;



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