We find Jesus again in Bethany, a home base of sorts during the final days of his ministry, at the home of Simon, a man previously healed of leprosy. While Mark does not name the people eating with Jesus, this account is a parallel to John’s story of a dinner with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and the disciples. The names, however, are not important to Mark. What is important is the gift Jesus receives and his response to it.
While they eat, a woman comes to the table with an expensive jar of ointment, pure nard. What the woman does next astonishes the guests. She breaks open the jar and pours its entire contents on Jesus’ head. The sweet fragrance fills the room. Some of the guests begin to complain: “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold . . . and the money given to the poor.” This jar of ointment could easily cost almost a year’s wages, so this was not a casual gesture on the woman’s part. But the guests begin to scold her.
Jesus objects to their attack on the woman’s generosity, telling them to leave her alone. What the guests see as waste, Jesus recognizes as a gift. He tells them that she has anointed his body for burial—a gift that will be remembered long after the fragrance is gone. Sure, he wants his friends to care for the poor, but Jesus also knows that he will not be on this earth much longer. Whether she knew it or not, at that moment, the woman recognized the value of Jesus’ presence and responded in love. He commends her for her act of extravagant love: “She has performed a good service for me.”
Jesus’ appreciation of the woman’s gift calls to mind his teaching in the temple earlier in the week. While the value of the two gifts is very different, Mark chooses to highlight Jesus’ recognition of two women who show love in extravagant ways.
One woman is a widow who gives all that she has (Mark 12:41–44), and the other is a woman who gives perhaps the most valuable thing her family owns. Jesus commends both women as examples of giving from the heart.
The widow’s gift contrasts with the pompous attitude of the religious elites who loudly drop their many coins in the offering box. This woman’s extravagant gift of anointing contrasts with the stinginess of the other guests who seem not to recognize who is sitting in their midst.
Often unseen and unappreciated, both the woman in today’s story and the widow at the temple are highlighted as examples of true discipleship in Mark’s Gospel—good news for these two women and all who live on the margins of society.