We are reading Matthew 26:1-13 for Sunday, April 14. This is Matthew’s version of the story of “the anointing woman” or “the anointing at Bethany.” [Discussion questions for this text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:
CONTEXT AND BACKGROUND: This is the third in a series of five texts from Matthew’s gospel – with its focus on prophetic fulfillment, emphasis on Jesus’ role in the context of ancient Israelite tradition, frequent incorporation of wisdom themes, and careful organization around several developed teaching discourses.
Our text specifically refers to “all these things” that Jesus has just finished saying. “All these things” seems to include the sayings and teachings from 21:18 through the end of 25. They include Jesus’ answers to questions posed by members of the Jewish factions at the Temple, Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem and litany of woes on the Pharisees and scribes, his eschatological predictions in chapter 24 and the three eschatological parables in chapter 25 (the bridesmaids, the parable of the talents, and the judgment of the nations). All of this occurs after Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and cleansing of the Temple (Matthew 21:1-17).
After this text, the narrative moves on to the events of Holy Week: Judas’ betrayal, the last supper, Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest, and the whole ensuring process.
The exposition and story in Matthew 26:1-13 definitively and explicitly orient the narrative towards Jesus’ impending death.
The basic material in this passage is in all the gospels: Jesus telling the disciples about his upcoming death; the plotting of the people’s leaders to have Jesus killed; and the story of the anointing woman.
The story of “the anointing woman” is told in each of the gospels (Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8). Details differ from telling to telling. Enough to make some readers identify the events as separate, discrete events. I confess, it seems incredible to me that more than one woman would have poured expensive perfume on Jesus at more than one dinner party, but I suppose that’s not intrinsically more incredible than thinking that Jesus raised people from the dead. More commonly, we conflate the details in the stories to come up with a kind of merged, single story. I’ll try not to do that, on the assumption that Matthew had a reason for including what he included and leaving out what he left out. One detailed comparison & contrast of the stories is J. Lyle Story’s in the Priscilla Papers.
The setting is Bethany – a place near Jerusalem. Bethany has been mentioned once before in Matthew’s gospel (21:17), as the place Jesus overnights after arriving in Jerusalem. [John’s gospel is what makes us think of Bethany as the home base of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.]
More specifically, the story takes place at the house of “Simon the leper.” Maybe the evangelist’s community knew this person – we don’t, really. However, we are probably wrong to think of lepers in Jesus’ time as shunned or living all alone in caves like in Ben Hur. According to Myrick C. Shinall, Jr., based on Biblical, Second Temple and Talmudic sources,
… the evidence for the exclusion of the leprous from first-century Jewish society is much less certain than is generally realized. Without this assumption, the gospel texts do not convey the message that lepers were excluded. Indeed, there is evidence in the gospels that lepers enjoyed relatively unhindered social access.
Alabaster is a soft stone, used a lot for carving decorative items, since ancient times. One source said alabaster perfume flasks were made so that the narrow neck could be broken off to release perfume – but then, they couldn’t be reclosed.
Matthew uses the general term “ointment,” as does Luke. Mark and John specify that it was nard (or spikenard, which is still used in perfumery, and is still really expensive). How expensive was it? John specifies “300 denarii,” and in Mark “some who were there” estimate its worth as maybe more than that. Based on the general info that a denarius was about a day’s wages for an average worker, then about a year’s wages. Matthew is content to tell us that it was “very costly” or “precious.”
Anointing has traditional scriptural and social significance. Who is anointed? Priests (e.g., in Leviticus 8, especially Leviticus 8:12, Moses presides over the ordination of Aaron and his sons, and pours anointing oil on their heads). Kings, especially (e.g., 1 Samuel 10:1, Samuel anoints Saul; there are MANY references to the anointing of kings and to kings as God’s anointed). Prophets (so I was told by some authoritative source, at least once, but the concordance doesn’t support this too well; Psalm 105:15 might be a bit of evidence for that). People occasionally seem to anoint themselves (e.g., Ruth 3:3, Ecclesiastes 9:8. And btw, look at Ecclesiastes 7:1 – “A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death, than the day of birth.”) Things, like altars, that need to be consecrated for use in the service of God, are also anointed – everything in the Tabernacle, for instance, and Jacob’s altar at Bethel (Genesis 28:18, 31:13). And the dead were anointed, presumably both for practical reasons, and because human beings mark the significance of death with ritual (e.g., Mark 16:1).
There may be a gender dimension to anointing. Anyone can anoint him- or herself. Men anoint kings and priests. Women seem to have anointed the dead.
Part of the issue of the details seems to be what the particular evangelist is emphasizing in the story. The extravagance? The scandal of “wasting resources”? The social position of the woman? The social position of the host? The symbolism of the anointing? In Matthew’s version, the main emphasis seems to be on the act of anointing, and expectations around that. Here’s why I say that:
At the very beginning of the gospel, Matthew introduces Jesus as the Messiah (the moshiach, literally the anointed), “the son of David” (king), “the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Anointing is necessary, and anointing as king is expected. Unless we count his baptism in chapter 3 as a kind of anointing – and maybe we should – this anointing in chapter 26 is the only physical anointing Jesus will receive. Jesus himself says it’s preparation “for burial.” So this anointing scene is full of fulfilled and of expectation-reversing symbolism in Matthew’s gospel: a woman anointing a king, a king being anointed for burial …
I also think there is at least a whiff of the wisdom literature hovering over this story, considering that Matthew draws on the wisdom literature throughout his gospel, that “a woman” is unnamed, making her more a symbol than a particular individual; that her act is a very public declaration (compare Woman Wisdom’s public activity in Proverbs 1:21-33, 8:1-21); and that this anonymous Woman is, as we would expect of Wisdom, really rich – rich enough to pour out very costly ointment on the head of the beloved Jesus. So that the story may function as a literary statement, or at least suggestion, that Jesus is the anointed one of Wisdom (“a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty” Wisdom of Solomon 7:25).
CLOSER READING: We could subdivide our thirteen verses: 1-2 Jesus’ announcement of the time and its significance – his death is approaching; 3-5 a window on the opposition, which in a parallel move is trying to bring about Jesus’ death; 6-13 the anointing.
In v2, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. We have a tendency to think of this as his more “human” name, but we probably should think of it as a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, making it quite the opposite.
In v4, the word translated “arrest” is literally “hold.” Ironically, they will not be able to “hold” Jesus, even after he is killed. In v5, the word translated “riot” is literally something like “commotion” or “noise.” Again, ironically, there will definitely be a lot of noise about Jesus – both right after his death, when there will be an earthquake and a huge commotion (Matthew 27:51-53), and after the resurrection, when the commotion will extend to people of all nations.
In v6, Matthew doesn’t specify the contents of the ointment – possibly because if it were pure nard, it would violate normative guidelines for appropriate Jewish behavior. Matthew’s version doesn’t present the scene as scandalous, except for “the waste” that the disciples have a problem with.
The disciples are missing the point of the action of anointing.
Jesus defends the act in vv10-13, responding to the disciples’ anger that they seem not to have expressed to Jesus directly, since he is “aware” of it.
Jesus’ defense includes a wisdom saying (“there’s a time for everything”), that emphasizes the limited time they have left with him; a positive evaluation (“a good work”); a symbolic re-interpretation of the action (“this is burial anointing”); and a prophetic declaration or maybe a command, linking her action to “this good news.”
We might ask ourselves which good news “this” is here: that the kingdom of heaven has come near, that Jesus is about to be arrested and crucified, the whole story …?
We might also wonder whether this event has anything to do, in the way Matthew has plotted the story, with Judas Iscariot’s action in v14. It’s the next thing that happens, so the proximity is suggestive. At a minimum, it draws a contrast between the action of the woman, pouring out something of value to bless Jesus, and the action of the traitorous disciple, taking something of value to harm Jesus.
We might notice that the story gives us a number of perspectives (the outsiders, the woman, the host, the disciples, including Judas) to identify with, or choose from, prompting the question “who are we in this story”?
Shinall, Myrick C., Jr. “The Social Condition of Lepers in the Gospels.” in Journal of Biblical Literature. 137:4 (Winter, 2018), 915-934.