The anointing of Jesus by “a woman” (thus in gospels of Mark 14: 3-9 and Matthew; “a woman in the city who was a sinner” in Luke 7: 36-50; or Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus in gospel of John 12: 1-8) is found in all four gospels in the Bible. Here only the author of the gospel of John identifies the woman as Mary. Because of its subtle variations the reader is invited to compare all the four narratives. Another noted point is that Jesus’ words “She has prepared me for my burial” are missing in the narrative given by Luke. But all the four gospel narratives have the basic elements of the event.
In the beginning verses of this chapter, Matthew 26: 1-5, we see the chief priests and elders of the people are gathered in the “palace” (keep this in mind as you read further) of Caiaphas in order to plot to eliminate Jesus. While in the following verses (Mt 26: 6-13) we find Jesus in the house of a leper, who is ritually unclean and therefore outcast. The woman pours costly ointment on the head of Jesus. Her action is one of devotion that expresses itself in an extra-ordinary and generous gesture: “costly ointment” being “poured” out on him. In the gospel of Matthew “the disciples” (in gospel of Mark it is mentioned as “some” and in the gospel of John it is ‘Judas’) object to the woman’s action with indignation. Jesus however finds a great significance in this action. We could identify four of them: 1) That “she has done a beautiful thing to me;” 2) Jesus adds: “you always have the poor with you;” 3) “But you will not always have me;” and 4) She has prepared me for burial.” In saying that she has prepared him for the burial, Jesus is shown to have clear knowledge that he would be buried without the traditional anointing of his body.
In Matthew 25: 31-46 Jesus had greatly emphasised on caring for the poor. Therefore, the saying of Jesus about the poor must be understood without in any way minimising the priority of service. It is not a question of one or the other. Jesus’ reply makes one fundamental point absolutely clear. Loving devotion to the Crucified takes precedence over all else. In other words, between the two important priorities of devotion to the Lord and service to the poor, the former is ever uniquely greater. The episode thus proclaims ‘who Jesus is’ and what is expected of all his disciples. The woman thus becomes an example to be emulated, for she recognises, as the Gospel presents, the crucified Lord in Jesus. Her faith, as it were, sees through. Her outpouring of devotion to Jesus is an exemplary disciple-like act. We should also note that “good work” mentioned in the gospel of Matthew is a recognisable quality and sign of an authentic disciple (Mt 5: 16).