All the Gospels narrate the story about a woman who anoints Jesus (Matt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Lk 7:36-50; Jn 12:1-8)—an event that Matthew, Mark, and John locate in the town of Bethany. According to the first two Gospels, the woman prompts Jesus to declare, “Amen, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matt 26:13; Mk 14:9). Why does the Messiah laud this woman’s deed so highly? What’s so wonderful about the woman at Bethany? The answer lies the way that her action anticipates Jesus’ self-sacrifice and points to the good news of God’s love.
According to Matthew and Mark, as Jesus ate a meal, “a woman came with an alabaster jar of ointment… and broke the jar and poured it over his head” (Matt 26:7; cf. Mk 14:3). Though the disciples scold the woman for wasting perfume that could have been sold for the sake of the poor, Jesus responds, “Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for me…. She has anointed my body (σῶμά μου; somá mou) beforehand for burial” (Mk 14:6, 8; cf. Matt 26:10, 12). Jesus’ interpretation of the woman’s good deed foreshadows his words at the Last Supper: “Take, eat; this is my body (σῶμά μου; somá mou)” (Mk 14:22; cf. Matt 26:26). Thus, the woman at Bethany anticipates the sacrificial quality of Jesus’ body and plays a preparatory role prior to his atoning death.
In John, the woman—whom the Fourth Gospel identifies as Mary, the sister of Lazarus (cf. Jn 11:2; 12:3)—anoints Jesus’ feet, rather than his head. Mary “took a litra of expensive ointment… and anointed Jesus’ feet (πόδας; pódas) and wiped (ἐκμάσσω; ekmásso) his feet with her hair” (12:3). Mary’s action at Bethany anticipates Jesus’ foot-washing a chapter later. Yeshua “poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet (πόδας; pódas) and to wipe [them] (ἐκμάσσω; ekmásso) with the towel that was wrapped around him” (13:5). Jesus’ willingness to wash his disciples’ feet reflects his self-sacrificial love for them, and tells them, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (13:34). This same love appears in the most famous verse of the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his unique Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). In John, the woman at Bethany provides Jesus with the template for washing his disciples’ feet and expressing his self-sacrificial love before his journey to the cross.
The woman at Bethany presages Jesus’ ultimate gift of forgiveness through sacrifice. It is for this reason that Jesus says “what she has done will also be told in memory (εἰς μνημόσυνον; eis mnemósunon) of her” (Matt 26:13; Mk 14:9). Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples to partake of the Last Supper “in remembrance (εἰς… ἀνάμνησιν; eis anámnesin) of me” (Lk 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25). Just as Jesus’ followers remember his death through the partaking of bread and wine, the Gospels say that the woman at Bethany will be remembered because she pointed to the importance of that very death. Yet, today, there is no memorial meal or holiday in memory of the woman at Bethany. This Passover/Holy Week, we might choose to affirm Jesus’ wonder at this woman by celebrating an evening in her honor!