Woman Anointing Jesus' Head and Woman washing Jesus' feet. Cistercian Manuscript, Basel, 1260 CE.  by Cistercian Manuscript, Basel, 1260 CE

The Anointing Woman — Luke 7:36-8:3

Kathleen Rushton reveals that the woman who anoints Jesus’ head in Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7:36-8:3 is a different woman from Mary Magdalene or Mary of Bethany, with whom tradition has confused her.

Do you share the surprise on the faces of the two disciples on the left and right of the woman at the top of the remarkable The Anointing illustration of 1260? My students do. After comparing and contrasting the anointing woman stories in the four gospels, they exclaim: “Anointing Jesus’ head? Never heard that before!”

The two stories telling of a woman anointing Jesus’ head for healing as he faces his coming death (Mt 26:6–13; Mk 14:3–9), are eclipsed in interpretation and art. The focus was on the woman called a sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet (Lk 7:36–50) or on Mary of Bethany (Jn 12:1–8). The Anointing shows both traditions.

The Sunday Roman Lectionary also eclipses the head-anointing tradition despite Jesus’ words that “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark’s account is heard in the passion story on Palm Sunday (Year B). Only Luke’s anointing woman is proclaimed (Year C, 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time). Lk 8:1–3 is added, which has contributed to fusing her with Mary Magdalene.

Ministering Women

I am beginning with a passage unique to Luke 8:1–3, in order to unravel who Luke’s anointing woman is. Jesus went “through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God”. Accompanying him were the twelve along with some women. We learn they “had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities”; seven demons had gone out from Mary called Magdalene; and “they provided for them out of their resources”.

Ancients attributed many illnesses to demon possession. Demons can unite into an evil seven (Lk 8:2; Mt 12:45). “Seven” means a great number and indicates frequency and power (cf. Mk 16:9; Lk 11:26). The text emphasises the greatness of Jesus’ power. However the interpretive tradition focused on Mary.

The Greek verb translated as “provided” (diakonein) has a range of meanings. In Luke’s gospel it is applied to the mother-in-law of Simon (Lk 4:39), Martha (LK 10:40), vigilant servants (Lk 12:37) and in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples at the Last Supper (Lk 22:25–27). In Lk 8:1–3 it is used of women, not in the domestic space, but in the public space of missionary travel.

Mary, Joanna, Suzanna and the women seem to be wealthy patrons of Jesus’ mission. Joanna, wife of Chuza, King Herod’s steward, had wealth and status. The use of material possessions and discipleship recurs in Luke-Acts. Jesus warns against wealth, tells of the faithful poor and invites some to leave their wealth and follow him. For some, the call to follow Jesus does not mean to leave their goods but to open their homes and share with the community. Christians were known for sharing everything in common (Acts 2:42–47; 4:32–37). These Lucan women are like Mary, at whose house disciples gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12) and Lydia, seller of purple cloth (Acts 16:14).

She is Not Mary Magdalene

A dominant error in the Western Church since the time of Gregory the Great has been the fusion of several gospel women into one character — Mary Magdalene, the assumed sexual sinner. In the 1962 Marian Missal we find the heading for the 22nd July feast day: St Mary Magdalen, Penitent, and a blurb describes her as “first a sinner ... converted by the Lord”. She was by the cross. Jesus showed himself to her and made her his messenger to announce his resurrection to the apostles. The Collect Prayer further confuses her with Lazarus’s sister: “Jesus in answer to her prayers didst raise her brother Lazarus to life, after he had been dead for four days”. The gospel for the day (Lk 7:36-50) further confuses her with yet another woman. This fusion and confusion of the sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet with Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene at the cross and witness to the resurrection, lingers even today in the imagination, art and preaching.

We find a very different focus in the 1969 Missal issued in the Liturgical Reform of Vatican II and in the retranslated Missal (2010). The Proper Prayers for the feast speak of Mary Magdalene as the first person entrusted by Jesus “with the joyful news of his resurrection”. The gospel is the story of Jesus’ resurrection and commission (Jn 20:1–2; 11–18). The Missals erase centuries of sexualising and demonising Mary Magadelene. They reinstate Mary Magdalene officially to her early Church title, Apostle of the Apostles. In the Eastern Church, which has never regarded her as sexual sinner, she has the title, Equal to the Apostles.

Who Is the Woman?

Luke is the only evangelist to describe the one who anoints Jesus’ feet as “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” (Lk 7:37). He uses the same word for sinner (h’amartōlos) to describe the woman and Peter (Lk 5:8). (Interpreters have never speculated about the nature of Peter’s sinfulness even though Luke stresses this in his “call” story.)

The anointing story is set in the context of a meal in Galilee during Jesus’ ministry. The meals of the well-to-do were in two phases. During the first appetisers were served as servants waited on guests, washing and anointing them with perfumed oils. The main courses followed. Men and women ate separately and a widow was the only woman permitted to serve men at meals. Simon the Pharisee had taken no measures to ensure other women did not enter. He had not provided the expected hospitality. However the woman does.

Some form of the word “anointing” is used five times in the narrative (Lk 7:38, 46). The woman’s touching of Jesus’ feet, washing them with her hair and anointing them are all bodily expressions. They are combined with elements of the Earth — a precious alabaster jar filled with expensive perfumed vegetable oil (myron).

A tension exists in this text. While Lk 7:37 states the woman was a sinner, the tense of the Greek verb means “used to be.” Then in some ancient literature anointing feet with myron had strong sexual connotations. The focus slips to the forgiveness of sins rather than staying on the healing tradition of the woman anointing Jesus as he faced death. The woman’s actions and motivation are more important than her sinfulness.

A parable about debtors is inserted. The central point is forgiveness. John Pilch explains how Mediterranean peasants got into debt. Their meagre resources were taken by tithes, taxes and tolls. When they became indebted and unable to repay their loans, they lost their lands and became tenant share croppers. Jesus’ ancestors may have shared that fate, as those dispossessed of land often became artisans, like the carpenters. Material indebtedness through the powerful’s injustice and land exploitation in the parable told by Jesus, helped to illustrate the forgiveness of sin. Exploitation by indebtedness and negative sexual connotations underpin this narrative.

Kevin Beale in Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World (2016) tells heart-wrenching stories of vulnerable people in the Eastern Congo, who through indebtedness are driven from their lands and end up in slavery in our own times. It includes working in mines and quarries which bring about the degradation of the Earth through the extraction of minerals like tin and coltan used to make my cell phone. Women particularly suffer sexual violence in addition to hard labour. We can reflect on how Luke might tell his story in this context? And how Jesus might tell his parable of debtors?

Published in Tui Motu InterIslands magazine. Issue 205 June 2016.