During this season of Lent, I think it is important to consider the people who were committed followers of Christ that don’t get as much shine as the named disciples. One person in particular that Jesus set apart is the unnamed woman who anointed him in the time frame immediately preceding Jesus’ Passion Week: the moments leading up to his betrayal, trial, and state-sanctioned execution.
We read about her in every Gospel:
And right away, we see there are inconsistencies: she is not named in Matthew or Mark, named “sinner” in Luke, and in John, she is identified as Mary, the sister of Lazarus. The inconsistencies here could simply mean Jesus received more than one anointing by different women over the course of his ministry. What we know for sure is that in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus utters that this thing she has done for him shall be spoken of wherever the Gospel is preached in the entire world “in remembrance of her.” In the sake of bypassing the sexism of the text that did not see fit to favor us with her name, I will name her Monica in remembrance not only of her gift to Jesus, but for all of the women in the Bible who have been marginalized by silence, and for all of us today who deal with similar levels of dismissal on the regular. (Have you checked out #BlackWomenAtWork? Imagine if the hashtag was #BlackWomenInChurch!)
This is exactly why I interpret this from a Black feminist perspective. I believe Jesus intended for all of us to see ourselves in these texts, and we can have a relationship with God without adhering to the treatment of women by the compilers of the texts that became our Holy Scriptures. After all, if there was no room for wrestling with the meaning of these texts, there would be no need for denominations, would there? Jesus meant for us to excavate these texts, to put on our overalls, miner’s hats and dig deep.
When reading the four accounts of this event, we also see differences right away with regard to where the anointing happened:
In Matthew, it took place at Simon the leper’s house
In Mark, it took place at Simon the leper’s house
In Luke, it happened at Simon the Pharisee’s house
In John, the woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha’s, and likely occurred at their home in Bethany
Clearly, something welled up on the inside of Monica that brought her out of her home and seeking Jesus in people’s houses. And she did not seek Jesus empty-handed.
She came with the best she could possibly offer him, for in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s telling of this story, she brought an alabaster box.
Alabaster comes from the city of Alabastron, known for the manufacturing of vases and the perfume trade. In the ancient world, the perfume would be sealed inside a porcelain vase, and to open it, you had to break the neck of the flask, somewhat like how contemporary salad dressings bottles are shaped. Inside would be a fragrance called nard (some of your Bibles may refer to it as spikenard), and it was a luxury import in a time before Amazon.com. To anoint someone, whether it was their head or their feet, would be understood as a gesture of supplication and respect. (I consulted the New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary for this definition.)
In other words, this here oil was expensive. And one thing Jesus talks about all over the Gospels is money. More than half of the parables talk about money, and there is a lot of money language in the Bible. Even when Jesus speaks from the cross, he uses money language when he says, “It is finished/The debt is paid.” This is the language of indentured servitude, that whatever debt you owed is now cleared.
“Jesus Paid It All” should have new meaning for you now.
But back to Monica. I believe there is something she did that made Jesus decree that this deed with always been spoken of about her, that she will always be remembered for her actions.
This woman’s gift to Jesus cost her; it was a sacrificial offering. She gave away her provision, what we might call a paycheck, to do something nice for Jesus.
Monica is probably poor herself. She had no name. She has no ID. She could not vote in an American election. She can’t get a loan. She has no debit card. She would be one of the many invisible poor people, the ones society often ignores. This woman gave away her wealth potential in order to bless Jesus.
Is Jesus saying we have to give all of our wealth away? Is Jesus saying the only way to be blessed is to be poor?
Here is what I think. Monica is to be remembered because Monica, through her own act of sacrifice, through her own gift of wealth, demonstrated exactly what Jesus came here to do: to give himself away. That he who had everything would give it away for everyone. That he who had so much favor would give it away so we could have favor too.
Monica would have been considered invisible in the ancient world. She knew what it was like to be judged. Heck, Simon the Pharisee calls her unclean! “Don’t let her touch you, Jesus. She is dirty Gertie.” Notice that the others don’t even bother to acknowledge her presence in the text! If anyone on this planet knows what it is like to have humanity shunned…disrespected…and unacknowledged…it is Black women in America. (We see you, April Ryan and Rep. Maxine Waters.) Consider this: maybe Jesus wants us to remember her so that we in turn should never forget anyone that society has drop kicked to the margins.
When we identify ourselves in Christ, he is the great leveler. Jesus levels the playing field. Jesus acknowledges Monica. Jesus sees her. Jesus says this thing you have done for me will not go unacknowledged. I see you. Your work will not be in vain. I see you. Matter of fact, let the record show, this will be done IN REMEMBRANCE OF HER. So let it be written. So let it be DONE.