The woman in the city
Mary of Bethany
Jesus spoke a remarkable encomium regarding Mary’s
action: “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be
preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done,
be told for a memorial of her” (Mt. 26:13). It is difficult to see how
Jesus could have spoken so enthusiastically about this action if it had already
been done by another woman in much more trying circumstances. But if this
incident was a reminiscence or recapitulation of the earlier occasion, done out
ot gratitude for all that it meant to Mary, as one redeemed by Jesus from an
evil way of life, no difficulty remains. It is almost what might be expected.
The words just quoted from Mt. 26:13 have an even stronger
force. In effect they ‘. are an instruction to all who set out to
tell the story about Jesus to include in their account the details of this
wonderful act of devotion. Accordingly, this has been done by Matthew, Mark and
John. But where is it in Luke, if not in his chapter 7? Apart from this
identification of the two women, it would appear that Luke has failed to follow
his Lord’s instruction!
Jn. 11:2 introduces the account of the raising of Lazarus
with this allusion to Mary: “It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with
ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair”. Is this an anticipation of
the record which is to follow in the next chapter?-in which case it reads very
strangely (especially those past tenses). Or is it an allusion to an act of
service which Mary had already performed on some occasion prior to
the raising of her brother, i.e. Luke 7? The latter explanation is not hindered
by having to be read as an allusion by John to one of the other gospels, for
there are quite a few examples of this in the Fourth Gospel.
Mark 14:3 places that anointing in the home of “Simon
the leper”, who presumably was either the father of Lazarus and his
sisters or else the husband of Martha. The record of Luke 7 has that anointing
taking place in the house of Simon the Pharisee. This coincidence of name, if it
stood by itself, would carry little weight as evidence of identification because
Simon was a very common name among the Jews, but when set alongside several
other lines of evidence it becomes much more cogent. Equating the two
Simon’s also puts much more point to the Lord’s miniparable of the
two debtors. If he had been healed of his leprosy and she of her moral leprosy,
the fifty and five hundred pence take on much greater relevance.
The astonishing identity of detail between Luke 7 and the
records in the other gospels calls for some sort of explanation -Jesus at the
meal table, the use of an alabaster container, the anointing of his feet, and
the wiping of them with the woman’s hair. Such things-three of them very
unusual-are not to be explained by an airy use of the word
“coincidence”. They demand some kind of connection between the two
incidents. One possible explanation is that Mary was repeating earlier occasion
and was deliberately imitating it (but then Mt. 26:13 is decidedly difficult).
The other explanation that Mary was repeating her earlier action, is much more
forceful and much more likely.
The details of Luke 7 pose several problems which the
commentators almost invariably slide past. How did Simon know
“who and what manner of woman this is”? She was known to him
personally! Also, it is evident from the detailed description given by Jesus
himself that this woman was aware precisely what courtesies Simon had studiously
neglected to offer to Jesus. How did she know to make good these very omissions?
Is the reader not bound to conclude that she had been a witness of the
systematic neglect of courtesy as Jesus arrived in the house? Again, how did she
get into the house at all? The common slick assumption, with negligible
supporting evidence, that in those days it was permissible for onlookers to walk
into a home to view the progress of a meal, is just too ridiculous. And is it
conceivable that such a man as this Pharisee would readily grant the freedom of
his home to such a woman known to be such a woman. Clearly she was there because
she had a right to be there. Further, in the expression “she brought
an alabaster box of ointment (7:37) the verb strictly means
“received” (it is so translated in all its ten other occurrences in
the New Testament). She “received” this “when she knew that
Jesus sat at meat”. From whom? The most obvious explanation is: from one
of the servants in the house. She was in a position to issue instructions there.
Does not this considerable combination of details require the conclusion that
she was one ot the household? This was her home.
There is a strange inconsistency between the Pharisee’s
issuing of an invitation to Jesus and then carefully snubbing him on arrival by
neglecting all signs of welcome. But if indeed Simon had himself been healed by
Jesus and if there were three (or maybe four) other members of the family eager
to offer hospitality, it is easy to understand how the invitation was grudgingly
offered and then, to save face with his Pharisee friends, followed with a cool
Mk. 14:3 uses the puzzling description: “pistic
nard” about the ointment used by Mary. The phrase has had commentators
guessing. Since pistikos is obviously connected with pistis,
faith, the most likely reading is “faith ointment”. Then is it
called by this name in this gospel to recall the earlier warm approval of Jesus:
Thy faith hath saved thee” (Lk. 7:50)?
A further small detail. Judas was the son of Simon Iscariot
(Jn. 6:71). This is a slender reason for making him the son of the Simon in
Luke 7, Simon the leper (Mk. 14:3). But if correct, then Judas was a
brother of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. It is now more significant that he should
lead the critiscm of Mary (Jn. 12:4, 5-where he is specially called
Simon’s son). If this took place in his own home, and Mary were his own
sister, he would be the more ready to voice such criticism. And the line he took
was not dissimilar to that taken by Simon in Luke 7:39.
This identification rests primarily on an argument from
omission which, in this particular instance (though by no means always), has
special force. The sudden prominence of Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion and
resurrection is given no explanation in the gospels. Before this she is
mentioned, with the utmost brevity, only in Lk.8:2. Alongside this fact
is the unexplained absence of Mary of Bethany from both crucifixion and
resurrection. Yet she was the one who loved Jesus so intensely, and her home was
at most only a mile and a half away from all the happenings which were more
important to her than anything else in life. These facts have an air of
strangeness about them until the equation of these two Mary’s is
attempted, and then there is no problem.
The next two points to be mentioned here will be of no value
whatever to some readers of the gospels, but for others will be almost decisive.
So much here depends on one’s personal approach to Scripture.
Is it just a coincidence that every time these two women are mentioned, they are at the feet of Jesus!?
Mary of Bethany sat at his feet, hearing his discourse, when Martha wished her to help with the meal (Lk. 10:39-42). On the occasion of the raising of Lazarus, Mary “fell down at his feet” (Jn. 11:32). And, of course, the anointing of Jesus brought her kneeling at his feet (Jn. 12:3). Mary Magdalene was at the feet of Jesus at the cross (Jn. 19:25). And at the resurrection it was surely because she worshipped him and held him by the feet that he had to say to her: “Do not keep on touching (or, holding) me” (Jn. 20:17; Mt. 28:9).
The same was, of course, true of the woman described in Lk. 7:38.
Also, with perhaps one exception, these women are described as
being in tears (or this is fairly clearly implied). Certainly, at the grave-side
of Lazarus and at the foot of the cross. Certainly also, at the tomb of Jesus,
both at his burial and at his resurrection (Lk. 23:55; Jn. 20:13). And since in
two other instances (Lk. 10:40; Jn. 12:5, 7) she was the object of censure and
complaint, tears were very probably the consequence then. Lk. 7:38 specifically
mentions tears at that anointing of Jesus. Is such remarkable harmony admissible
as evidence or not?
The only mention of Mary Magdalene before the crucifixion
narrative comes immediately offer the record of the anointing of Jesus (Lk.8:2).
Is this just accident, or is it Luke’s delicate way of suggesting
The name “Magdalene” is often taken as meaning
“from Magdala”. But it could just as easily be “the
hair-braider”, that is, the harlot. Such a name would have special
relevance if at her first meeting with Jesus she wiped his feet with her hair
The phrase: “which ministered to him of their
substance” (Lk. 8:3) is specially apposite to the anointing of Jesus,
which was lavish in its costliness and was yet the most humble ministry
“Out of whom went seven devils” can be interpreted
only by its one other occurrence -- the parable of the cleansed house taken over
by unclean spirits n (Lk. 11:26). This rather grotesque little parable is
interpreted by Jesus as a picture of the moral depravity which o would overtake
his nation because of a their refusal to receive him as the rightful
“tenant” of the “house” (Mt. 12:45). Then does not this
indicate indirectly the 10 earlier character of Mary Magdalene?