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The Unnamed Woman With the Alabaster Jar

On January 11, 2017

How do we get from sinner to whore in our perception of Bible women? (Note: this offensive term is used only to highlight the false dichotomy applied to Bible women, not to imply that any women should bear this label).

In Luke 7:36-39, a broken, sobbing, unnamed woman enters the home where Jesus is dining. She anoints his feet with oil and tears, wiping them with her hair. The men present talk about her like she isn’t even there. They are offended by the “sinner” in their presence.

In our modern context, it is easy to read “promiscuous” into the character of the mystery woman. Christians have a historical tendency to interpret Bible women’s non-specific sin as sexual sin, and often, female promiscuity is inferred with no support from the actual text. The story of Jesus’ anointing by an unnamed woman in Luke is a prime example of our tendency to label and shame Bible women.

Sometimes Bible teachers go beyond insinuation and insist that the unnamed woman was certainly a prostitute—again, based on no explicit scriptural evidence. Speakers often claim that no one would have touched the unnamed women, making her anointing of Jesus even more scandalous. An NASB footnote calls her “immoral,” and there is a lot of speculation around her character. All manner of assumptions about the root of her “bad reputation” are heaped upon her.

But what’s the real story?

“It was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick” (John 11:2 NASB).

Both Luke's and John's gospels include an account of this story. But in John, the unnamed woman is identified as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. However, the status of Luke 7's unnamed woman’s as a sexually disgraced woman, a prostitute, is so unquestioned that some scholars argue that she must not be the same woman as the Mary in John's account. This creates two discordant parallel gospel accounts and would mean that:

1. Jesus was twice invited to a Pharisee’s home to eat, on separate occasions.

2. On both occasions, the Pharisee who invited Jesus was named Simon.

3. During both meals, a woman came in and anointed Jesus by pouring oil on his feet.

4. The woman who anointed Jesus with oil in Luke’s account is a sexually disgraced prostitute and the woman who anointed Jesus with oil in John, in an entirely separate story, is a respected follower of Jesus.

It’s not unreasonable to suppose that two women might have anointed Jesus with oil. But it is unreasonable to assume that. The unnamed woman is assumed to be a prostitute in Luke’s account, while in John’s version, she is Mary. But if these two passages do refer to the same woman, Mary, we must challenge our assumptions about the woman who anointed Jesus with oil.

Let’s take a closer look at Mary.

In the account of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, Mary confronted Jesus for not being there to save her brother. She then returned to her mourning. She didn’t understand who Jesus really was and he was so deeply troubled by it that he wept. He asked to be taken to Lazarus and then raised him from the dead.

Mary, who sat at the feet of the Master, and was commended for choosing the better thing, missed it.

But then, she witnessed the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection.

Mary responded by coming once again to kneel at the feet of Jesus, this time with understanding of who he truly was. In a beautiful act of faith, she broke a costly jar of perfume and anointed Jesus. In a beautiful expression of humility, she cried at his feet. In a beautiful moment of repentance, she dried his feet with her own hair.

Crowds who had heard what Jesus did for Lazarus gathered. Simon, the Pharisee, was embarrassed that Jesus would allow such a “sinful woman” to touch him. Again, we are not told why Mary is called “sinful” in Luke’s account.

But Jesus confronted Simon about his judgmental assumptions about Mary. He encouraged Mary to keep the rest of the oil for the day of his burial—a promise that she would be there to anoint him once again on that day.

When Jesus was taken from the cross and laid in a tomb, “Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave” (Matthew 27:61).

Mary was no doubt holding that same alabaster jar she used to anoint Jesus in the home of Simon. She stood ready to anoint her savior again. What a privilege to be among the women who first learned that he had risen!

The believer who anointed Jesus before his crucifixion wasn’t a nameless woman with a history of sexual sin. She was Mary, a dedicated follower of Jesus. Casting another woman in that role because we struggle to reconcile two accounts of the same woman is not honest. The unnamed woman in Luke did not randomly wander into that dinner, carrying oil to spontaneously pour on the Teacher who would be the Messiah. No, she came with a purpose—to anoint her savior.

Mary’s story challenges us to look at Scripture with fresh, unbiased eyes and reexamine traditional Christian teaching about women. Women can learn at the feet of the Messiah like Mary did. We can serve in his ministry like Mary did. And when we fall short and miss Jesus’ true character, we can go to him without shame. And just like Mary, we will find acceptance and hope.

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