According to the four Gospels, Jesus was anointed only by a woman. This woman’s identity is obscure and her action ambiguous. Like a good parable, these stories confound our pious expectations and expose our self-serving rationalizations. Luke’s variant of this story stands out as particularly incongruent with the other Gospels. Indeed, I will argue that Luke deliberately inverts the story to further his vision of Jesus as the prophet of the poor, women, and untouchables.
I will begin by setting out the basic structure of the story. In subsequent paragraphs, I will compare the content choices of Luke to the other accounts, noting in particular how and why key elements have been inverted. Finally, I will summarize the resulting impact of Luke’s retelling. The basic story is as follows. I note with emphasis where Luke departs from other Gospels.
a. Time – Two (Mt, Mk) or six (Jn) days before Jesus final Passover; early in Jesus ministry (Lk)
b. Location – Bethany, near Jerusalem (Mt, Mk, Jn); Galilee (Lk)
c. Host – Simon, the Leper (Mt, Mk); Simon, the Pharisee (Lk); Lazarus & Martha (Jn)
d. Jesus' posture – Reclining at table (Mt, Mk, Lk, Jn)
2. Action of woman
a. Characterization of woman – “a woman” (Mt, Mk); “woman from the city…a sinner” (Lk); Mary, sister of Martha & Lazarus (Jn)
b. The ointment – Alabaster jar of costly ointment of nard (Mt, Mk, Lk); pound of costly perfume of nard (Jn)
c. Method of anointing – Pouring on head (Mt, Mk); anointing feet and wiping with hair (Lk, Jn), also weeping and kissing feet (Lk)
3. Reaction of indignant critic
a. Identification of the critic – “some were indignant” (Mk); some indignant disciples (Mt); the host Simon, the Pharisee (Lk); Judas Iscariot (Jn)
b. Object of indignation – The woman (Mt, Mk, Jn); Jesus (Lk)
c. Rationalization – Extravagant use of costly resource better spent on the poor (Mt, Mk, Jn); Impropriety of prophet who allows himself to be touched by a sinner (Lk)
4. Jesus’ response to criticism
a. Defense of woman’s action – A beautiful gesture, preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (Mt, Mk, Jn); woman’s hospitality contrasted with the inhospitality of host/critic (Lk)
b. Rebuke of critic – Critic does not really care about the poor (Mk, Jn); parable of forgiveness leads critic to judge against himself (Lk)
c. Wisdom teaching – “You will always have that poor, but you will not always have me.” (Mt, Mk, Jn); “The one who is forgiven much, loves much.” (Lk)
d. Vindication of woman – Gospel will be proclaimed “in remembrance of her” (Mt, Mk); woman’s sins forgiven by her faith expressed in great love (Lk); Jesus follows Mary’s example by washing disciples feet (Jn 15:1-17)
The setting in Luke is clearly inverted. The other accounts place this story in Bethany near Jerusalem just days before Jesus’ final Passover. Luke places the story near the Sermon on the Plain (6:20-49) at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not at the end. Given Luke’s geographical sequence, this places Jesus in Galilee before he sets “his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). This is not the time or place for Jesus to be honored as the Messiah, thus Luke is merely establishing Jesus as a prophet among the people, especially the Galileans.
Curiously “Simon” is the host’s name in the three synoptics, but Luke characterizes him as a Pharisee, not a leper. Luke contrasts the piety of Simon with the sinfulness of the woman and sets up the listener for the reversal at the end wherein the woman is justified, but Simon is condemned. Had Luke followed Matthew and Mark in calling Simon a leper, the reversal would not be possible. A leper would have been untouchable, just as a sinful woman would have no place touching a holy prophet. Furthermore, setting Simon as a Pharisee aligns him with all the “righteous” ones who hear Jesus, but ultimately do not receive him or heed him as a true prophet. Jesus’ identity as a prophet is at stake in Luke’s characterization of Simon.
The synoptics concur on particular details of the “alabaster jar of ointment.” I take such agreement to suggest that Luke was consciously adapting the story in Mark and Matthew. Moreover, Luke does not place his version in Bethany at Jesus’ final Passover. The lack of such a “doublet” suggests that Luke is deliberately inverting this story and not simply including a different, though similar story.
Luke clearly inverts the method of anointing in Matthew and Mark. Here not the head, but the feet are anointed. Anointing the head may be seen as a prophetic or priestly act, potentially placing the woman in a high spiritual status. The ambiguity of this act is the basis for the disciples’ reaction against the presumption of the woman. Such ambiguity also gives the story some of the force of a parable. It is subversive to assert that Jesus’ messianic anointing on earth was consecrated by a woman of no particular authority.
Luke would have been sensitive to this telling of the story as a parable, and perhaps this is what gave him license to recast it as a different sort of parable. Indeed, Luke inserts a parable on forgiveness within the story. The act of the “sinful” woman exemplifies her contrition, humble love and ultimately her justification. She anoints his feet, not only with ointment, but with her own tears, touching his feet with her hands, her hair and her lips. The intimacy of her act is also ambiguous. Is this the display of a prostitute seeking to corrupt Jesus? Or does this speak to the sublime intimacy of those who have been received into the kingdom, a spiritual awakening of which the self-righteous know nothing? To dwell on the sinfulness of this woman is to miss the point. Luke’s reference (8:1-3) falling on the heels of the anointing story underscores the point: the women who followed and supported Jesus in his ministry were those “who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.”
John’s Gospel (12:3) names her as Mary of Bethany, the devoted disciple of Jesus who anointed his feet. This seems to integrate the spiritual intimacy interpretation of Luke’s account with the high prophetic or priestly act of Matthew and Mark’s versions. The subsequent story in John 15:1-17 of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet carries the same paradox of lowly service and high spiritual status. Perhaps the Johanine community had come to see that there is no distinction, that the two are inextricably bound together.
In Luke’s version, Jesus’ critic is not a disciple, but the host Simon the Pharisee. In the other versions, the disciples are indignant to the woman and criticize the waste or extravagance of her gesture. Simon the Pharisee is indignant of Jesus for allowing a sinful woman to touch him. This brings Jesus’ legitimacy as a prophet into question while casting derision on the woman. Jesus responds to his critical host by engaging him in a parable about one who had been forgiven little and another forgiven much. As when the prophet Nathan confronted David with a parable regarding Bathsheba so Jesus sets Simon up to rule against himself. Simon is the one who had loved little and would be forgiven even less, while the “sinful” woman who had expressed greater hospitality, faithfulness and love is forgiven of all. If, in fact, this woman is already forgiven, then Simon’s criticism is unfounded. Jesus is not being touched by a sinful woman, but is anointed by one who is already present in the kingdom. Simon does not at first perceive this apocalyptic reality.
Luke presents a prophet who brings the high to self-judgment and vindicates the lowly. Luke’s recasting of the story of the woman who anointed Jesus functions as a parable to subvert our expectation of who is holy and who is sinful. The Son of Man who eats and drinks with sinners reveals a moment wherein the untouchable touch, healing and anointing each other.
Please leave a comment or send an email to let me know you have read this far. God bless, James
 C.f. 1Sam 10:1; 16:3
 Lk 3:16
 Lk 7:36-50, Mt 26:6-13, Mk 14:3-9, Jn 12:1-9
 Mt 26:2,6; Mk 14:1,3; Jn 12:1
 Lk 7:39-40, Mt 26:2, Mk 14:3
 “A strict reading of Lev. 5:1-5 indicates a risk of defilement upon even touching (or being touched by) a sinner.” Commentary on Luke 7.39 in HarperCollins Study Bible, p. 1777.
 Mt 26:7, Mk 14:3, Lk 7:37
 Only references to Bethany in Luke are 19:29 and 24:50.
 Mt 26:7, Mk 14:3, Lk 7:38
 Mt 26:8, Mk 14:4, Lk 7:39
 2Sam 12:1-14; Lk 7:40-46
 Lk 7:34