|Tissot, The Meal in the House of the Pharisee|
One of the most beautiful episodes in the Gospel Passion Narratives is often overlooked. While some gospel harmonies do not list any events for the Wednesday of Jesus’ last week, using Mark’s time references as a guide, my working chronology assigns three short, but important, episodes to this day. Two of these, the plot of the Jewish leadership against Jesus and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus, frame the story of an unnamed woman who interrupts a dinner in Bethany and anoints Jesus’ head. While some of those present bristled at the perceived waste of precious ointment, Jesus instead proclaimed that wherever the gospel should be preached, this story should be told as a memorial of her (Mark 14:9; Matthew 26:13),
The framing of the loving act of the unnamed woman by the dark stories of conspiracy and betrayal only serves to highlight it. While many harmonies familiar to Latter-day Saints do not place this event on the Wednesday of Holy Week, the traditional Christian liturgical calendar always has. Indeed, in some traditions this day has been called “Spy Wednesday” because of Judas’ actions.
The sharp contrast of the faith of the unnamed woman, illustrated by her anointing Jesus, and the betrayal of Judas reflect a a pattern in the Synoptic Gospels: by and large the women who followed Jesus follow him to the end, whereas his male friends fall short. Women stay with him, witnessing his death and burial and are the first to find the tomb empty. Not only does Judas betray Jesus with a kiss, the other disciples flee, Peter denies knowing Jesus, most are in hiding when he dies, and at first they do not believe the testimony of the women who first see Jesus. While not all women are more spiritual or faithful than men, then or now, it is noteworthy that their faith stands out in the scriptural record at a time and in a culture where they were so often undervalued.
Scriptural Accounts for Wednesday: Mark 14:1–11; Matthew 26:1–16; Luke 22:1–6.
Episodes for Personal Study
- The Plot to Kill Jesus (Mark 14:1–2; Matt 26:1–5; Luke 22:1–2)
- Matthew and Mark’s Anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3–9; Matt 26:6–13;
- Another Anointing at Bethany (Matt 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; here his head, Mary having anointed his feet the day before Palm Sunday in John 12:1–9)
- Judas Agrees to Betray Jesus (Matt 26:14–16; Mark 14:10–11; Luke 22:3–6)
For Further Reading: “Jesus is Anointed (Mark 14:1-11),” by Julie M. Smith, from The Gospel According to Mark.
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005), 1043–1060.
Frank F. Judd, Jr., "Interpreting Caiaphas’s ‘Prophecy’ of the Savior’s Death," Behold the Lamb of God: An Easter Celebration (Provo: Religious Study Center, 2008), 87–104.
Ideas for Families
- Discuss why some people accepted Jesus and others became so hostile to him, working for his death or, in the case of Judas, deciding to betray him. How can we remain faithful to the Lord and share our love for him?
- Read the story of the woman anointing Jesus in either Mark or Matthew. Then share examples of women of Christ in our lives who have strengthened our testimonies
- Sing "O Love That Glorifies the Son" (hymn 295)
- Discuss how the priestly, saving mission of the Son in his first coming, perhaps represented by this anointing, differs the kingly role that will be particularly manifest in his second coming. What kind of king and priest had most Jews at the time of Jesus been expecting and how might this have led them to be disappointed as the Savior's last week advanced? What kind of king and priest do we expect?
- Listen to the final four movements of Part I of Messiah to be moved by the promises that had been foretold for Jesus' saving, healing mission.
For lovely images and blocks of scripture quotations that nicely supplement what I am doing on this blog, please see the blog of my friend Chad Emmett, Beit Emmett, Holy Week: Wednesday.
Traditional Anglican collect of the day:
Lord God, whose blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon: Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee and with Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Brief Discussion of the Events of the Wednesday before Easter
See the longer discussion in God So Loved the World, 39–47
THE PLOT TO KILL JESUS
Although some harmonies of the gospels list "No Events Recorded" for Wednesday, both Matthew 26:2 and Mark 14:1 place the conspiracy of Judas with the Jerusalem leadership with the Passover "after two days." This is better rendered "in two days time" or "two days away" (Luke just says that the Passover "was nigh"). This does not securely place Judas meeting with the priests on "Spy Wednesday," however, since the two days can be counted either inclusively or exclusively, and Passover may have begun at sundown either on Thursday evening (as the Synoptics seem to suggest) or Friday evening (as John probably records more accurately, see Thursday discussion below).
And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified. Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him. But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people. (Matthew 26:1–5)
Tissot, Conspiracy of the Jews
John’s account had placed the beginning of this plot before the Passion week, shortly after the raising of Lazarus:
Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, "What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation." And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, "Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation. (John 11:47–51, emphasis added)
The prophecy of Caiaphas in the Johannine addition to the plot story is laden with irony, because it has Jesus’ chief opponent actually teach a true doctrine: Jesus did come to die for the sake not just of the Jewish people but for all people. Oddly, the divine economy can often use the enemies of that which is right and good to accomplish God’s purpose. Jesus’ vicarious death was not just for good men, it was for all and can benefit all, even those who, like the Jerusalem leadership who plotted against him, provided that at some point they repent and turn to him whom they rejected.
ANOTHER ANOINTING AT BETHANY
|The anointing of Jesus from the Bethany Church|
Gospel harmonies have conventionally assumed that this anointing is the same as the one mentioned earlier in John 12:1–9. While this may be true, there are specific differences in circumstances that make it possible that there were, in fact, two anointings. Although both took place in Bethany, the Matthean and Marcan anointing take place in the house of one Simon the Leper, whereas the Johannine anointing was in the house of Lazarus and Martha. Their sister Mary anointed Jesus’ feet in John’s account, but here the woman anoints his head and is unnamed. Like Mary, who anointed Jesus’ feet at Lazarus’ house the previous Saturday (John 12:1–9), Jesus explicitly recognizes that this woman had performed the act in part to prepared him for his burial and provides a moving tribute and commendation: wherever the gospel is preached, we should recall her act of love and faith.
There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, "To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor." When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, "Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. 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." (Matthew 26:8–13)
|The Franciscan church at Bethany|
As noted in the discussion of the anointing as recorded in John, the woman's act of preparing Jesus for his burial presupposes that she understood, at some level at least, that he had come to Jerusalem to die. This stands in contrast to the perceived understanding of the male disciples in the gospel of Mark, generally followed by Matthew and Luke. In those gospels the Twelve, starting with Peter at Caesarea Philippi, had received powerful testimonies of who Jesus was, the Christ and son of God (Mark 8:27–30; par Matt 16:13–20, Luke 9:18–20). Notwithstanding this revelation, when Jesus tried to explain to them three different times on the road to Jerusalem that he would be taken by the chief priests and elders when he arrived in Jerusalem, delivered to the Gentiles, and finally killed, they either resisted this sad reality or failed to understand (see the so-called "Passion Predictions" in Mark 8:31–9:1, 9:30–3, and 10:32–45, as well as the parallels in Matthew and Luke). At least in the literary record, the male disciples knew who he was but did not yet fully understand what he had come to do, still thinking perhaps in terms of an earthly king and messiah.
In this light, the unnamed woman's act, like that of Mary earlier in John, was one of deep love and faith, one that resonates strongly with anyone, man or woman, who has lost or faces the prospect of losing a loved one. In such instances, letting go is in itself an act of love when one recognizes that the loss is God's will. The glorious message of Easter, of course, is that such loss is never permanent:
O love that glorifies the Son, O love that says, "Thy will be done!" Pure love whose spirit makes us one, come fill my soul today. O love that overcomes defeat, O love that turns the bitter sweet, Pure love that makes our lives complete, come fill my soul today. (hymn 295)While the anointing of Jesus explicitly deals with Jesus' coming death, remembering that one who was anointed was a māšîāḥ in Hebrew or a christos in Greek suggests a possible, additional symbol in this act. While Jesus was the chosen Messiah from the foundation of the world, perhaps these acts symbolize that Jesus was at this point fully prepared now to complete his mission as the Savior of the world. Regardless of how many anointings there may have actually been, the evangelists may have used this motif in different settings for different literary purposes. Thus the anointing by Mary on Saturday could thus represent the anointing of Jesus as king prior to the Triumphal Entry the next day, and the anointing by the unnamed woman in the middle of the week could represent his anointing as priest, preparing him to return to Jerusalem for a final time to complete the priestly act of atonement.
|My wife, Elaine, with some of the other Jerusalem center women in Bethany|
Of the woman who anointed his head with oil, Jesus said, "Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her" (Mark 14:9; parallel 26:13). As a result, in recent years I have taken time to read and think about her story each year as I prepare for Easter. In God So Loved the World, I wrote:
"I am stirred by the faith of this woman, and it calls to my memory many influential women in my life—both of my grandmothers, my mother, my wife, friends, and teachers—who have similarly been stalwart and believing women of Christ. Their testimonies have planted the seed of faith in my heart and nurtured it, just as the faith of Lois and Eunice did for Timothy (see 2 Timothy 1:5). Jesus has asked us to remember the faith of this woman, saying, "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." Each year as we read this account, we can fulfill that injunction, and hopefully be moved to remember the faith of other women and men who believed in Christ and his sacrifice, and in the process passed that faith to us." (p. 45)
Rachel with the Jerusalem Center students reading about the anointing
In harmony with this sentiment, each year on the Wednesday before Easter, I choose to honor my grandmothers, my mother, my sister, my wife, and now my daughter for their testimonies of Jesus and their examples to me.
Messiah Reflections for the Day
As the anointing in Bethany shifts the focus of Jesus' ministry to his more priestly, saving role, the four final movements of the first part of Handel's Messiah come to mind. The fact that all of these except the final chorus are sung by women helps these movements fit nicely with the image of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus on Wednesday, because she, and all the women close to him in his ministry, seem to have had such a sweet knowledge of his mission.
The first, the soprano air "Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion," comes from Zechariah 9:9-10 and easily fits the context of the Triumphal Entry just three days before. But whereas some in Jerusalem had rejoiced as Jesus entered the city that day, on this eve of the saving events leading to Gethsemane, Calvary, and the Empty Tomb, Jesus is about to truly become "the righteous Savior" and the one will "speak peace to the heathen." The sad irony, however, was that no one would herald with joy his quiet entry into the city on Thursday, and it is only when the disciples looked back at these events after the resurrection, and as we look back at them after the advent of grace, that we understand that it is what Elder Holland called "Passover Thursday, Atoning Friday, and Resurrection Sunday" that truly causes us to rejoice.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion:
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem
behold, thy king cometh unto thee.
He is the righteous Savior,
and He shall speak peace unto the heathen.
This soprano solo is followed by an alto recitative and air that speak beautifully of the healing miracles and the other miracles of provision that had already happened during Jesus' ministry. These were, however, but types of the rich spiritual healing, revelation, sustenance, and care that come to us through Christ's atonement.
Then shall the eyes of the deaf be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap as an hart,
and the tongue of the deaf shall sing. (Isaiah 35:5-6)
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd;
and He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
and carry them in His bosom
and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:11)
The soprano soloist then replaces the alto, inviting all to come to the Good Shepherd:
Come unto Him, all ye that labour and are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him;
for He is meek and lowly in heart:
and ye shall find rest unto your souls. (Mat 11:28-29)
The invitation to "take his yoke upon us" creates a double image. Particularly from a modern perspective, influenced perhaps by the experience of Latter-day Saints crossing the plains, we tend to see the image of the cattle yoke that links two draft animals together in pulling a burden. In a sense, then, one can apply this passage by seeing in it how Jesus joins us in pulling our burdens. But very few of the Galilean peasants whom Jesus taught and served in his ministry could even afford one ox let alone two. For them, the more common yoke of their experience was the single shoulder yoke (zygos) that allowed a person to carry a heavy load. Indeed, often in OT prophecy, carrying a yoke was a symbol of slavery, and interestingly rabbinical literature shortly after this period portrayed the law of Moses as a yoke that one gladly chose to bear. This contrasts the burdensome law of Moses with the light, joyful law of Christ and gives additional meaning to the final chorus of Part I of Messiah:
For my yoke is easy,Yet on the eve of the Passion, the grave irony is that the zygos or "yoke" could also refer to a cross beam, so while the gospel yoke is easy and light for us to bear, it was made so because Jesus has borne the cross for us, the heaviest burden of all.
and my burden is light. (Mat 11:30)
JUDAS AGREES TO BETRAY JESUS
|Giotto, Payment of Judas|
One of the disciples who may have been the most bothered by the woman’s supposed waste could have been Judas, since Matthew and Mark both place his decision to betray Jesus immediately following their account of the anointing at Bethany.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, "What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?" And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. (Matthew 26:14–16)
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