An Overlooked Story in Mark’s Passion Narrative

by Ben Cheng
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

Isaiah 50:4-7

Philippians 2:6-11

In the beginning of the Holy Week, the Gospel of Mark begins the passion narrative with a unique but strange story about a woman pouring perfume on the Lord. We heard this story many times but we may barely pay attention to it. Let us take a closer look at this story to unfold its meaning.

"When he was in Bethany reclining at table in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil, costly genuine spikenard. She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head” (Mk 14:3). That is how the preface of the passion narrative begins. A woman comes to Jesus with this extremely expensive and precious perfume. She does not give Him a little, nor does she pour only a little on Him, but she breaks open the jar, and pours the whole bottle on to the Lord, so that the aroma fills the space. We may think that we can pick up a bottle of perfume at a cheap local store, but in the ancient world, it is a very expensive item. This extravagant act, therefore, is sniffed at by all those around, and they murmur, “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than three hundred days' wages and the money given to the poor” (Mk 14:4-5) How inappropriate!

But Jesus silences the critics, and he says, "Wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her" (Mk 14:9). Jesus praises the woman for her act of generosity, promising truly enough that this act will be forever remembered. This is very touching indeed as we still remember this story two thousand years later! We can imagine the aroma of that perfume, filling not only the room, but laving throughout Jesus’ passion and death as it develops.

What is so important about the story? It is because by this act, the woman shows us the meaning of the passion, a total gift of self! She understands as her gesture has shown. Paul Tillich, a German Protestant theologian, says, "We can never express religion in rational terms alone". We cannot, and should not reduce Christianity to mere reasoning, just as this woman’s action cannot be reasonably explained or measured. Give everything away, break open the jar, more importantly, break open our own heart and love! Our authentic faith should involve this extravagant offer of self. Furthermore, through her generous act, she participates in Jesus’ own passion. The cross symbolizes Jesus’ act of opening up his own heart, body and life, and giving Himself extravagantly and totally. So this woman does not perform a conservative, prudent and careful act, rather she breaks open the whole jar of perfume, gives up herself, in a loving anticipation of what Jesus Himself will do. We may say, “Do we really need to do to that extreme? Do we have to go to that utmost crucifixion?” Yes, as authentic Christians, we are called to a similar extravagant act in love!

Dear brothers and sisters, what is the holy of holies? It is Jesus on the cross, utterly sharing and giving up Himself. In that supreme moment of weakness, the power and the holiness of God is revealed. Let us follow the example of this woman, let us wholeheartedly pour out our own “perfume” on the Lord, and offer our love to our God and neighbors. Let the perfume from that broken jar, laves over our whole Holy week.