It is interesting that this pericope explores opposition between Jesus and his very disciples who differ in their interpretations of the woman's act.
Matthew's use of the anointing
Jesus and honour
Perhaps the woman is not fully cognisant of the symbolism of her act. It could be that she is conveying the high honour with which she esteems him. Psalm 23 describes how 'You prepare a table before me/ in the presence of my enemies;/ you anoint my head with oil;/ my cup overflows'. That the reader is to think about this psalm seems more obvious on inspection of the consequences of Jesus' rebuke. Her honouring of Jesus contrasts with the dishonour the disciples extend to the woman and moreover, to Jesus himself. The Psalm describes 'the presence' of 'enemies' being simultaneous with the anointing and with Judas likely one of the rebuked, Matthew (26:14) positions Judas' plan to betray Jesus to the priests (whom the reader encountered in the scene before the anointing), as occurring immediately after the anointing, so that treachery brackets the episode on both sides, making the woman's candour all the more audacious in comparison to their clandestine conspiracies.
Jesus as Messiah
Hooker dismisses commentators' suppositions that because 'Jesus' body was not anointed [and] caused his friends and disciples distress [they] came to interpret this incident as rectifying the omission.'1 The anointing functions to do much more than this. With messiah connoting 'anointed one', there is a symbolic significance that would have been intentional and understood by early readers. Platt invests the woman's action with significant symbolism, declaring,
For us, it says unequivocally that woman (and it is especially notable that she is not named and not given individuality, but is indeed Woman standing in the prophetic office for Israel) anointed Jesus as the Messiah of the House of David.2
Matthew would trust that early Jewish readers would read the woman's act as an allusion to Jesus' messiahship. Hers is a metaphorical consecration of him as King. In the Old Testament we have the king who is 'the LORD'S anointed' (1 Sam. 24:10; 2 Sam. 19:21; 23:1; Lam. 4:20) but also the 'anointed priest' (Lev.4:3; 6:22), and a prophet whom 'you shall anoint' (1 Kings 19:16). Matthew presents Jesus as the eschatological fulfilment of all these offices.
It is Jesus, however, who provides us with the hermeneutical key for any interpretation of her act. Her act is to be interpreted in terms of what it is saying about his future work, his death. Whilst she might function as a symbolic conveyor of Jesus' Christological status, France describes how 'Probably without realising it, she had provided a pointer to the theology of the cross.'3 His death will fulfil the Old Testament prophesies to which Jesus has alluded (Isaiah 53, for example). Jesus is anointed before he eats, as was the Jewish custom for esteemed guests, but more significantly, he is anointed before his burial, because executed like a criminal, he would be denied anointing after death. To communicate this, Matthew omits the other gospel writers' descriptions of the women attending the tomb for the purpose of anointing his corpse (Mk 16:1; Jn 19:39).
Significantly, the woman, in this pericope, communicates by prophetic action, what the disciples are still failing to comprehend, despite Jesus' words, that he must suffer and die in order to rise again and reign in glory. Her actions signify that 'Jesus is the messianic King whose throne is a cross'.4 The scene exhibits a kind of dramatic irony because the readers of the gospel are aware of the significance of her actions, but the disciples are not.
Differences of interpretation are an event of the pericope itself. 'Jesus' speech covers half the pericope',5 and where the disciples respond, dissension is found. The reader confronts how contentious issues of interpretation can be. The significance of the act for post-Easter Christians is lost on the disciples who object with righteous indignation because the ointment could have been sold to generate income for the poor. In turn, they cause Jesus to become indignant as he rebukes them for 'bothering' or 'troubling' her (v. 10; the Greek idiom also at Luke 11:7; Gal 6:17, is a strong one). However, by its extravagance, her act challenges the reader too. Matthew describes Mark's 'nard' as ‘very costly ointment’ (v.7). πολύτιμος (very costly) is the same word Matthew uses to describe the pearl in 13:46. Its cost reinforces further the sacrificial nature of the woman's act; its magnitude. Just as the merchant would have sold all he had for the pearl, this woman is described as having given 'all' that she could. This takes us in turn back to Matthew's description of Jesus having given 'all' his teachings and prompts us forward to his final action, his giving all for us in his sacrifice on the cross, in which all his teachings find their fulfilment. Is Jesus, in turn, asking us whether we are offering so costly a sacrifice of praise and if not, then why not?
The disciples are puzzled by it but perhaps have more reason than us, not yet living in the light of the cross and resurrection. What Jesus decides is a good work or beautiful thing, they conclude to be a ἀπώλεια, the same word Matthew uses for 'perdition' (7:13), perhaps communicating the irony, that in her anointing of the only one who can forgive sins, this supposed 'waste' is actually her way of marking her gratitude for her forgiven state. She communicates something about our state in Christ too and what it cost. Like us, she no longer has cause to fear perdition. If she is consciously signifying her recognition of his messiahship, she acts as a foil to the disciples, who having spent so much time with Jesus, still fail to recognise his true status. It could be that Matthew wants the reader to wrestle with his/her own estimation of Jesus as well.
It is in this that our identity lies.
1Hooker, Gospel According to St. Mark, 330
2Platt, 'The Ministry of Mary of Bethany', 30
3France, The Gospel of Matthew, p.974
4Davies & Allison, Matthew, p.448
5Davies & Allison, Matthew, p.441