Now while Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of costly aromatic oil from pure nard. After breaking open the jar, she poured it on his head. – Mark 14:3 (NET)
Jesus is at a meal table. Though there is not an explicit mention of a meal taking place, based on what is presented in the text it is appropriate to infer that a meal is taking place. We read that Jesus was “reclining at the table” (14:3b). This is a clear indication that Jesus is participating in yet another meal, as it informs us that Jesus is utilizing a dining couch, rather than an upright chair, and that He has most likely assumed the traditional posture of laying on the couch, propped up on one elbow, with His head near the table and His feet at the end of the couch away from the table. Because we have a better picture in mind of Jesus’ posture, we are able to form a more complete picture of what then took place.
We read that there was a woman “with an alabaster jar of costly aromatic oil from pure nard. After breaking open the jar, she poured it on His head” (14:3c). The text indicates that the woman did not stop with Jesus’ head, but might very well have poured out the perfume over the whole of His body, because Jesus, when some present scoffed at what was perceived to be a waste of a costly item that could have been sold, with the money given to the poor, responded by saying, “She has done a good service for Me… She did what she could. She anointed My body before burial” (14:6b,8).
There is an interesting dynamic that is at play here, having to do with the context in which Mark sets this event. Though there is an intervening chapter of prophetic apocalyptic speech by Jesus (Mark 13), the previous event that is recorded by Mark is that of Jesus observing the crowds making their offerings at the Temple. While observing, Jesus sees a poor widow who “came and put in two small copper coins” (12:42b), saying “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the offering box than all the others… she, out of her poverty, put in what she had to live on, everything she had” (12:43b,44b). Following that, Jesus goes on to tell His disciples that the very Temple to which this widow gave the last of what she had “will be torn down” (13:2b). It would be difficult for the disciples not to draw the conclusion that the offering made by this poor widow, sacrificing all that she had for that which was going to be destroyed, was a waste. From there, in terms of the presentation of events, Mark moves directly to the meal at which Jesus is present, and to the breaking open of the alabaster jar for the purpose of anointing His body, with the indignant insistence that this was nothing but a waste. However, Mark is making a point related to the fact that Jesus saw Himself as the true Temple of God.
In the same chapter, when Jesus stands before the Sanhedrin, we read that “Some stood up and gave this false testimony against Him: ‘We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with hands and in three days build another not made with hands.’” (14:57-58) Mark punctuates this with “Yet even on this point their testimony did not agree” (14:59), but He is clearly cognizant of and counting on an awareness of what must have been the well-known Jesus tradition that we find recounted in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus says, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up again” (2:19). Shortly thereafter, John provides the gloss on Jesus’ words by informing the reader that “Jesus was speaking about the Temple of His body” (2:21). When we take all of this together, we see a widow giving all that she has (which is an almost worthless amount) to a Temple that is going to fall, which is ultimately a wasteful action, whereas the woman with the alabaster box gives something of immense value in recognition of the One that is the eternal Temple, causing the onlookers to refer to this as a wasteful action. Jesus makes it clear that it is the former that was wasteful, whereas the latter was “a good service” (14:6b), and therefore not wasteful.
Because the stories in the Gospels demand to be heard within Jesus’ pronouncement that the kingdom of God is at hand, we must ascertain what this has to do with Jesus’ kingdom understanding. It is by this that Jesus addresses the prevalent and apparently incorrect understanding that the kingdom of God would be centered in Jerusalem, with all nations coming to its Temple to offer worship to God. Jesus makes it quite clear that even though they were correct in believing that all nations would in fact come to worship God by means of the Temple, that Temple by which God would be worshiped, in recognition of His kingdom, would be Himself (Jesus).