[K:NWTS 10/2 (Sep 1995) 41-47]

The Unnamed Woman and Jesus

Mark 14:1-11

James T. Dennison, Jr.

She comes—comes to Jesus—comes to Jesus in her anonymity—comes to Jesus in the house of an outcast—comes out of her affection for Jesus—comes to perform a memorial act which will not otherwise be performed for Jesus—comes to be defended by Jesus. She departs as she came—nameless, no identification save her deed and Christ's identification with her. She departs as she came—unnamed, no remembrance save what she does in remembrance of him.

The incident of the anonymous woman in Mk. 14:3-9 appears as the pastrami between two slices of rye—the white icing between two chocolate Oreo cookies. The incident of the anonymous woman in Mk. 14:3-9 is part of a Markan sandwich. Yes, I said a Markan sandwich for the gospel of Mark is chock full of these sandwiches, though his sandwiches will not be found in a local deli. The so-called sandwich technique of the gospel of Mark is a storytelling device in which Mark places a central or inner element between two contrasting or outer elements of a narrative. Notice how he does this in the case of the unnamed woman: she is the center of two contrasting themes—her story, verses 3-9, is central to two contrasting layers, verses I and 2 and verses 10 and 11. In other words, the anonymous woman is the central goodie between two outer layers. Like an Oreo cookie or pastrami on rye.

Let me give you an example of another brilliant Markan sandwich. Turn back with me to Mark chapter 5. Find verse 21. Now from verses 21-24, you have the beginning of the famous story of Jairus' daughter. But after pleading earnestly with the Savior to come lay hands on his daughter, Jairus is interrupted by a woman who has been bleeding for 12 years—very interestingly, as verse 42 indicates, she has been bleeding to death as long as the little girl has been living her life. Jesus stops to heal the bleeding woman (vv. 25-34). And as she passes from death to life—from hemorrhaging to wholeness—the daughter of Jairus dies (note v. 35). But Jesus is undeterred because his power knows no barriers—no, not even death itself can endure in the presence of this one who gives life. "Talitha kum!" (v. 41). And the dead is raised up to life at the touch of Jesus' hand.

Do you see Mark's sandwich? He begins with Jairus' plea and the little girl alive (vv. 21-24). He ends with Jairus distraught, the little girl dead, yet raised up to life by Christ (vv. 35-43). And at the center, Mark places the story of a woman dying from hemorrhage, yet healed by the same life-giving Jesus. Two outer layers surrounding a central core. Jairus' daughter alive at the outset—Jairus' daughter dead yet raised to life at the conclusion. And in between, an unnamed woman dying yet given life by healing—all from the miraculous touch of the Lord Jesus.

Now back to the sandwich in Mark 14. Chapter 14 is about Christ's approaching passion—his imminent suffering and death. In verses 12-25, the celebration of the Last Supper is a testimony to his coming death on the cross; in verses 26-52, Jesus prays in Gethsemane that the Father remove the cup of death from him—"Yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." In verses 53-72, Peter denies Jesus three times following his interrogation by the Sanhedrin and the high priest. Chapter 15 will continue the passion narrative with the trial of Jesus before Pilate and the crucifixion of our Lord on Golgatha. The events of Mark 14 are preparatory to the event of crucifixion in Mark 15. From verse 1 of Mark 14, we are looking ahead to the death of Jesus.

In the case of our nameless woman here in chapter 14, she is contrasted with the chief priests and scribes who are plotting Christ's death (vv. l and 2); and she is also contrasted with Judas Iscariot who is plotting to betray Jesus to the chief priests (vv. 10 and 11). The unnamed woman (vv. 3-9) provides a vivid contrast with the scheming of the Jewish authorities and the treachery of one of the disciples. She is sandwiched between two groups determined to destroy Jesus.

Now these outer layer verses (1 and 2, 10 and 11) signal an intensification of the enmity against Christ. Mark's story of Jesus has made it very clear already in chapter 3 of his gospel that the religious insiders—the leaders of the church and synagogue—the church bureaucrats—have been plotting the death of Christ. Now that hour has come! In Chapter 14, the plotters will concur in death for the Son of God; the betrayer will sell the Son of God to death; the disciples will fail the Son of God in the garden of his agony; and Peter will deny the Son of God. Hatred of Christ is coming to a climax in Mark 14. Cowardice is coming to expression in Mark 14.

Plotters of death; a deadly double-crosser; a cup of death; a cross and death. "The Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn him to death and will deliver him up to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit upon him and scourge him and kill him" (Mk. 10:33, 34). It is Christ's death which brings the woman with the alabaster flask. Christ's death touches even her.

But she is no death-schemer; she is no death-traitor; she is no death-dealer. No—she is none of these. Rather she is one of a long list of unnamed characters in Mark's gospel who have found life in Christ. There is the nameless leper in chapter 1 whom Jesus healed; the anonymous paralytic in chapter 2, all of whose sins Jesus forgave; the nameless man with the withered hand in chapter 3; the Gerasene demoniac in chapter 5—unnamed; the blind man of Bethsaida in chapter 8—yes, unnamed; and the boy—the unnamed epileptic boy in chapter 9. All these anonymous men found Jesus to be a savor of life unto life. And what of the unnamed women who have found life in Christ. Already I have commented on the woman with the issue of blood and Jairus' unnamed daughter. There is also the nameless Syrophoenician woman in chapter 7—a woman whose little daughter lived because a mother was content with crumbs.

Now this woman of chapter 14. This woman comes to the house of a leper—this woman comes to the house of a leper seeking Jesus. Her focus is solitary! Not the men reclining about the table; not Simon the host of the table—no, none of these is her object. She has brought a vial for Jesus—she has brought an alabaster vial of the costliest perfume—for Jesus. More than a year's wages has she brought in that perfume. She knows what it costs—she knows its worth. Because of its worth, it is her gift to Jesus. Jesus' life is worth this costly ointment. Jesus' love is worth this gift. Jesus is the object of her gift—her love, her life.

And her gift—her precious, costly, sweet-smelling gift—her gift . . . becomes mingled with his death. Her love-gift becomes a savor of death unto his death. After all, does not Jesus himself say so? Verse 8—"she has anointed my body for burial." This gift for the living is, in fact, an anointing for the dead. It is death which is all around Jesus in chapter 14 and not even this woman can escape its power. The long shadow of a wooden cross casts its dark silhouette backwards over the house of Simon the leper. Death seizes the woman's gift and transforms it into a memorial—a remembrance of the dying Son of God. But this memorial will live. When the gospel is preached, this gift will live on in her memory. When the gospel of the Son of God is preached after his resurrection, her ointment will testify to Jesus who is himself alive forevermore. Her gift is conformed to the death of the Son of God so that it may be transformed by the resurrection of the Son of God from the dead. After the resurrection, her gift memorializes the Jesus who lives and reigns forevermore. This woman—this unnamed woman enters into the mystery of the gospel—the hidden nature of the kingdom of heaven. She—yes, she—enters into the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Anointing him unto his death—she at the same time proclaims this her memorial of his resurrection from the dead.

Her sole object in the house of Simon the leper is Jesus. But in her devotion and affection—yea, in her passion for Jesus—she has become identified with his death and resurrection. Even when all this is not clear to her—even when some of this is veiled to her—even when some of the mystery of the kingdom and its king is hidden from her—nevertheless she possesses Jesus—she possesses Jesus as surely as she pours that costly perfume of pure nard upon his head. And in possessing Jesus, this unnamed woman is pressed down, poured out into his very own death and resurrection.

Now, lest you accuse me of reading far too much into this story—I ask, what else can be the significance of her very own condemnation and vindication? Is she not conformed to the measure of Christ's suffering when she is rebuked, condemned, accused! "For what purpose has this perfume been wasted?"—And they were scolding her. But though all others oppose and condemn her, Jesus does not! Jesus does not condemn her. "Let her alone. She has done good to me." Jesus is her advocate—Jesus is her defender—Jesus justifies her. Jesus takes the reproach from her. Jesus takes the condemnation away from her. Jesus takes her accusation and vindicates her.

Oh yes! She shall be remembered. Though nameless, she has been identified with the death and resurrection of Christ. Yes! She shall be remembered. For though she is anonymous to us, she has been conformed to the condemnation and justification of the Son of God. Yes, wherever the gospel is preached, she shall be remembered.

This woman in Mark 14 stands in contrast to the plotters and traitors around her. But she also provides a contrast to the disciples—both named and unnamed. We already know the role of Judas Iscariot; but Peter, James and John will go to Gethsemane with Jesus to pray, only to fall asleep and they will fall asleep not once, not twice, but three times (vv. 37, 40, 41). And Peter—Peter will follow to the high priest's quarters only to deny Christ with cursing and swearing not once, not twice, but three times (vv. 66-72). Oh, the other eight disciples are here too—unnamed, but part of the drama. They run away in Jesus' hour of trial; they will prove by their cowardly flight that much of what they have professed is wind—hot air. "We will never forsake you"—but they all run when the soldiers arrest Jesus. "I will never deny you," but Peter dismisses Jesus as a worthless fellow before the cock crows.

"Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross; and follow me." The disciples run—run from Jesus—run from his cross. It will take a resurrection for them to become loyal followers—no longer cowards, but devout, yea passionate, followers of Jesus. It will take a post-resurrection meeting in Galilee for the disciples to be transformed by the death and resurrection of their Lord. After his death—after he has been raised up he will go before them into Galilee. The disciples will wait till Galilee to be transformed by the death and resurrection of Christ. But this unnamed woman—already she has denied herself, already she has identified with Jesus' death, already she has bestowed the expression of her love upon him.

"Whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant." The disciples do not serve—they sleep, they blow hot air, they disappear and curse at the arrest of their master. The disciples do not serve Jesus! It will take a resurrection for them to become servants of the servant. It will take a post-resurrection encounter for them to be transformed by the death and resurrection of the eschatological servant. But this unnamed woman—already she serves; already she identifies with the Son of Man who has come to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. Even now, she confesses, even now, she says, he has ransomed my life!

And so it is that the unnamed woman in chapter 14 becomes the first in a parade of loyal minor actors in Mark's passion narrative. She is the first, but not the last, to enter into the passion and suffering of Christ. Simon the Cyrene will take up Jesus' cross (15:21); the unnamed centurion will stand at the foot of Jesus' cross (15:39); Joseph of Arimathea will take the body of Jesus down from the cross (15:43-45). Each one of these minor characters becomes a participant—they take part in, identify with, the drama of the death of the Son of God.

Other women will come on the first day of the week, other women will come early to the tomb to anoint their Lord. Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, Salome—they will come when the (old) Sabbath is past. They will come to anoint the dead. He will not be there. The dead one will have risen. A resurrection Sabbath day will have dawned and an angel—an unnamed angel— will tell the women, "Go tell his disciples and Peter, he is going before you into Galilee; there you will see him" (16:7).

The gospel of Mark ends with the resurrection of Christ evident and projected. The disciples of Jesus—male and female—will have to complete the story—the story of faith in the death and resurrection of the Son of God! This is our story—the story of faith like the faith of the unnamed woman in chapter 14. For you see, we too are part of Mark's sandwich. We have been placed between the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead at his second coming. In this central layer—between the inaugural resurrection and the eschatological resurrection—in between, the disciples of Jesus lovingly, tenderly, passionately identify with his death and resurrection. Disciples of Jesus at the heart and core of the story—lose their lives as Jesus lost his on the cross. Disciples of Jesus sandwiched at the center of the story—find their lives as Jesus found his at the resurrection. Disciples of Jesus sandwiched between death and resurrection—find themselves beside an unnamed woman, full of love for Christ, condemned by the world, justified by the Savior, satisfied with his death, vindicated by his resurrection.

The unnamed woman did what she did because she loved Jesus. She loved his death and she loved his resurrection. Yes—she comes as she departs—unnamed, anonymous—but she shall be remembered in every place where the disciples of Jesus remember his death and resurrection.

Escondido, California