Today we read about the woman who anoints Jesus with oil shortly before the Last Supper and the Passion begin. We are told that the ointment is worth 300 denarii. A single denarii was a day’s wages so this is worth approximately 1 years pay (excluding Sabbath days and holidays). Some of the people present grumble that the ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. We will be told in John’s gospel that that it is Judas, the betrayer, who will give voice to those concerns. This criticism is still made today when churches, particularly Catholic Churches, are large and ornate and use elaborate vestments and gold implements.
But Jesus doesn’t share this concern. He praises the expensive gift given to him.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
The desire of men to use precious and ornate objects in the worship of God is a good and proper desire. For another example, the Ark of the Covenant, the table of the Bread of the Presence and the Lamp Stand in the Temple were all covered in gold. Giving money and using fine things in worship is proper. Of course, it needs to be done in proper proportion. Of course, Jesus’ comments about the poor are not a reflection of his lack of concern for them. Jesus loved and was infinitely compassionate for the poor. We must be like him and follow his example.
There is something particularly interesting about the arrangements Jesus makes for the Last Supper. He instructs the Apostles to go into Jerusalem and find a man carrying a water jar and to follow him to the place where the room will be. That detail is important because carrying water was woman’s work – men didn’t carry water jars.
So why was this man carrying a water jar? There are clues in history that we can learn from. Around this time there was a religious sect of Jews called the Essenes. They were similar to the Pharisees in that they believed in strict observance of the law but unlike the Pharisees they practiced what they preached. They chose to leave everyday life and lived outside in a desert community and took on lives of ritual purity and separation, like monks. They were particularly concerned with the coming of the messiah which they calculated was imminent. They did not include women in their monastic life, thus they had to do the work the woman would have normally done, like carrying water. They had a small section of homes in the city of the Jerusalem so they could come in from the desert on holidays and participate in worship at the temple. Guess what section of town the traditional site of the Last Supper was in? Yep, the traditional site is in the Essenes section.
It is speculated that John the Baptist was an Essenes because of the manner in which he lived. Notably, when the Essenes went to the desert they took to living in caves. Specifically, caves along the Dead Sea. Two Thousand years later the greatest treasure trove of biblical documents, The Dead Sea Scrolls, would be found in these caves. The collection of scrolls contained many biblical manuscripts and had an emphasis towards apocalyptical literature, consistent with the fact that they were most likely left by the Essenes. Also, interesting was that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of books of the Old Testament that were taken out of the protestant version of the Bible. These books were removed during the reformation ostensibly because the Jewish people didn’t recognize them as canonical. However, the reason they were not accepted in the Jewish cannon was because no Hebrew copies existed. Guess what was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls? Yep, Hebrew copies of some of the disputed books! This is a powerful outward sign that the Holy Spirit was guiding the Catholic Church into truth when it canonized the books of the bible.