In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the world is presented with 4 perspectives on the life and ministry of Christ. Many of the stories of his life are told in multiple gospels, and just a few are told in all 4.
One such apparent event is the washing of Jesus’ feet by a woman. I took interest in this story and its chronology and took to doing an independent breakdown of it’s key events.
I found this story unique in that the gospels that seem to be in the most agreement are Matthew, Mark, and John, whereas usually Luke is the one in agreement with Matthew and Mark (see here some nerdy stuff on the Synoptic Problem). That’s not to say Luke disagrees here, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
What all 4 stories have in common is that Jesus goes to someone’s house as a guest, reclines at a table, and a woman comes in with very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus. The response of those in the house is a general complaint about the waste of this costly perfume to which Jesus responds by defending the woman’s actions.
While those things are in common, Luke’s story has some significant differences including the events the story is sandwiched between. Luke places his story in the earlier half of Jesus’ ministry. In Luke’s account, the woman is an unnamed sinful woman who is thankful for the forgiveness she has received. In this gospel, it serves as an example of how the proud have the wrong priorities while the humble recognize the worth of Jesus.
In Matthew, Mark, and John the event occurs in the week leading up to Jesus’ death. All mention that he is in Bethany; Matthew and Mark say they’re at Simon’s house while John says that Martha served with the (recently-raised) Lazarus there. While Matthew and Mark leave her unnamed, John points out that it is Mary, Lazarus’ sister who is performing this action. This fits the apparent purposes of these Gospels. While Matthew and Mark aren’t too detailed about who gets angry, John specifies that it was Judas who was angry because he wanted the money for himself. In all three, Jesus concludes with the statement that “you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
What is strange to me are the times that the Matthew-Mark-John versus Luke connection doesn’t hold up. Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that the host is Simon, though in the former 2 he is a (former) leper, while in Luke he is a Pharisee. John doesn’t name the host, just that Martha serves. It is Matthew, Mark, and Luke that mention an alabaster flask, while Matthew, Mark, and John mention Nard as the type of perfume. Matthew and Mark put the perfume on the head; Luke and John have it on his feet. Only Mark and John mention the potential sale price of 300 denarii, or 1 year’s wages.
I don’t ultimately see any issues with saying that we have 2 separate stories here: one in Luke and one in the others. Simon the Pharisee hosts Luke’s story while Simon the Leper hosts the other (with the Martha family helping out). In both stories an alabaster flask of nard is poured out on Jesus head and feet, and it was “unnecessarily” expensive.
In each Gospel, the author’s intent is apparent. John is pointing out the personal nature of Jesus’ ministry to this family while demonstrating Judas’ evil motives. Matthew and Mark quote Jesus saying that “she has prepared my body for burial,” showing their emphasis on his soon-coming death. Luke wants to point out the hypocrisy and pride of the group of Pharisees in the house.