Our response to all that Jesus has already done for us should be the offering up of our greatest treasures to him in worship.
Through this lesson students should:
Understand that Mary’s anointing of Jesus is an extravagant act of worship.
Be encouraged to offer a similar act of extravagant worship.
Catching up on the story:
Jesus has made quite the stir. The religious leadership are not fond of him at all. In fact, on several occasions they have tried to arrest him but with no success. The reason that the religious leadership are so upset with Jesus is because he, among other things, has claimed to be God. Of course, this is in fact true, and it is one of the things that John, the author of this gospel, is most concerned about.
Not only is Jesus proclaiming with words his divine sonship, but he is producing signs that point to his ultimate mastery over death. The narrative that takes place just before our passage for today is entirely concerned with Jesus’ ability to defeat death. Jesus’ friend Lazarus is ill and his friends and family would like Jesus to come and heal him. Not being in a hurry, Jesus lingers where he is for a few days. He’ll say, a little later, that his tardiness is so that his disciples will see and believe. Before Jesus actually raises Lazarus from the dead, he proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). Jesus will back up his words with action. Even though Lazarus has been dead for at least four days, Jesus will raise him from the dead.
Word of this great sign travels quickly. Soon, the religious leaders hear of it and become afraid that all the people will now follow after Jesus and there will be a revolt against Rome. Caiaphas, the High Priest, knows better. It will be better that one man dies so that the whole nation might not be destroyed. From here on out, in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders seek, not just to have Jesus arrested, but to have him killed.
Not translated in our English translations is a series of “therefores” which connect the previous two stories—all of John 11—with what is before us today. While there is geographic movement between the ending of chapter 11 and the opening of chapter 12, the two chapters are connected. Jesus has left the raised-from-the-dead Lazarus but has now returned just six days before the Passover festival was to begin.
The town of Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem and would have made an ideal place for Jesus and his disciples to lodge during Passover. It also needs to be noted that John, at the conclusion of chapter 11, has brought a portion of Jesus’ ministry to a close. Everything that will follow will be an extended narrative which leads us to the cross.
We can assume that Jesus has returned to Lazarus’ house sometime after Lazarus has been raised from the dead. We already know that Jesus and Lazarus’ family are close friends, so it makes sense that Jesus would be invited to his house for a meal. It was also not uncommon for families to invite a teacher to stay with them during these festivals in exchange for teaching and instruction (Keener, 861). Either way, Lazarus and his family owe Jesus a great debt of gratitude for what he has previously done for them.
Jesus and his followers enter the house and are greeted and seated down to a banquet. John tells us that Martha and Mary, Lazarus’ sisters, are there as well. Martha, for her part, is busy serving the guests. Mary, on the other hand, has a different kind of service in mind.
While they are all reclining at the table (they did not sit at a table in the same way you and I do today, but reclined on pillows, leaning on one elbow with their feet pointed away from the table), Mary approaches Jesus and anoints his feet with costly perfume.
At the beginning of verse 3 there is one of those “therefores” we noticed earlier. John wants us to understand that Mary’s actions are, if not a direct result of the events that transpired in chapter 11, at the very least a link in the significant chain of events that will lead to Jesus’ death. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, which was a significant sign of his power and persuaded many to follow after him. This worries the religious leaders so much so that they are set on eliminating Jesus from the picture. As a result, Mary anoints Jesus’ body for burial.
The Anointing: John 12:3
A few things are of importance as we examine the way in which Mary goes about anointing Jesus. First, we are told that Mary takes a pound of costly perfume. The Greek word used is “litre,” which was a liquid measurement which was close in weight to the Roman pound (Keener, 862). John also tells us that the perfume is “pure nard” which many believe refers to the spikenard, a fragrant oil derived from the roots of a plant found in the mountains of northern India. A perfume of this type, and in this amount, would have only been available to those who were well-to-do (Keener, 863). It is likely that Lazarus’ family has some significant means. It is also possible that this jar of perfume represents a significant part of Mary’s inheritance.
Second, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. Anointing a guest was very normal upon their arrival as a guest. However, the anointing usually was placed on the head and not the feet. Washing of the feet was also normal, although that job was usually reserved for the lowest of servants in the household. Indeed, it was thought to be such an unworthy job that a slave of Israelite decent could not be made to perform the action (Morris, 512). The washing of feet was certainly not something that Mary would have been expected to do. Mary, however, takes what is usually reserved for the head and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. Truly, Mary’s anointing of Jesus is an act loving humility and devotion.
Third, Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. It was considered a sign of loose morals for a woman to let her hair down in the company of men who were not her husband. It would have been even more shocking that she used her undone hair to touch a man who was not her husband. Her actions, not just the usage of the costly perfume, but her anointing Jesus’ feet and using her hair point even further to Mary’s humble submission and affection for Jesus (Keener, 863).
Judas’ Reaction: John 12:4-6
While the fragrance of the perfume fills the entire house and everyone stares in wonder, amazement, and even indignation, Judas speaks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas is indeed correct; this was costly perfume. He estimates that it cost three hundred denarii. The normal wage for a day laborer was one denarii. Accounting for Sabbaths, three hundred denarii amounted to an entire year’s wages. This was a significant amount of money.
John does not give us much on Judas, only that he would eventually betray Jesus, and that he kept the common purse and occasionally stole from it. Judas, it seems, is not at all concerned with the poor. Yes, it would have been useful for helping the poor, but it seems inconsequential when the man they are following could (and did!) feed five thousand people with out spending one dime. Note that in Matthew’s version of the story, the disciples as a whole are indignant about Mary’s deed (Matthew 26:6-16).
Jesus’ Response: John 12:7-8
Jesus will have none of Judas’ indignation. Sternly, Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone! Jesus tell us that Mary has saved this perfume just for him for the purpose of preparing him for his burial. The NRSV muddies things a bit here with “she bought it.” Rather, the force of the original language more clearly communicates that Mary has kept this perfume just for such a time as now. Now, however, she has not saved it, but has lavishly poured it out in an anointing of Israel’s true anointed one, the Messiah. Jesus has taken Mary’s gift as an act of preparing him for what will soon happen, his arrest and crucifixion.
Continuing to respond to Judas, Jesus states that it was appropriate to use the perfume in this way instead of selling it and giving the money to the poor. The poor, Jesus says, you will always have with you. Jesus, on the other hand, will only be with them for a week longer. Jesus may be alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11. When examined in context, the passage promises that God will provide for all the people if they provide for the poor. The poor, however, will always be a part of the land (Keener, 865).
Jesus’ remarks here point to why, when we gather, we do not just gather to do works of service and mercy. We gather to worship. We spend considerable time and money so that we might have a place to gather together to worship the one who is God’s anointed, the one who saves us from sin and death. The presence of the poor will be constant (if we are doing our job as the church, the poor will always be part of our congregation), but so is our need to gather to worship, throwing ourselves in humble submission and sacrifice at the feet of the one who brings our salvation.
As we approach the final week of Lent, let us turn our attention toward the one who gives himself up for salvation. We should never forget the poor. They are all around us, and if we give of ourselves for them in the same way that Christ gives himself for us, God will care for us and them. Now is the time to throw ourselves at the feet of the one who brings us salvation, offering up the very best of what we have in grateful praise and worship.
Like Lazarus, we, by virtue of our baptism into Jesus Christ, have been raised from the death that sin brings to new life. We have been raised from the dead. Like Mary, we have witnessed the resurrection of friends and family who have been in the powerful grip of the bondage of sickness and addiction. Like Mary, our only legitimate response to such a great love that has (and will one day physically) raise us from the dead, is pure unadulterated worship. Let us gather up our greatest treasures. Let us break them open and pour them out. May the sacrifices of our worship be a pleasant aroma that fills every nook and cranny of our lives, because our Savior’s death draws close.
Practices for Lent:
Read through all of John’s gospel. Notice how people respond to Jesus’ acts of mercy and salvation toward them.
Take stock of your life. What are your greatest treasures? How might you offer those things to Christ as a response to the salvation and resurrection you have already received?
Fast one meal each day this week. Take the time to contemplate Christ’s death on the cross.
Do something extravagantly loving for someone with the aim of pleasing God, not yourself or the other person.
Come to worship with a readiness to give God the best you have to offer.
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God will always accept the offering of those who give out of a sense of grateful response to all that God has done for them. God is not unconcerned about the poor. God is, however, concerned that we offer ourselves, our greatest treasures, to him as acts of worship for the salvation we have received.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Holiness looks like offering ourselves and our greatest treasures in grateful response for the salvation we have received. We have been crucified with Christ and we have been raised to newness of life with him. Our only appropriate act of response is to worship with reckless abandon.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
This passage calls us to examine ourselves and see if we are truly living in grateful response to the salvation we have received. Christ’s death gained us so much. We must now give all we have back to him in return.
Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Have you ever been a guest in someone else’s house and received lavish hospitality? What was that like?
John tells us that the cost for the perfume that Mary had was equal to 300 denarii or one year’s wages. What is the average year’s wages in America? Today, what kind of gift might cost one year’s wages?
It was not uncommon for a host to anoint a guest on the head upon arrival in their home. Why does Mary anoint Jesus’ feet?
It was a sign of loose morals for a woman to let down her hair in public. It also would have been taboo for a woman to touch a man who was not her husband. Why do you think Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair?
We are told that Judas will betray Jesus and that he is a thief. Why do you think John tells us that about him?
Judas makes a valid point: the money could have been better spent on the poor. The disciples make the same point in Matthew’s version of the story (Matt. 26:6-16). How much good could we do with a year’s wages? Why do you think Jesus rebukes Judas for his comments?
Throughout all of the gospels Jesus is obviously concerned with the cause of the poor. Why then does he disagree with Judas about Mary’s offering? What does he mean when he says we will always have the poor with us?
Mary’s offering is an act of extravagant worship in response to what Jesus had already done in the life of her family. How might we offer similar sacrifices in response to the resurrection from sin that Christ has already brought for us?
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John, Volume Two, Reprint edition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010).