John chapter 12 is John’s very brief account of what we now call Passion Week or Holy Week, which is what Jesus’ last week on earth are called. John’s account of Holy Week begins with an interesting scene that takes place in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And as we go through this short section of John chapter 12 hopefully you will see why I am describing this scene as interesting.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.—12:1-3
Jesus left Ephraim and arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover. The last time Jesus had been in the village, he had raised Lazarus from the dead. Now the setting was a dinner celebrating his arrival. Mary took an expensive perfume bottle, and with great humility, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the beautiful fragrance filled the home.
Now let’s deal with the issue that arises out of these first three verses. And the issue is the timing of Jesus’ death. So, traditional the dating of Easter, prior to the Council of Nicaea, was given as the first Sunday after Passover Week. But as we see here John is telling us that the events of Holy Week took place in the week before Passover and that Easter Sunday occurred on the first day of Passover Week. The issue here is which dating is correct and does it really matter in the long run. The answer to which method of dating is correct is very simply we do not know, and the answer to the second question is that it really does not matter in the long run because it does not change the importance and the significance of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.—12:4-6
John’s narration contrasts Mary’s devotion with Judas’s greed. Mary’s actions demonstrate that no expense was too great to express her love for Jesus. The perfume was worth about a year’s wage for a common laborer. Judas, on the other hand, was concerned with financial loss. The reason for Judas’s concern was not his compassion for the poor but his plans as a thief.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”—12:7-8
Jesus defended Mary against Judas’s derision. Jesus’ words indicate that Mary’s act of was more significant then she knew at the time. Her act of sacrificial devotion symbolized Jesus’ coming burial. Jesus’ reference to the poor did not imply that he had no concern for them. Because his entire life and teaching proved that he had deep love and concern for the poor.
Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.—12:9-11
A large crowd gathered, wanting to see not only Jesus but also Lazarus. Lazarus had become a celebrity in his own right. His popularity led the chief priests to determine he too would have to be killed.
And now that we have a basic understanding of the context surrounding this first section of John chapter 12 let’s dig deeper into this section. And in order to do that we must answer four big questions: was pouring perfume on feet a customary ritual; how expensive was the perfume; why was the perfume intended for Jesus’ burial; and why not give to help the poor.
- Was pouring perfume on feet a customary ritual?
Hospitality in those days called for washing the feet, but pouring perfume on the feet. Washing traveler’s feet after they had walk hot, dusty roads in sandals soother and freshened them for their visit. It was also customary to anoint an honored guest’s head—not feet—with perfume. Mary (and another woman on a different occasion, Luke 7:37-38) anointed Jesus’ feet perhaps because she felt unworthy to anoint his head. Further, Mary’s act of devotion showed her humility, for it was a servant’s work to attend to the feet. In both cases, the women recognized the righteous nature of Christ in contrast to their own sinfulness and sought his forgiveness.
- How expensive was the perfume?
The perfume was very expensive. It was likely imported from outside the region. John notes that it was “pure nard,” which give it added value. Judas complained about Mary’s extravagant waste because it was equivalent to the annual income of a laborer.
- Why was the perfume intended for Jesus’ burial?
It was not uncommon for family or friends to spend enormous sums of money on strong perfumes and spices to mask the odor of a decaying body. Knowing he was facing death soon, Jesus saw a parallel between that custom and what Mary had done. He saw her act of love and devotion as something like a pre-anointing for burial. He defended her actions by reminding them of his approaching death.
- Why not give to help the poor?
Jesus was not being calloused or indifferent toward the needy. He was simply saying that there was little time left for his followers to express their love for him. They could and should always help the poor, but the expenditure was justified on this occasion.
And we will pick up from here tomorrow as we move further into John’s account of Holy Week, with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
Tomorrow’s Bible Readings:
2 Samuel 20:14-21:22, Acts 1, Psalms 121:1-8 and Proverbs 16:18
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