Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the village of Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. Phillips This is the first verse of chapter 12 of John. If you read 11:1-44, you will find the account of Lazarus coming back to life.
It is strange that John is the only Gospel writer to record what was the most profound miracle of his ministry. Because those opposed to Christianity believe this fact to be a powerful argument against the church, we need to consider it a moment.
The key is in understanding that John wrote an account of the Son of God. He did not deny that Jesus was human, but he stressed the Sonship. For John, Jesus fulfilled the promise of the Temple. In a sense, Jesus became the Temple. He drove out those who defiled it. He became the perfect lamb that would save us from death. He became the High Priest who could stand before God and vouch for each of us. The other Gospels concerned themselves with other aspects of the Jesus ministry.
John also saw this as a key point to explain why the decision was made to execute Jesus.
Back to today’s text. Six days before Passover would have been two days before Jesus entered the city on what we call Palm Sunday. Jesus arrived on Friday, 8 Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year (late March). A meal was prepared that afternoon but served after sunset, that is, on Saturday, 9 Nisan, the Sabbath. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was on the first day of the week, Sunday, 10 Nisan. On that day, most lambs were examined by the priests to determine if they were worthy of being Passover lambs. Jesus entered as the God-supplied Passover Lamb to be examined—and rejected.
Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. NIV We do not know if the Lazarus’ household was wealthy or poor. If poor, the men likely reclined on pillows in a small courtyard, and the food was set on the ground by their heads. The men would have formed a close circle so that they could reach most of the food without having to pass all of it. They had neither plates nor utensils, but scooped up food with torn pieces of flatbread, much as you can still see in the Middle East. The women ate together in the house after serving the men.
Mary brought in a pound of very costly ointment, pure nard, and with it anointed the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair; the house was filled with the scent of the ointment. NJB The Greek word translated as pound is litra, a Roman pound. It was about 2/3 of a modern pound. Still, 11 ounces of pure nard cost several months wages. It grew only in the Himalayas and took about a year to reach Jerusalem by camel caravan. Mary and Martha may have purchased it for the burial of Lazarus. If so, it was more like 9 or 10 ounces.
Keep the culture in mind here. Men did not allow women to touch them in public, which this was in their context. Lazarus would have seen to the foot-washing of all the male guests. It may be that Jesus was related to Lazarus’ family, but that did not allow such a display with other guests present.
Why did Mary do something so outrageous? We do not know what was running through Mary’s mind, but she was no doubt euphoric that her brother was alive. For her, this may have been a thank-you. Jesus saw it, and John later saw it, as preparing Jesus for burial.
Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, even then getting ready to betray him, said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? MSG That is a common argument in church circles. “We don’t need a new building. We should give it to the poor.” What we mean, often without knowing it, is that we don’t want to have to pay for the new building, or the poor either. We want to keep the money in our purses.
There are times when the question is legitimate. Do we need a $10,000 stain-glass window? Yes, if it is for a $10 million cathedral. No, if we never give anything as a church to help people in need. Is it for the glory of God or the glory of the congregation?
Whatever Mary intended, the nard was for the glory of God.
But Jesus replied to this outburst, “Let her alone, let her keep this for the day of my burial. You have the poor with you always—you will not always have me!” Phillips What is most important here is that Jesus is focused on the upcoming week. Seven days from this moment Jesus will be in the grave. “Yes, we are to help the poor, but I am about to die for you. Let Mary anoint me for that saving act.” I don’t think we should try to build anything else from the comment—except perhaps, “I have no problem with women disciples.”
Read my earlier comments on this theme here.
Be righteous and do good.