In the days leading up to the point at which I want to pick up the story, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. This miracle would have been the greatest one prior to his own resurrection, so it is very intriguing that only John’s gospel records it. Just before he calls Lazarus out from the tomb, Jesus proclaims, “I Am the Resurrection and the Life!” which really sets the stage for what is about to take place. In a short tour from Bethany after raising Lazarus, Jesus delivered various teachings, dined with Zacchaeus, and healed Blind Bartimaeus before returning to the tiny village of Bethany.
While Jesus was on his brief tour from Bethany, the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jewish leaders made up of various influential scribes and Pharisees, was meeting together in Jerusalem. They discussed their fear of Jesus’ popularity, and hatched a plot that at the next opportunity, he should be put to death. They in fact wanted to kill Lazarus as well, so they had pretty much set their hearts on spilling some blood. As we pick up the story in more detail, Jesus is just arriving in the peaceful little village of Bethany, which is pictured here – although it would have been much smaller in Jesus’ day. “Bethany” means “house of pain,” and it is therefore perhaps appropriately named, given its significance in Jesus’ life.
Jesus Anointed at Bethany
Jesus arrived in the village just before the Feast of Passover, and many people in Jerusalem who heard about his arrival came to meet him and to see Lazarus for themselves. In celebration of Lazarus’ restoration to life and in order to honour Jesus, the people prepare a feast in the home of Simon the Leper. He was clearly not a leper, but may have been at one time before being healed by Jesus. Since he hosted the banquet, he was likely a wealthy man, whose home could have looked something like one pictured here.
The first few verses of John 12 record this event in an unusual fashion in Greek, though most English translations don’t reconstruct it literally into English, as it sounds quite awkward. There’s an old hermeneutics maxim which says, “Whenever you see a ‘therefore,’ ask what it’s there for.” Often a ‘therefore’ will appear to connect ideas — the word is used the same as in English, where you would make a statement or a whole set of ideas, and then say “therefore” to link those with your conclusion. So it’s a little unusual that in the first three verses of John 12, there are actually three therefore’s. If we inserted the ‘therefores’ from the Greek, the translation would be something like, “Therefore, six days before Passover, he came to Bethany,” and “Therefore they made for him a supper,” and “Therefore, Mary took a pound of nard.”
John tips us off linguistically to cue us that an inevitable series of events has now been set in motion, and they cannot be avoided. The wheels are all in motion – Jesus had to go to Bethany, the people had to prepare a feast, and Mary had to anoint him as she does. Of course, this is in fact what happens. Mary brings out an alabaster vessel filled with about a pound of nard, an aromatic perfume. The jar itself would probably have looked something like the one in this photograph.
The account of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet is one that is often used as a picture of worship, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Many have observed that the cost of the perfume was about a year’s wages for a labourer, but it’s become a little misleading to merely convert the number into today’s dollars, because a labourer’s annual wages in our double-income culture will mean something different now. In those terms, perhaps there are many folks today who could actually afford to do what Mary did. Instead, since this season falls at income tax time for many of us in North America, think of your total family income last year, and to personalize Mary’s actions, suppose that whatever that dollar figure means to you is what the cost to Mary was.
We don’t know how Mary came by this expensive perfume. Perhaps it was their inheritance, the family “nest egg,” or perhaps it was her dowry. Where it was from, it fairly directly represents the security of her future.
She breaks the jar open, and the scent of the perfume fills the entire house. She anoints Jesus’ head — a symbol of joy. She then does something unusual and anoints his feet, which introduces the symbolism of an anointing for burial, upon which Jesus comments. She also unbinds her hair and begins to wipe his feet. A sinful woman had done the same thing for Jesus some time before, and Mary is perhaps content to identify with her as she humbles herself at Jesus’ feet.
It has been noted that every time Mary of Bethany appears in scripture, she winds up at Jesus’ feet – both literally and figuratively, and without fail. And as she humbles herself to wipe Jesus’ feet here, she unconsciously identifies with him, and her own head is anointed by the perfume she has poured out, for she will soon be filled with joy. It isn’t likely that she saw any of this in her actions — she’s just acting out of a deep devotion.
Judas objects to the waste of this costly perfume, saying that it should have been sold and the money given to the poor, to which Jesus replies that we would always have the poor with us — not so him. If all of this isn’t foreboding enough, he explains that Mary has anointed him for burial, and prophesies that her story would be told everywhere that the gospel was preached.
But there was something else for Mary. People in those days did not have the luxury of a brisk shower every morning, and for the next few days, everywhere she went, she would smell just like Jesus… and people would know that she had been with him.
Judas is of course offended with the act, since as the group treasurer he used to steal from the joint funds. He had wanted to have the money in the group’s purse so he could help himself to it, and his selfishness is therefore a stark opposite to Mary’s selflessness, as Mary and Judas mark the sharpest of contrasts in these events leading up to Holy Week.