John 12:1-12

Anointed for the Day of Burial

John 12:1-8     Mary Anoints Jesus

1 Six days before the festival of Passover,
Jesus came to Bethany.
Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, was there.
2 They put on a meal for him there.  
Martha served,
and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him.

The Beloved Disciple’s account of the anointing differs in detail from that in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. Here, the home is the home of Lazarus; and Lazarus’s sister, Martha, served the meal. With the Synoptics, the home was that of an otherwise unidentified Simon the leper; and no mention was made of who served the meal.

3 Mary brought along a quite expensive pound of genuine nard ointment
and anointed Jesus’ feet
and then wiped his feet dry with her hair.  
The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.

In the Synoptic account, the woman who anointed Jesus was not named; but, whoever she was, she anointed the head of Jesus. Here, the woman was identified as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and of Martha. Surprisingly, the narrative had Mary anoint Jesus’ feet, clearly making the point clear that her gesture was not a symbolic messianic anointing. It added the almost erotic detail that Mary wiped his feet dry with her hair, a gesture that in the culture would have been taken as a clear indication of intimacy. Jesus did not recoil. To accentuate the extravagance and sensuousness of the occasion, the Gospel added the detail that the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.

Judas Objects 

4 One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who intended to betray him, said,
5 “Why was the ointment not sold for three hundred denarii,
and given to the poor?” 
6 He spoke this way, not because he was concerned about the poor,
but because he was a thief;
he kept their common purse
and took what was kept in it.

The Gospel author identified the disciple who complained as Judas, and branded him as Jesus’ betrayer. To explain his objection to what Judas labelled as a wilful misuse of an expensive resource, he mentioned that Judas was a thief who commonly stole from their common purse. (Three hundred denarii was roughly equivalent to the annual wage of a labourer.)

7 So Jesus said, “Leave her alone.  
Let her keep it for the day of my burial.

Jesus read her gesture as anticipating (or substituting for) the embalming of his dead body. It was not a messianic anointing. (This detail explains why the author emphasised Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, rather than his head.) 

Mary was, indeed, one of the sheep who listened to the voice of the Shepherd, unlike the mean-spirited betrayer. Her extravagance indicated her profound love – she knew him as he knew her. She accepted Jesus’ pending death, and honoured his choice. Since there would be no dead body lying around to anoint, she would lovingly anoint his living body now.

8 You always have the poor with you,
but you do not always have me.”

Judas was not concerned about the welfare of the poor; nor was he concerned about Jesus. So long as there were people like Judas, unresponsive to the example and message of Jesus, there would be rampant self-interest abroad in the world, and powerless victims of that self-interest. In the real world, the reason for the widespread poverty of those who have not is often the greed of the wealthy who have. The task, always, would be to respond to the reality of Jesus, to the historical Jesus in Mary’s case, and to the practicalities of genuine faith and love for the one in their midst. For the disciples of the Beloved Disciples’ community, facing a different time and a different world, the challenge would be to open their hearts and minds to the Spirit of the risen Jesus, present in their midst, and to meet the world’s self-interest and violence with fearless, but compassionate, love and truth.

John 12:9-11     The Plot to Kill Lazarus

9 A large crowd of Jews learnt that he was there,
and they came not only because of Jesus
but to see Lazarus whom he raised from the dead.
10 The chief priests discussed whether they should also kill Lazarus,
11 since many of the Jews were leaving because of him
and believing in Jesus.

Obviously, the chief priests were frantic. They hoped that a dead Lazarus would be a soon-forgotten Lazarus. Self-interest, and its extension in national-interest, ultimately accept no boundaries. Violence consistently escalates.

Next >> John 12:12-19