Please read John 12:1-11.
Do I love Jesus as much as Mary did?
The subject of the Sunday School lesson was missions. The class of eager eight year-olds had just met their first missionary and they were excited to hear about life in far-away Africa. The teacher wanted to capitalize on their enthusiasm, so she asked the class if they’d like to give the missionary $1,000.
“YES!” the kids replied enthusiastically.
“How about $100?”
“YES!” they shouted.
“Would you give a dollar to help this missionary?”
All the boys responded with another loud “YES!” except for Johnnie. The teacher noticed this and asked him, “Johnnie, why didn’t you say ‘yes’ this time?”
“Well,” he said clutching his pocket, “I HAVE a dollar!”
That’s human nature, isn’t it? As long as sacrifice is merely theoretical or in principle, we’re all for it. When it becomes actual or personal, we suddenly have reservations.
In our passage, we see Mary making a huge sacrifice to honor Jesus. While we obviously don’t measure love with dollar signs, we do measure a sacrifice by what it costs us. The more precious the thing we sacrifice, the more love that indicates.
John referred to Mary’s action before he gave us any details of it. In 11:2, he explained who Mary was; THIS MARY, WHOSE BROTHER LAZARUS NOW LAY SICK, WAS THE SAME ONE WHO POURED PERFUME ON THE LORD AND WIPED HIS FEET WITH HER HAIR. This detail is out of chronological order. If John had been written for the Internet, 11:2 would be preceded by the words “Spoiler Alert!” He’s teasing what will appear in the next chapter.
- Mary’s sacrifice. (12:1-3)
Verse one provides us with the context for this event. The time was SIX DAYS BEFORE PASSOVER, the last week of Jesus’ life. The place was the village of Bethany; the home town of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.
John does not record the incident in Luke 10:38-42 but story is in keeping with Luke’s characterization of the sisters. In Luke, Martha worked in the kitchen and complained that Mary wasn’t helping her. Here in John, Martha served the meal. In Luke, Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to His teaching. Here in John she is at His feet again, but this time to perform a lavish sacrifice. John goes into some detail to assure us Mary’s sacrifice was great.
She poured out A PINT OF NARD, AN EXPENSIVE PERFUME. This was a fragrant oil make from the nard plant which grows in the mountains of northern India. Pure NARD was diluted or combined with other ingredients to make incense, cosmetics, perfume, or medicines.
As Jesus would refer to it in verse seven, dead bodies were also covered with the stuff. This not only masked the smell of decay, but it made the linen cloths covering the body stick to it.
The fact that Mary POURED IT ON JESUS’ FEET is a detail that is hard to explain. Normally, a person’s head was anointed, not the feet.
That she WIPED HIS FEET WITH HER HAIR is another striking and out-of-the ordinary detail. In Jesus’ culture it was inappropriate for a woman to bare her head. In Luke’s account the woman had LIVED A SINFUL LIFE, so she might be willing to flaunt cultural norms. In that culture as well as ours, this was an intimate act, an extreme show of emotion.
Set aside the cultural norms for a moment: it was illogical to apply perfume and then wipe it off with anything, especially one’s hair. Mary’s action here is impossible to explain.
John noted THE HOUSE WAS FILLED WITH THE FRAGRANCE OF THE PERFUME. This is a wonderful poetic description. This is the first of two clues that Mary poured the whole thing out on Jesus’ feet, an extravagant use of an expensive possession.
- Judas’ objection. (12:4-6)
Judas objected to Mary’s action (vs. 4-5). I imagine Judas’ rebuke coming after a moment of stunned silence after Mary surprised them all. Mary’s action was not at all practical; a little bit of that concentrated perfume would have been sufficient to be hospitable. It was an intimate and expensive way to demonstrate her love for Jesus.
“IT WAS WORTH A YEAR’S WAGES” Judas protested. Turns out, his assessment was quite accurate. An alternative reading in the Greek texts provides an amount: three hundred denarii. As a one of these coins was the typical day’s wage for a laborer, 300 would be about a year’s worth.
His objection masked his real motive: greed. Judas had never before demonstrated any great concern for the poor. As treasurer, Judas had been trusted with the group’s purse; a trust he violated to add to his own purse or buy things for himself. People have tried to understand what motivated Judas to betray Jesus, but the only personal motive the gospels offer is greed.
This situation will come up again in 13:29-30, where Jesus identified Judas as His betrayer. When Jesus sent Judas away, the others assumed Jesus had sent their treasurer to get provisions for the Passover or to make a donation to help the poor.
The other explanation of Judas’ betrayal is a spiritual one: he was a tool in the Devil’s hands (Luke 22:3; John 6:70; 13:2+27). It’s likely greed was the door Judas opened and the devil walked right in through it.
- Jesus’ explanation. (12:7-8)
John doesn’t explain Mary’s motive, an omission which stands out because of the extremity of Mary’s act. He does, however, explain why this pint of nard was available in the first place. It seems Mary and Jesus originally had planned another use of the nard. Jesus said, “IT WAS INTENDED THAT SHE SHOULD SAVE THIS PERFUME FOR THE DAY OF MY BURIAL.”
Instead of following that plan, she poured it all out – she did not dilute it or reserve it for Jesus’ burial. This is the second of two clues that point to this (the first is in verse three).
Jesus’ statement about the poor (v. 8) has been misused to justify any less-than-compassionate attitude toward poor folks. We should moderate our urge to personalize or make a rule out of everything. The first question we should always ask of the Bible is, “What did this mean at that time?” In this case Jesus warned them that He would not be around much longer, so now was the perfect time for Mary to anoint Him.
Jesus knew human nature and the sinful condition of the world. Those two facts insure there will always be poor folk. He also affirmed what Moses wrote in Deuteronomy 15:11 = THERE WILL ALWAYS BE POOR PEOPLE IN THE LAND. THEREFORE I COMMAND YOU TO BE OPEN-HANDED TOWARD YOUR BROTHERS AND TOWARD THE POOR AND NEEDY IN YOUR LAND.
- Meanwhile, back at the Sanhedrin. (12:9-11)
Jesus attracted a LARGE CROWD even while doing nothing more than eating dinner (v. 9). John 11:19 tells us MANY JEWS were in Bethany to comfort Mary and Martha on the occasion of their brother Lazarus’ death. It’s reasonable to believe part of the LARGE CROWD had witnessed Lazarus’ death and hung around to see what would happen next.
This scene is a dinner given to honor Jesus, with Lazarus invited. Verse nine reports the CROWD had also gathered to see Lazarus.
The Pharisees’ fear of the CROWD surfaces in vs. 10 and 19, “LOOK HOW THE WHOLE WORLD HAS GONE AFTER HIM!” The crowds following Him intimidated THE CHIEF PRIESTS so much that they planned to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Only John reports this detail. We have no evidence they ever murdered Lazarus. This information explains why the Jewish leaders were determined to kill Jesus.
Two factors combined to put pressure on the Jewish leadership. The raising of Lazarus caused Jesus’ popularity to skyrocket just as people were travelling to Jerusalem for the Passover. I presume they wanted to kill Lazarus to eliminate this important evidence of Jesus’ power and to end his “celebrity status.”
Do I love Jesus as much as Mary did?
The question gets at the heart of our faith – what am I willing to sacrifice as a demonstration of my love for Jesus? Mary sacrificed a great deal of money and humiliated herself to make an extravagant gift. Do I love Jesus enough to sacrifice my pride?
As we conclude, allow me one more example of sacrifice. Of the 56 men who signed our Declaration of Independence, five were captured by the British and tortured until they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned. Two lost sons in the Revolutionary War. One signer had two sons captured. Nine fought and died in the war. One saw his ships sunk by the British navy and died in poverty. More than thirty of the fifty-six signers made great sacrifices to advance the cause of liberty. We would honor their sacrifice by taking our involvement more seriously.
Those signers who endured heart-breaking loss made great sacrifices in the name of securing freedom for succeeding generations of Americans. While we may never be called upon to make such deadly sacrifices, we are all called upon to demonstrate our love for Jesus in daily sacrifices of self. We must surrender all to the one who gave His all for our salvation. We gather around this table to remember Jesus, who laid down his life for us, the most unselfish act in all human history. In light of all He did, how much do we love Him for doing it?
The Anchor Bible, Raymond C. Brown.