(John 12:1-2 ESV) Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.
Jesus was being pursued to be killed. He had hidden himself away at Ephraim. It’s easy to imagine Martha figuring that it just wasn’t right for Jesus to have to hide. And as a good, Jewish, practically-minded woman, she did what good, American women do today: she invited him to dinner to thank him.
That’s no surprise. Surprising is that Jesus accepted. Jesus had evidently hidden all he wanted to. It was time to set the final pieces in motion.
John creates narrative tension, speaking of the roles of Lazarus and Martha, leaving us to wonder where Mary will fit into the story. Is she out of town visiting friends? With Jesus coming to her house? Surely not.
(John 12:3 ESV) 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The NET Bible translators advise —
Nard or spikenard is a fragrant oil from the root and spike of the nard plant of northern India. This aromatic oil, if made of something like nard, would have been extremely expensive, costing up to a year’s pay for an average laborer.
Wow — a full year’s salary for an unmarried woman, who’d been caring for her sick brother in a town likely dedicated to the sick. How would she ever make that up?
In that society, a woman’s hair was worn up under a veil. To loosen her hair in the presence of a man not her husband and not in her family would have been considered forward and very inappropriate. Indeed, we have references of Jewish women being marked as adulteresses by loosening their hair — requiring them to wear their hair down — in public (e.g., Num 5:18).
Moreover, Jesus had just walked from Ephraim to Bethany. He feet would have been filthy, at least covered with dust. But this was a society that lived among its animals. They would have crossed paths with sheep and goats and surely had followed behind horses and donkeys.
Mary was doing the work of a slave in washing Jesus’ feet, and she was doing in a way that no one would have dared ask. It was a deeply humble and submissive act (and an act Jesus would emulate later with the disciples).
(John 12:4-6 ESV) 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Judas, like many people, uses sanctimony in an effort to get his way. He was a skilled manipulator — setting up Jesus to look insensitive to the poor in town named “House of the Poor.”
And, no surprise, Judas entirely missed the gravity of the moment. Jesus had just raised her brother from the dead! And he did this at great risk to his own life. Indeed, even coming to dinner risked arrest and execution.
(John 12:7-8 ESV) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Verse 7 is bit ambiguous. Is Jesus saying that he is presently being prepared for burial? Or that she should save some of the nard for his burial? The Greek is unclear. However, it would be hard to use up a pound of nard on just two feet — that’s a LOT of perfume. And so I’m inclined to think Jesus wanted her to save the remaining portion for his burial.
In fact, imagine how Mary would have felt if, at Jesus’ burial, no one could produce enough perfume for a proper burial? Or if she could not contribute to the burial in some way? A woman who loved Jesus so much, who thought of him as family, would have been devastated to show up at the burial unable to do her proper part.
Verse 8 is taken from —
(Deu 15:11 ESV) 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
The Law of Moses commands generosity to the poor, because the land would never be so blessed that there would be no poor. Indeed, it’s the nature of mankind universally to imagine that the poverty problem is temporary so that there’s no need to find a permanent means of caring for the poor. Moses did not let the Israelites rationalize: There will always be poor among you; and so there will always been a need to be generous to the poor.
Therefore, it’s wildly improbable that Jesus is saying we should not care for the poor because poverty is an unsolvable problem. Those who argue that the church has no duty to the poor because “the poor you always have with you” are rationalizing their greed.
So what is Jesus’ point? It’s seems simple enough. Jesus’ bodily presence on earth was a special case. He would not be there for long. And it was appropriate to prefer the worship of Jesus over even concern for the poor. After all, there is no limit to the time and money that might be invested in the poor, and yet we must reserve some time and money for worship. (Again, we have here an example of worship in Spirit and in truth, I believe, even though John doesn’t use the word “worship.”)
The legalistic part of our brains wants a rule: which is more important — worship or serving the poor? And we’ll then do only one. Wrong! We must do both, and we must do both in light of who God is and the gospel. And in this case, it was time to worship.
(John 12:9 ESV) 9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
Well, if you’d been there, you’d have run to the house, too. Not only had Jesus become a major celebrity, but he had raised Lazarus from the dead! Who knows what other signs he might do!
(John 12:10-11 ESV) 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
We forget this, but it’s part of the drama. In raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus marked him for death. Ironic? Well, it’s part of the perversity of the leaders’ lust for power. Once the leaders had decided that Jesus must die, they’d crossed a moral line. The first death was hard to decide on. The second was not hard at all.
Think about it. Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. He made his own choices. He went to Jerusalem and did signs and made audacious claims under the noses of the Romans. He knew what he was doing. He knew the risks he was taking. Indeed, the leaders would figure, if he’s a blasphemer, he deserves death. If he’s not, then God won’t let him be killed. They would have seen no moral fault in deciding to have Jesus killed.
But Lazarus did nothing. He just died only to be raised. And yet the leaders were willing to kill an innocent man to destroy Jesus. They went from cold-blooded, callous power players to murderers.
(John 12:12-13 ESV) 12 The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”
Palm branches had been the symbol of the Maccabees — the last kings to rule an independent Judea. They were honoring Jesus as King — an earthly king come to overthrow the Romans. They were symbolically inviting the King into his capitol city. There was rebellion in the air.
The words are taken from —
(Psa 118:24-26 ESV) 24 This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 25 Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! 26 Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD.
John probably intends the irony of the people shouting “Hosanna” — meaning “God save.” The crowd was shouting the equivalent of “God save the king!” although, in reality, the King was preparing to save the people.