The scene for this text is set at six days before Passover when Jesus and his group reach Bethany. This is also right after he has raised Lazarus from the tomb and Lazarus, Mary and Martha are in attendance at this dinner, a Sabbath dinner at the home of Simon who is a good mutual friend, as we discover from the Synoptics. We can infer the close relationship between Simon and Lazarus, Mary and Martha from the fact that Martha is one of those serving the dinner, and it is interesting to note that the word used to describe her service in verse 2 is the word from which we get the English words “deacon” and “minister” meaning “servant” and is also used to describe Martha in Luke 10:40.
Mary suddenly begins an unusual foot treatment for Jesus by applying a large amount of nard to his feet. Nard is a highly-prized ointment imported from India that was prized by both men and women in the ancient world. It had a sweet-woody odor that was very heavy and likely to fill the entire house. The “pint” that she applied to Jesus’ feet would be worth something in the area of $20,000.00 today. Mary held nothing back in using so much of the very expensive luxury on Jesus, even mopping up the excess with her hair, a gesture of pure humility in front of mixed company; in short this was a shocking scene, and yet it shows us that Mary was holding nothing back in her service to Jesus. I daresay that there is a lesson in this for our time, for how many of us would pour $20,000.00 on Jesus’ feet? It seems likely that Mary understood that Jesus would soon be taken from them, and she was not going to stand by His grave and wish she had told him how much she loved him.
Judas raises what seems to be a logical objection to all of this extravagance pointing out that the money could have been put to a better use; very reasonable indeed. However John points out in the text that Judas may have had an ulterior motive for his objection as he has been known to embezzle their funds in his keeping. Notice that John does not reveal how or when they became aware of this, but it does show us a glimpse of the character of the man who would shortly turn traitor. One thing is clear; it wasn’t the poor that Judas was mourning for.
Jesus will have none of this criticism. He points out that she had saved it for His funeral, and even though the funeral hadn’t come about, it would within the week, and Mary would prize her act even more on that day. As for the poor, Jesus commented on that as well, although his comment has been misinterpreted by many since. He was not giving justification of those who would ignore those in need, but rather that there are times when service to God trumps everything else; even good works. How many Christians over the centuries have been so concerned with good social works that they have missed out on a closer relationship with the Lord! He comes first in all things, even doing good deeds.
News of the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ arrival in Bethany reached near-by Jerusalem very quickly and many came out to see both Jesus and Lazarus. Of course amongst the curious were also their leaders who had different things in mind. Their hatred of Jesus was all the greater for so many more were prepared to follow Him and to discontinue following their leaders. From their point of view, this had to stop for their position was being severely threatened; Lazarus must go as well as Jesus. Thus, the stage is set for the final drama of Jesus’ last week and the most seminal event of all human history.
As this text comes to its close, there are two main threads to the story, and two sub-plots. The two main threads can be summed up as support for Jesus, and opposition to Jesus, and the sub-plots are holding back and murderous intent. On the side of support, we see the gathering crowds that have come to see Jesus and Lazarus, many of whom are ready to follow Jesus. On this side also is Mary, standing above all the rest, for Mary has given everything to Him, while the rest remain somewhat less committed, probably at various stages of comprehension as to what it really means to follow Jesus.
On the other hand, we have Judas, who for various reasons of his own doesn’t see the value in what Mary has done. He does have a valid point; that the Nard could have been sold and many good things done with the money, not to mention a few bucks in his own pocket; Judas doesn’t seem to quite comprehend what following Jesus really means. Then of course, we have the Pharisees and the other leaders of the people, who see that despite their efforts, the crowds keep growing larger, along with the threat to their positions; something must be done, and quickly.
If we take a step back from the narrative, we might also discern that not only is this is not only the climax of Jesus’ ministry, it is also where we approach the climax of our own lives. On the one hand, Mary has given her all to Jesus, and in doing so has essentially thrown down the gauntlet to all of us: Will we follow her lead? On the other hand, those who prize their worldly positions have also thrown down a gauntlet: Will we join with them in their quest to stop Jesus at all costs?
Like those in the room with Jesus that day, and those gathering outside, most of us are somewhere in between the two camps, and this is where I believe that God is leading us to a decision. Is God speaking to you in this text? If so, what are you going to do about it?