17 March 2013

John 12:1-8

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’" (vv. 3-5)


As we enter passiontide, the minds of Christians start to turn firmly towards the cross. This passage sees Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, about a week before the Passover festival. A couple of verses earlier (John 11:55-57), people expect him to stay away, for his own safety, yet here he is, in a village close by the city, making the journey which will see him arrested, tried and executed. But first, he pauses to spend time in the company of his friends.

This story of the woman who pours perfume over Jesus' feet appears, in different forms, in three of the four Gospels (Mark 14:3-9 and Luke 7:36-38). John's Gospel gives her an identity - Mary, sister of Martha and of Lazarus. And as so often happens, John's Gospel adds some detail, to set the scene and make it easier for us to imagine ourselves in the story.

One such piece of detail is the reminder (just in case the reader has forgotten!) that Mary's brother, present at the feast, is the same Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead (verse 1). This marks a contrast with Jesus' interpretation of Mary's gift - that she has anointed him for his burial. The story comes immediately before Jesus enters Jerusalem (John 12:12-15), for the climax of his ministry. So, when he enters and is acclaimed as a king, he will enter already anointed for death.

Jesus' response also highlights another contrast, this time between Mary and Judas Iscariot, the disciple who will betray Jesus. John's Gospel's portrait of Judas is far from sympathetic here - he is evil and his motives must be solely about self-enrichment. But whether the accusation of theft is fair or not, Judas is certainly right that the gift could have achieved much among the poor. Three hundred denarii would be roughly a year's income for the average worker.

To Ponder

  • Mary pours out a year's income - perhaps the family's insurance or pension plan. What is Jesus worth to you? Is there anything you would not feel able to give? What does Jesus ask of us - and what does the Church ask? Does the Church ask too much, or too little?
  • Judas, thief or otherwise, raises a question which goes to the heart of the ethical use of money. Is it ever acceptable to spend large amounts on luxury, while many go hungry, while children die for lack of basic health care, while even basic education is beyond the reach of millions? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.