30 March 2015

John 12:1-11

“There they gave a dinner for [Jesus]. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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.” (vv. 2-3)

Psalm: Psalm 36


The raising of Lazarus (John 11) is an important marker on Jesus' journey to the cross in John's Gospel. It is after the report of his raising of Lazarus reached the ears of the authorities that it was decided that Jesus had to be stopped. In many ways, in raising Lazarus to life Jesus condemned himself to death.

In this banquet in Jesus' honour after his raising of Lazarus, the three main characters are present. Martha served. Interestingly this was not dissimilar her role in Luke 10:40, assuming that they are the same Mary and Martha.

Lazarus sat at the table with Jesus. Here we have one man brought back from the grave sitting with another about to be anointed for his burial.

Mary anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume and wiped them with her hair. This story is very similar to one described in Mark 14:3-9 and another in Luke 7:36-50. However, there are quite significant differences in the stories as well so that it is not clear whether they are the same story or different ones. Scholarly views differ.

This is a story of radical lack of restraint. A bottle of perfume worth a year's wages (imagine a £20,000 bottle of perfume) is poured out on Jesus' feet. Given that Jesus will go on to wash his disciples' feet in the following chapter (John 13:1-20) in a similar setting of an evening meal, it is noteworthy that Jesus himself has his feet anointed with perfume and dried by a woman's hair.

The sheer extravagance of this act is shocking, even in our more permissible 21st-century culture. In the more constrained cultural mores of 1st-century Palestine this was scandalously outrageous. Whatever else is going on Mary is cast in the role of a beloved disciple. Whether she recognises before anyone else that Jesus is going to his death, or is simply expressing gratitude for the raising of Lazarus is not clear.

This was both a private and public act. It was private in the depth of its intimacy; in that moment Mary was alone with her Lord. It was also a public act. There were others at dinner, and even those who weren't in the room would have smelt the perfume as its fragrance filled the house. Something of Mary's devotion infused that place.

To Ponder

  • To what extent have we become too restrained too proper in our devotion to Christ? When was the last time you felt moved to express, with a radical lack of restraint, your sense of gratitude to God?
  • Mary offered a bottle of perfume worth a year's wages. How she would have acquired such a thing has been the subject of scholarly debate for centuries. What seems clear is that she is unlikely to have had anything else of similar value. Mary offered the most valuable thing she had to God, not because God needed it but because she felt the need to give it. What might you give to God, not for God's benefit but yours?
  • Mary's extravagance offended some but filled the house with the fragrance of the perfume, which conjures up Old Testament images of God smelling the sweet aroma of burnt offerings (cf Genesis 8:21). In what ways might your devotion to Christ be a pleasing aroma, not only to those around us you but also to God?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel is a Methodist minister, currently stationed as Director of Wesley Study Centre, Durham - a Methodist theological institution which is part of St John's College within the University of Durham. Prior to this he was New Testament Tutor at Spurgeon's College in London and Chaplain to Farringtons School in Kent