John 12:1-11 (NRSV)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. 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. 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?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and believing in Jesus.
When reading this passage, people often get caught on the dialogue between Judas and Jesus. We might ask the same question Judas did. Despite the author’s portrayal of Judas, it is not an invalid question considering Jesus’ ministry. Thus, Jesus’ remarks are a hard swallow since they seemingly disregard the poor.
According to most scholars, Jesus is alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11:
“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore
I command you to be open-handed toward your fellow
Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (TNIV)
Instead, we are almost distracted from the extraordinary, almost unexplainable act of Mary and, since we know the overarching story, we may miss Jesus’ words foreshadowing his death or simply dismiss them as the author’s agenda. Yet, death intertwines this passage with Lazarus’ resurrection and the plots to kill Jesus—and now also Lazarus. (Chapters 11-12)
Yet, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Mary’s action fills the passage like the perfume fills the house. Like her hair, her tenderness and gratitude are unbounded. Anointing does not occur during a time of mourning, but instead hold the connotation of gladness. I do not know that Mary had Jesus’ death in mind, but perhaps her actions were tempered with unbounded gratefulness and knowledge of the fragility of life (having previously grieved her brother’s death).
After all, Mary’s brother, Lazarus is now alive and at the table! Her actions were more likely driven by her great love, devotion and gratitude towards Jesus. At the feet of Jesus, her humility and generous gift exemplify her as a more faithful disciple than Judas.
Rather the contrast of Jesus’ words, “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” fit well with rabbinic theology and Mary’s actions.
According to one commentary: “There were two classifications of good works: those that pertain to mercy, e.g., burial; those that pertain to justice, e.g., almsgiving. The former were looked upon as more perfect than the latter.” (Anchor Bible: The Gospel according to John, Brown, p. 449)
In other words, without disregarding either mercy or justice, the rabbis would suggest that mercy is more perfect than justice. Is it possible to have real justice without mercy?
Preparing the dead is considered one of the greatest mitzvahs (good deed), since the dead cannot repay you for your kindness. In this moment, Jesus likens the use of the expensive perfume (pure nard) as preparing his body for burial; an act of mercy that should not be diminished.
Why do you think Mary does what she does? What significance does her action hold for you?
How do you reconcile yourself to your mortality? Is death something easy for you to talk about?
Is mercy more perfect than justice? Why or why not?
Does this passage have any implications for your life?