Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 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. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
I have always thought that this passage was about social justice, and that Judas cared about social justice while Mary cared for Jesus. But when I looked closer to write this article and work out what I thought Jesus meant, I realised my preconceptions were faulty and this wasn't the case at all.
If we look at the setting, we find that it is six days before the Passover (v. 1)—the Jewish festival designed to remind the Jews of when, in Egypt, the angel of God killed all of the Egyptian firstborn children but passed over their houses. It was part of God's judgement on Pharaoh when he kept the Israelites as slaves and would not release them. Killing the Egyptian firstborn children was the tenth plague and it finally caused Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. Passover was a reminder to the Jews that God saves without his people having to do anything. But in John 12, this Passover was the ultimate Passover for the sins of the whole world—but hang on a minute, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The passage says that Jesus was on his way to Bethany, going to meet Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead spectacularly just a little while before (John 11). Bethany was only 2 miles from Jerusalem—the city of kings—the city of David—where it was prophesied there would be restoration and the salvation of God (Isaiah 52:9-10). It was also the place where Jesus was headed, soon after, to be crucified.
Let's look at some of the characters of this story. Mary, Martha and Lazarus are good friends of Jesus. Jesus was very upset and he wept when Lazarus died (John 11:35), even though he knew he was going to raise him from the dead. Martha was the one who missed the point when her sister Mary left her with all the work, sitting and listening at the feet of Jesus. Back then, Jesus had said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). So here in John 12 we've got Lazarus, Mary and Martha. And Jesus and his disciples, including the one who would betray him: Judas.
Picture this: Lazarus, Jesus and the others are reclining at a table, their feet probably out behind them as they lay on their sides. Mary takes out a pound (probably half a litre) of very expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus' feet. That is a lot of perfume! It's like pouring out most of a 600ml bottle of Coke. The fragrance would have filled the room! Just think of being on an inter-city train with someone with far too much perfume on; the air would have been saturated.
Then Mary lets down her hair and wipes Jesus' feet. Letting down your hair was something an honest woman like Mary just didn't do. It wasn't done. Yet she did it. Why? Well, let's look back at the Old Testament, for it helps to interpret the New. Kings were anointed on their heads with oil (e.g. 1 Samuel 10 and 1 Samuel 16). Anointing was also used to signify that something was holy—set apart—special (e.g. Exodus 30). But why anoint the feet? In the very next chapter Jesus washes his disciple's feet. Jesus tells them that he has set them an example by becoming a servant and washing their feet. So maybe that's what Mary was thinking—wash the feet like a servant, anoint like a king. In Matthew and Mark's Gospels, a similar incident is recorded where a woman anoints his head (Matthew 26, Mark 14), but in Luke's gospel, she anoints his feet (Luke 7). So I definitely think Mary was anointing Jesus as a king, but maybe she anointed him on the feet to signify he was a “servant” king. But we don't know and it doesn't really say.
The main meaning of her actions is perfectly clear. Jesus, in true form, reveals that Mary is pre-empting his burial. It's six days until the Passover and Jesus is about to die. But, after Mary pours the perfume over Jesus' feet, Judas reacts with outrage at the “waste” of approximately one year's wages—three hundred denarii (1 denarius was the standard wage for a labourer for 1 day)—when it could've been given to the poor. But John the gospel writer is careful to reveal that Judas is a thief. Judas was probably thinking that he could have taken that money instead of seeing Mary pour it all over Jesus' feet. Though there's no record of Judas' motivation, I think it's pretty obvious why he said what he said.
So what can we take away from this passage? Are you like Judas, more concerned with money than how you can serve the Servant King? Are you like Martha, who was too busy with every day chores to listen to her Master? Or are you like Mary, spending a year's wages to anoint your Lord for his burial?