Summary of the Text
This narrative is slightly changed from the Synoptic accounts. Matthew and Mark’s Gospels place this narrative two days prior to the Passover (Matt: 26:6-13; Mark 14:1). Three Evangelists emphasize the immediate threat of the Jewish leaders who have begun to plot Jesus’ death in the Passion Narrative of Holy Week (Matthew 26:3-5, Mark 14:1-2, John 11:45ff), while Luke places the anointing narrative earlier in his Gospel alongside similar critiques of the Pharisees (e.g., Luke alone gives Jesus’ rebuke of Pharisees attending the meal in Luke 7:44-47).
Luke alone mentions the woman’s past (7:37, 39, 47), but John alone gives us the intimacy of a meal among close friends at Mary’s home in Bethany for the setting (as opposed to Simon the Leper’s in Matt. 26:6, Mark 14:3, and Luke 7:40). With these similarities and dissimilarities in mind, scholars have debated whether this was one event remembered from different angles or if these were two or more separate events with similar details.
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
There are two pieces of this narrative that are far more meaningful and relevant if we view them through an ancient lens: 1) the Passover; and 2) the perfume.
First, John places this narrative in the Passion narrative of his Gospel, in the week leading up to the Passover Feast in Jerusalem (John 12:1). The Passover remembers and celebrates God’s mercy in “passing over” his people in Egypt while bringing judgment upon the homes of Egypt (Exod. 12:1-30). The preparation for Passover in its original context of Exodus 12:3-10 was that each home was to prepare a lamb for death to serve as an offering to God (when upon the night of God’s passing over, God would see the blood of the lambs on the Hebrew doorposts and pass over them). Jesus in John 12, similarly, is being prepared for death (12:7) and has already been named as the Lamb of God (1:29) who will lay down his own life for the salvation of many (3:16; 11:50-53).
Secondly, the narrative is very specific about Mary’s offering poured out onto Jesus. It is described as “a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume” (John 12:3, NIV). The value of this offering is described by Kruse: “Nard is an extract from an aromatic plant, Nardostachys jatamansi, found in northern India and Italy.
The perfume was expensive because it was imported from a great distance, as well as having to be extracted from plant material. The process of extraction usually involved large amounts of plant material yielding only a little aromatic oil…” (Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Inter-Varsity Press, 2017, p. 303). John, along with Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all note the content of this worshipful offering because of how sacrificial it was on Mary’s part to offer such a valuable item in such a generous amount.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Though Jesus (Ἰησοῦς): One of the strongest themes present in the narrative, and certainly good news for those hearing it, is the idea that Christ has taken our place in the grave. Following the raising of Jesus’ beloved friend Lazarus in John 11, we have the meal in John 12. Lazarus had truly shed his grave cloths (11:44), been truly resurrected by Christ’s own command, Luke emphasizes his true, bodily resurrection by highlighting Lazarus’ presence at the feast table (12:1-2).
Similarly, we see Jesus’ own resurrection meal as a way of recognizing his bodily resurrection (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:10-14; Acts 10:40-41), and now Christ was being prepared for the grave himself with burial perfume (John 12:7). Christ has taken away, commanded away, Lazarus’s death and the signs of it (11:44) and now willingly submits himself to the grave in his and our stead (12:7; Phil. 2:6-8). In resurrected life, Lazarus is also bound to Jesus’ death (11:45ff; 12:9-11). Indeed, this feast with Lazarus is an early foreshadowing of both joining Christ in dying and being resurrected alongside him (Rom. 6:1-10).
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
We tend to dilute the particular moments of God’s presence in our lives, giving our spirituality and worship an ongoing, generic approach. After all, one might way, the Holy Spirit allows us to come into God’s presence from any setting at any time in any circumstance and find the fullness of God immediately. There are, though, still ways that God distinctly makes Himself available to us through indubitable moments of Him drawing near to us.
Whether that is unexpectedly in our early morning devotionals, at moments of tragedy or terror, or in the remembrance and celebration of his presence at baptism or communion, we must be keen to recognize God’s gift of drawing near to us and the particular times He assists our awareness of his presence. Mary knew Jesus, had spent time with him before. But, now in lieu of his power to resurrect her brother Lazarus, she wastes no time pouring out all she had in his honor. She drew near to Him as He revealed Himself to her as the Lord of life. We, too, should respond as readily, eagerly, and worshipfully when God reveals Himself to us in particularly potent moments of His nearness.
Charles Teixeira was born just south of Boston, Massachusetts, becoming a believer just before college. Charles attended the University of Connecticut and then later Gordon College (MA), earning a degree in Biblical and Theological Studies. Following college, Charles served as a social worker for three years in a group home setting for teenagers who had been removed from their homes.
From 2012-2019, Charles also worked for XXXChurch (xxxchurch.com) as a contributor and a pastoral counselor to men experiencing sex addictions. Charles’ first ordained call in Midland, TX as Assistant Pastor of Congregational Care. He has just transitioned into being the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Albert Lea Minnesota.
Charles is married to Elizabeth and they have two sons, AJ and Isaac, and one very orange cat named Ginny Weasley. In his spare time, Charles loves reading, traveling, and watching the Red Sox win.
“You, eternal Trinity, are Table and Food and Waiter for us. You, eternal Father, are the Table that offers us food, the Lamb, your only-begotten Son. He is the most exquisite Food for us, both in his teaching, which nourishes us in your will, and in the sacraments that we receive in Holy Communion, which feeds and strengthens us while we are pilgrim travelers in this life. And the Holy Spirit is a Waiter for us, for he serves us this teaching by enlightening our mind’s eye with it and inspiring us to follow it.”
Catherine of Sienna
The Importance of Orientation
Orientation is a fascinating word based on the Latin word oriri, meaning “to rise, as in where the sun rises. The sun rises in the east. Early Christians gave great thought and intentionality to what they oriented themselves toward. For instance, the altar in the earliest churches was intentionally directed east so that worshipers would face Jerusalem as they received the Lord’s Supper together.
For this same reason, many of the earliest Christians were buried with their feet facing toward the east. Their rationale was simple: when Christ returned and resurrected their bodies, they wanted to be standing and be facing Jerusalem in their resurrection. To be a Christian was, and is, to reorient one’s entire life and death around Jesus Christ.
A.J. Swoboda, Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World, Baker Publishing Group, 2018, Kindle Location 341.