Summary: Jesus anointing at Bethany followed by the triumphal entry to Jerusalem
One of the things the gospel writers do as they present their accounts of the life and words of Jesus, is to describe the wide range of responses to Jesus. That’s very apparent in today’s reading from John 12. Here we see a range of responses to Jesus, ranging from Mary’s loving devotion to the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ fear and jealousy.
But before we look at these different responses, let’s think about the setting of this section. John presents 2 fairly unrelated episodes in Jesus life, yet you can’t help but feel that he wants to make a connection. First there’s the anointing of Jesus by Mary and then the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Now if that were all you knew about the 2 events, you might well think that the anointing is a sign of Jesus kingship. Mary is anointing Jesus because he’s about to become the King of the Jews. That would certainly fit with the response of the crowd when Jesus appears at the city gates riding a donkey. But it isn’t that simple. John doesn’t have Mary anointing Jesus’ head, as is the case in the parallel accounts of Matthew & Mark. Rather she anoints his feet. So there’s obviously more to it than just a king being anointed.
In fact Jesus himself points out that this anointing isn’t a coronation act. Rather it’s in preparation for his burial. So here we have an interesting thing. John has put these two events together in such a way that we immediately think of the anointed King, yet as we read the detail we discover that the anointing he receives isn’t at all what we might think of at first. But then as we think about it some more, we realise that perhaps that’s because Jesus Kingship is so different from what we would otherwise expect. Just look ahead a few verses to 12:32. Jesus is talking about his name being glorified, as you would expect of a King, but here is what he says: (John 12:32 NRSV) "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." And it goes on to say that he said this to indicate what sort of death he was going to die. Here is a King who when he’s anointed is anointed for death. Here is a King whose glorification comes about by him being crucified.
Well, let’s think about the various responses we find in this passage to Jesus, the anointed King. When you understand the nature of his kingship, and where his anointing is pointed, you can understand why there’s a variety of responses, can’t you?
The first person we encounter in the story is Mary. Jesus is reclining at table with Lazarus and Martha and Mary, when Mary goes and gets a jar of very expensive perfume. It’s such a rare perfume, in fact, we’re told a bit further on, that it would have cost a year’s wages: say, $35,000 in today’s terms. Who knows how she came by it. Perhaps it was a family heirloom. Perhaps it had formed part of her dowry. But in any case it’s an incredibly extravagant act on her part. I’m not sure we have an equivalent in our modern terms. I can’t imagine a bottle of perfume costing $35,000. Perhaps you could liken it to someone opening a bottle of 1951 Grange Hermitage to toast someone they admired. Well, that’s what she does. Her love and devotion for Jesus is so great that she ignores the cost and pours it over him, right down to his feet.
But it isn’t just the financial cost that she ignores. Again, jump forward to the next chapter of John, and you’ll read the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet. There the disciples are dismayed that Jesus would lower himself to wash their feet. Such an undignified act just isn’t right for one of Jesus’ stature. Yet here’s Mary, ignoring the loss of dignity involved in washing Jesus feet, even to the extent of wiping his feet afterwards with her hair. Her devotion to him is so great that she’d do anything for him. And when she’s finished notice the little bit of detail that John throws in, in v3: (John 12:3-19 NRSV) "The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." It’s as though John’s saying this act itself has filled the house with its fragrance. In the words of Phil 4, it’s "a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God."
But this act of devotion evokes a different response, this time from Judas. He wants to know "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" His response of course is motivated by greed. We’re told that he was used to dipping into the common funds. He reminds me a bit of Steve Martin’s character in the movie, Leap of Faith. You may remember he was an itinerant preacher who went around the countryside, pretending to heal people, but really just conning them. He was really just in it for a buck. Then one day a young boy really was healed and he was faced with a dilemma. Should he change his approach and start to believe that God could heal, or should he just keep on making money out of peoples’ gullibility? Well ,he chooses the easier and more lucrative alternative. Like Judas, he’s more interested in the possibility of financial gain than in the reality of God’s power being displayed.