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.