Theme: The Meaning of Mary’s Action
In this week’s lessons, we learn about Mary’s love for Jesus, and see that our own love for and service of the Lord needs to be self-sacrificing as well.
Scripture: John 12:1-11
Now we get to the twelfth chapter, where we have Mary of Bethany, who as I said corresponds in a way to what John the Baptist does. But now she’s not identifying him in terms of who he is; she’s identifying him in terms of what he came to do. In her action what she’s doing is anointing him for his burial, because he is soon going to die. For you see, it’s a way of saying that Mary of Bethany, in her role at this point, plays a very important part in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s important to see, I think, as we begin, as otherwise, we just pass over it. It’s easy for us to pass quickly over this story, knowing what great events are coming next, beginning with Jesus’ triumphal entry. But this is a significant story because of when it happens and what it points to as Jesus begins his climatic week before his crucifixion.
We’re told that it took place at Bethany, and supper was being served there. This picks up from chapter 11, where you have the raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. When you get to chapter 12, it’s picking up with what was going on in chapter 11. People were coming to believe on Jesus because of the resurrection of Lazarus. So the Jewish leaders got together to talk over what to do about it. They made plans to watch for Jesus, so that they could arrest him and put him to death. So here at the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus once again goes to Bethany to see his friends, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, they gave a great dinner in his honor, on account of what had happened with Lazarus. It must have been a very brave thing for Jesus’ friends to do. We know that because as we read on in chapter 12, verses 10 and 11, we find that the chief priests had made plans to kill Lazarus as well because on account of him many people were going over to Jesus and were believing in him. They wanted to get rid of Jesus but now they had to get rid of Lazarus too. And Lazarus undoubtedly was in danger. But you see in spite of that, these friends of Jesus wanted to have a big supper to celebrate what Jesus had done.
According to the other Gospels, it was in the home of a man named Simon, identified as the leper. Undoubtedly, he had once been a leper and Jesus had healed him, so Simon himself had reasons to express personal and fervent thanks to Jesus Christ. Now here Simon holds this dinner, where many people are invited. Lazarus, we’re told, was among those who were reclining at the table with Jesus.
Now what is interesting about this is that in spite of the fact that he had just raised Lazarus and there was all the danger associated with this particular event, the thing that was remembered about this dinner was not Lazarus’ presence but rather this act that was performed by Mary. We’re told that she took this pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, poured it on Jesus’ feet, wiped his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Now the meaning of the story is to be seen in the significance of what she did. There are three things I’d like you to see about this.
First of all, I’d like you to see her extravagance. That is important to the story, not incidental. We’re told how much this was worth, and part of the extravagance is to seen in that. Judas is the one who mentioned it. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”
Now that translation, “a year’s wages,” is simply what the New International Version has done in order to communicate to us what they think was the equivalent of what actually occurs there in the Greek text. The Greek text, if you find it in the notes, actually says three hundred denarii. It would seem, from a story that Jesus told, that a denarius was about a day’s wages. He told the story of the landowner who wanted to hire people to work in his field, and so he promised to give each one a denarius. So, it would seem like for a hard day’s labor in the field that the denarius was what was paid. Well, if you work six days a week, as they did then, that comes out to about three hundred days, or three hundred denarii. This is why the New International Version translates it as a year’s wages. So we are talking about a lot of money. That really is an extravagant gift.
And the extravagance of it is emphasized by the contrast with Judas, who criticized the act. Interestingly enough, this is the first time in the Gospel that Judas speaks, and the first thing he says is this carping criticism about Mary: “She wasted all of this.” Now we know from things that are said about Judas elsewhere that he was stealing from the common purse, so he had a hidden agenda in his criticism. But more than that, Judas goes on to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. A piece of silver is generally assumed to be worth about four denarii, so what Judas sold Jesus for was 120 denarii. In other words, Mary’s gift for Jesus was about two and a half times the betrayal price on Jesus by Judas.
How does Mary in the second part of John’s Gospel correspond to John the Baptist in the first part?
What is the context of John 11 and 12? What has just happened? How did the religious leaders react? What is going on in chapter 12?
How do we know that the pouring of Mary’s ointment upon Jesus was an extravagant action?