In contrast to the hatred that the religious leaders manifested stands the love that Mary demonstrated toward the One she had come to believe in. Her act of sacrificial devotion is a model for all true disciples. This is the climax of belief in this section of the Gospel that records Jesus' public ministry (1:19-12:50). Chapter 12 records Jesus' last teaching before the general public.
12:1 The day when Jesus arrived in Bethany was evidently Saturday.402As we have noted before, John frequently grouped the events he recorded around the Jewish feasts and related them to those feasts. At this Passover the Lamb of God would die as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. John's reference to Lazarus helps the reader identify which of the two Bethanys that John mentioned is in view here. It also shows that Lazarus was still alive, another testimony to the reality of the resurrection miracle that Jesus had performed.
12:2 The dinner (Gr. deipnon) was evidently the evening meal on Saturday. Those who hosted it must have included Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Simon, the former leper in whose house the meal took place (Matt. 26:6; Mark 14:3). John's reference to Lazarus implies that he was of special interest. This was undoubtedly because of his recent resurrection. Lazarus had become something of a celebrity (v. 9). He appears to have retreated from the public spotlight following his resurrection but made this uncommon appearance to honor Jesus (cf. v. 9).403
12:3 Mary anointed Jesus with a litreof ointment. The Greek litreequalled about 11 ounces and was a lavish amount to pour out on someone. Its quantity indicates Mary's great love and high regard for Jesus. The ointment was nard or spikenard, an imported Indian oil that came from the roots (i.e., spikes, therefore "spikenard") of the nard plant.404It was pure ointment and therefore of a high quality as well as imported and consequently very expensive (cf. v. 5). Matthew and Mark noted that the liquid was in an alabaster flask the neck of which Mary broke to pour it out on Jesus (Matt. 26:7; Mark 14:2).
John wrote that Mary proceeded to anoint Jesus' feet with the ointment. The Synoptic accounts say that she anointed His head (Matt. 26:7; Mark 14:3). Probably she did both. There was enough ointment to anoint not only Jesus' head and feet but also other parts of His body as well (cf. Matt. 26:12; Mark 14:8). Perhaps Matthew and Mark mentioned Jesus' head to present this act as one that honored Jesus. John could have mentioned Jesus' feet to stress Mary's humility in contrast to the Sanhedrin's pride and the disciples' pride (cf. 13:1-17).405
Only John noted that Mary wiped Jesus' feet with her hair, another act of humility. Normally Jewish ladies never unbound their hair in public since loose hair was a sign of loose morals. Evidently Mary's love for Jesus overrode her sense of propriety. She probably wiped the ointment in and the excess off with her hair. It would have been easy for Mary to anoint Jesus' feet. The guests undoubtedly reclined on mats on the floor with their heads and hands close to the table and their feet extending out in the opposite direction.
The fact that the fragrance of the perfume filled the house shows again how lavish Mary's display of love was. In that culture when the male head of a household died and left only female survivors, the women usually had great difficulty making ends meet and often became destitute. If this was the situation that Lazarus' death created for Mary and Martha, we can appreciate how grateful they must have been to Jesus for restoring their brother to them. Even if they were rich, and the cost of Mary's ointment suggests that they may have been, the restoration of a loved brother was reason enough for great gratitude and festivity.
12:4-5 Judas, as well as some other disciples who were present (Matt. 26:8; Mark 14:4), objected to what seemed to be an extravagant waste. Three hundred denarii was a full year's wages for a working man in that culture. Mary would not give to the Lord what cost her nothing (cf. 2 Sam. 24:24). Real worship always costs the worshipper; it always involves a sacrifice.
"When she came to the feet of Jesus, Mary took the place of a slave. When she undid her hair (something Jewish women did not do in public), she humbled herself and laid her glory at His feet (see 1 Cor. 11:15). Of course, she was misunderstood and criticized; but that is what usually happens when somebody gives his or her best to the Lord."406
"His remonstrance over the gift of the ointment revealed that he had a sharp sense of financial values and no appreciation of human values."407
Evidently the other disciples learned of their treasurer's larcenous behavior after He betrayed Jesus.
12:7 Probably Jesus meant that the disciples should permit Mary to keep the custom of anointing for burial since Jesus' burial was not far away. There is no indication that Mary realized that Jesus would die soon any more than the other disciples did. However she was anointing Jesus out of love, as mourners anointed the bodies of loved ones who had died. It was not uncommon to do this at lavish expense. Jesus viewed her act as a pre-anointing for His death, though Mary may not have viewed it as such (cf. 11:51).408
It is a good idea to express our love for people we appreciate to them before they die. Flowers at a funeral are nice, but flowers before the funeral are even better.
12:8 Unless Jesus was the Son of God who was due the same honor as His Father (5:23) this statement would have manifested supreme arrogance. Jesus was not encouraging the disciples to regard poverty as inevitable and, therefore, to avoid doing anything to help those in need. He was comparing the unique opportunity that His impending death presented with the continual need that the poverty of some will always present (cf. Mark 14:7).
John's Gospel has been contrasting the growing belief of some people and the growing unbelief of others. This incident contrasts the great love of one disciple with the great apathy of another disciple.
"Mary of Bethany is in fact another of the timeless, representative figures so wonderfully portrayed in this Gospel. She is a type of the true Christian worshipper, even as the sinful woman in the very different anointing story in Luke vii. 36-50 is a type of the true Christian penitent."409