Although the dichotomies of John’s Gospel can reinforce this notion for us (e.g., light and dark, above and below; see 3:20-21; 8:23), the characters of the Gospel may confound us because they do not fit neatly into these categories. Although briefly portrayed, the characters of John’s story of the anointing of Jesus are an opportunity to reflect on the nature of discipleship in the days leading up to Good Friday and Easter.
Mary is loved by Jesus and believes in him. She has seen him raise her brother from the dead. Her outpouring of this elaborate gift is undoubtedly an act of thanksgiving for the gift of life, but John’s language indicates that it is much more than that as well. The reader is never given any insight into Mary’s internal thoughts. We do not know what she intends by her actions, only what John suggests about their meaning.
John does not tell us what Mary means to do, but instead situates her actions so that they resonate with other parts of the story. Throughout the Gospel, John assumes that the reader knows the story that lies ahead. For example, John introduces Mary in chapter 11 as “the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (11:2), assuming the reader’s familiarity with the story he narrates afterward. Similarly, the reader familiar with the end of John’s Gospel may see that Mary’s actions anticipate later themes in Jesus’ teaching and his passion.
Mary’s anointing (12:3) is a prophetic act that is both a sign of Jesus’ kingship and its formal announcement. Anointing with oil or perfume had many purposes in antiquity. For kings and priests, anointing meant consecration for a specific purpose (see Exodus 40:15; 1 Samuel 16:12). The sick were anointed as a ritual of healing (e.g., Mark 6:13; James 5:14) and the dead anointed for burial (e.g., Mark 16:1). Theoretically, Mary’s act could have meant any of these things. However, in the trial scenes, John will go on to point repeatedly to Jesus’ kingship. Because of this literary context, Mary’s actions anticipate and enact the notion that Jesus is king.
Jesus’ response to Judas adds an additional layer to our understanding of Mary’s actions. She has anointed his body for burial. The wording of verse 7 is somewhat awkward. The Greek literally says, “Leave her alone so that she may keep it [the perfume] for the day of my burial.” But Mary seems already to have expended the perfume, so that the whole house is filled with its scent. Although some interpreters posit some remaining perfume, it may be better to assume that the awkward grammar reflects this strange situation: the “day of Jesus burial” begins now, even though he will not be buried for another week. Jesus has been pointing to the time of “his hour” throughout the Gospel (e.g., 2:4; 5; 25; 7:30).
And the first indication that the hour begins comes shortly after this point, with Jesus’ words, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). Jesus announces the arrival of his hour, even though the crucifixion is still days off (cf. 13:1). In John, Jesus’ hour is the time of his death and exaltation, and both these are prefigured in Mary’s anointing of Jesus.
Mary’s actions also anticipate Jesus’ later teaching to the disciples. Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, the same action he takes in the next chapter when he washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with the towel tied around his body (13:5; the same Greek word, ekmasso, is used in each case). The foot washing is an example the disciples are to follow (13:14-15), something Mary has already done.
Martha’s actions also embody Jesus’ teachings about his followers. Martha is mentioned briefly: “They gave a dinner for him. Martha served...” (12:2). Many interpreters link Martha’s actions here to Luke’s description of her as “distracted by her many tasks” (Luke 10:40). Yet it is more useful to look within John’s Gospel for the meaning of Martha’s actions. Like Mary, Martha’s actions take on new meaning when reflected in Jesus’ teachings. Later in the chapter, Jesus points to service (the Greek word in 12:2, diakoneo): “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:26). Again, Martha’s consciousness of her actions is not available to the reader, but she is shown to be doing what Jesus expects disciples to do.
Although Judas is known to the reader already as a “devil,” one of the twelve, and one who would betray Jesus (John 6:70-71), he enters into the action of the story for the first time in these verses. Judas is a contradictory character: he is one of Jesus disciples, and he is about to betray him (12:4). Unlike the sisters’ intentions, Judas’s secret motivations are made known to the reader. His concern for the poor is merely a ruse to cover his own greed. John’s Gospel insists on this difficulty: Jesus is handed over not by an enemy or stranger but by one of his intimate associates. True loyalty and honesty are not prerequisites for discipleship. For Judas, who is seated at dinner with Jesus and his friends and has charge of the common purse, is a thief and betrayer.
The story of Mary’s anointing stands in contrast to the idea of many Christians today that what matters most is belief in Jesus -- and by belief we mean conscious, doctrinal understanding of Jesus. Mary’s faithful action is different. John does not tell us what she believes, and it seems beyond human comprehension that she could understand all that will happen to Jesus, and all that her actions evoke. Yet we see her enact a faith that resonates deeply with what we know of Jesus’ kingship and his death.