Commentary on John 12:1-8
Extravagance. Pleasure. Effusiveness. Exuberance. These aren’t ideas that we usually associate with Lent and the overture to Jesus’ passion.
But Mary of Bethany understands differently.
John 12:1-8 in Its Context
Within the narrative world of John’s Gospel, this passage acquires a good deal of meaning through its connections to other scenes and themes. Mary’s gift, along with Judas’s stinginess, has greater significance because of how it participates in a series of developments.
- Passover is near, and so too is Jesus’ “hour” (see 13:1). He spends time with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus soon after the pivotal scene of Lazarus’s revivification (11:1-44). That is the “sign” that brings many to believe in him (11:45; 12:9-11), many to flock to him (12:17-19), and others to plot his death (11:47-53). When Jesus mentions his burial in 12:7, this confirms that his end is coming. Yet Lazarus’s presence at the table confirms that death does not speak the final word.
- Jesus forges the connection between the anointing and his burial in 12:7, a verse that has proved challenging to render into sensible English. The NRSV’s phrasing is not helpful in its implication that Mary purchased the perfume meaning to use it for Jesus’ burial. Rather, Jesus suggests that Mary’s keeping the perfume in her possession and using it on him now have consequently achieved a greater, more meaningful purpose that she perhaps intended: announcing the nearness of Jesus’ death and preparing for his burial.
- The sweet smell of Mary’s perfume counters the stench of Lazarus’s tomb (11:39). Life and death, wholeness and corruption remain contrasted throughout both scenes.
- Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet prefigures the time when he will wipe the feet of his disciples (13:5). This reveals her as a model disciple, for the washing and wiping of feet expresses a unity with Jesus (13:8) and reflects his command (13:14-15).
- Readers know from 6:70-71 that Judas is “a devil,” but John chooses this point in the narrative to reveal him as a thief (compare 13:29). This creates a clear opposition between him and Mary. He is false; she is true. He is greedy and self-serving; she is generous and ebullient in devotion.
John 12:1-8 in Its Own Terms
While this passage helps us appreciate the structure and emphases of John’s Gospel, excessive focus on those dimensions can actually threaten, at least on this Sunday, to take our attention from Jesus, Mary, and the intensity of this particular episode.
Likewise, an opportunity would be wasted if a sermon focused only on Judas, his presumed motives, and his possible resemblance to other money managers who have made the news over the last year or two. Mary’s testimony and model offer valuable perspectives that deserve our attention.
Mary’s gift exceeds extravagance. She expends a pound of perfume valued at about the yearly income of a manual laborer (see 12:5 in the NIV).
Mary also exceeds good taste. Scholars cannot agree about whether the detail concerning Mary’s hair lends an erotic air to the event, although I think it is impossible to hear the story today without raising an eyebrow. At the very least, Mary’s hair imbues the act with profound intimacy, calling attention to the tactile element of the anointing. If the fragrance of her perfume fills the house, the gentle touch of her locks fills Jesus’ sensations. It is an expression of deep love that those watching would hardly ignore or find ordinary.
The whole scene offends at least one of the onlookers. Judas breaks in. Does he regret losing the chance to pilfer from the 300 denarii, or is Mary’s lavish love too disturbing to watch?
We can understand the economic and charitable logic beneath Judas’s criticism, but we should also recognize that it resembles a rigorous, unyielding piety that cannot stomach a wild love like Mary’s. Acts of true grace and love regularly get slandered as deviance.
Jesus’ response to Judas sounds surprisingly gentle, given all the other ways this passage sets up that disciple as the villain. Jesus speaks more to us, to those who wonder if Mary’s apparent recklessness sets a dangerous precedent. When he says, “You always have the poor with you,” he does not diminish the seriousness of poverty and the imperative for charity. Possibly he alludes to Deuteronomy 15:11, which commands generosity toward the poor precisely “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” As punctuated by the anointing for burial, Jesus looks toward his death, contrasting his impending departure with the perennial opportunity to serve the poor. The specter of Jesus’ death makes a deed like Mary’s strangely appropriate, because it emanates from love and expresses understanding about Jesus and what he must do.
What Does Jesus Smell Like?
The vividly sensuous nature of this passage encourages preachers to invite congregations to think about the gospel in ways beyond words, speaking, and reading. Does grace have a scent? It can be worth the effort to reflect on Jesus and his work in terms of meaningful smells and sensations.
Rudyard Kipling wrote, “Smells are surer than sounds or sights / To make your heart-strings crack.”1
Most people have experienced a smell that floods the mind with arresting memories of a person, place, or event. Olfaction, emotion, and memory share closely networked real estate in the brain’s limbic system. Our sense of smell relates closely to how we experience life and process significant memories. I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster literally stop me in my tracks because they conjure sights and sounds I experienced as a teenager on a life-changing visit to a Haitian slum. I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I’m in a crowd and I chance upon someone wearing the fragrance my wife wore when we were dating.
Mary’s gift emits an aroma that saturates the house and the minds of everyone in it. How does that passionate aroma persist even today? What real-life experiences does Jesus’ death forever define, like a scent we never forget?
The Sweet Aroma of Jesus’ Death
The pairing of Mary and Judas creates a rhetoric of contrast, which also might energize a sermon. Notice a variety of oppositions:
- Mary and Judas contrast true and false discipleship, as well as true and false love.
- The fragrance of the perfume strikes a contrast to Jesus’ death and burial. Our interpretation of the scene cannot ignore the gloom. Mary does not anoint Jesus as king or Messiah; she anoints a corpse. If the beautiful scent and ugly crucifixion seem incongruent, then we are onto John’s strange logic whereby Jesus is lifted up onto a cross so that he might attract all to himself (12:32).
- Lavish devotion contrasts critical stinginess. This passage gives permission, so to speak, to honor Jesus in extravagant ways, perhaps even by giving a massive donation to the poor. It warns against mistaking discipline for discipleship. It embraces affection as part of a devotion to Jesus that is nothing less than the costly, precious gift of one’s whole self–down to every last strand of hair.
1 http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_licht.htm (In the original version of this commentary, I wrongly attributed the quote to Vladimir Nabokov. Thanks to Rachel Haxtema for correcting the error.)