After Jesus healed Lazarus in the town of Bethany, it brought many people to believe in him, but others in the crowds went and reported the event to the Pharisees, who had previously wanted to arrest him. They took it to the High Priest, Caiaphas, who told the council that they were going to kill Jesus, because if they didn’t, all of the Jews would start to believe in him subsequently bringing about the wrath of Rome. After they put a warrant out for his arrest, Jesus and his disciples go and hide out. And people are wondering whether or not Jesus will show his face again at the Passover feast in Jerusalem.
John 12:1 picks up again just six days before the Passover. Jesus and his disciples come back to Bethany, which is only two miles from Jerusalem, and they eat dinner at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. John writes that Martha is the one who served the dinner, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with Jesus at the table. Isn’t this a great scene?
The last time Jesus came into Bethany everyone was mourning Lazarus’ death. Now they’re sitting together getting ready to celebrate one of the year’s big events. Who knows how many people were there celebrating with them. Many had heard what happened with Lazarus at this point, so now relatives are coming into the Jerusalem area for the year’s Passover pilgrimage—for the first time since all of that happened, and they’re seeing Lazarus in astonishment.
Yet, there’s a shadow looming over the celebration—remember the warrant out for Jesus’ arrest. Jesus, his disciples, and his close friends know that his life is in danger. It’s been like this throughout the Gospel of John, which is why the disciples were afraid to return to Bethany in the first place when Jesus went to raise Lazarus. The previous attempt to arrest Jesus, in John 10—during the Hanukah celebration—was only a few months prior.
So, in the middle of the celebration, there is this grand encounter between one of Jesus’ very close friends and one of the twelve close disciples. These two people couldn’t be more different—diametrically opposed in every way.
John writes that Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, has a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard. Now nard had a lot of different purposes in the area during this time. It was used as an incense in the Temple rites. The Romans used it to flavor their wine. As Jesus will mention in a moment, it was also used for burial. And it was expensive. I wonder if it wasn’t still around the house from when Lazarus had died just a few months prior.
Mary takes this nard and anoints Jesus’ feet. John writes that Mary wiped his feet with her hair and that the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume—the celebration made even more elegant. I wonder if she was the one who anointed Lazarus’ body as well. And see with what kind of devotion and humility Mary acts. She gets down on the ground and anoints his feet with her own hair. Its somewhat reminiscent of Jesus’ own action in the following chapter—John 13—as he gets down and washes his own disciples’ feet the night before he dies.
While Mary does this, Judas Iscariot takes exception. He’s very bothered by it. John reminds us that this isn’t just any one of Jesus’ close disciples. Judas is the one who’s going to betray him. And he asks, shouldn’t we instead be selling this nard and giving the money to the poor? This is worth a whole year’s wages, and you’re just wasting it! Can’t you just picture this: the one who’s going to betray Jesus is also the one who overreacts when someone publicly acknowledges that Jesus’ death is near. Further, Judas doesn’t really care about the poor. John calls him a thief. He’s in charge of the moneybag, and he’s been skimming off the top this whole time. Had they sold the nard, he could have pocketed some of the cash.
Jesus fires back at Judas and defends Mary. He says, “Back off! She’s going to need that nard for the day of my burial.” Then he addresses them all—using a plural verb in Greek. He says to those standing there, “you always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.” There’s no more hiding, no more running away to another region from those trying to arrest him. The time has finally come. In less than a week, Jesus will finally be arrested. Jesus is going to die. Mary knows it. They all know what’s going to happen.
John writes that when the large crowd of the Jews found out that Jesus was right there in Bethany, they came to see him, and they came to see Lazarus too. The chief priests, who were already planning to kill Jesus decided that they were going to kill Lazarus also, because, on account of him, many people were going away believing in Jesus. If they put Jesus and Lazarus both to death, then nobody will be raised back to life. Right? They never do get around to killing Lazarus, but, if they did, he would have been in good company. With whom else is it better to die than with Jesus? That’s really what all this is about here.
But we don’t want to die. We don’t want to give ourselves up. Our sinful human nature, the evil nature that inhabits all of our hearts, is like Judas. Get what you can out of the situation. Avoid what is hard, skim a little off the top, throw others under the bus, make yourself look pious, and come out ok. Say that all is fine. There’s nothing to see here. Life as usual.
Jesus doesn’t defend Judas. He doesn’t defend that way of going about life. He defends Mary—the one who acknowledges the reality of the situation—the reality of this world. She’s the one who sees the world for what it really is. She sees herself for what she really is, and she comes to Jesus in humility. She gives up all pretense. She doesn’t want to lose her friend, the one who brought her brother back from the dead, but she doesn’t try to escape the reality of the situation with wishful thinking or false hope. Mary knows that the world brings death even upon the one through whom it was created in the first place. I think that’s a good lesson for us—especially now. As everyone is trying to deal with life as it is now, we could be facing a future that looks radically different from the past—even within the Christian church itself.
In the midst of all kinds of ways we might imagine the world, the Gospel of John calls us to see the world for what it really is. In the Gospel of John, we see Jesus lifted up on the cross as a beacon calling all people to himself. It’s an ultimatum: live for yourself and die with the world OR die to yourself and live with Jesus. Die to your sin. Die to your brokenness. Die to your selfishness. Even in death, Jesus brings life. That’s what started this whole Lazarus section in the first place. Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life!”
In guilt, he brings forgiveness. In sadness, he brings joy. In despair and anxiety, he brings comfort and hope—true hope that goes beyond—lasts beyond—death itself. He doesn’t do it by ignoring the bad and just focusing on the good. He doesn’t dismiss the hardship and brokenness of this world. Instead he overcomes it. He faces death head on, and he beats it—he beats it for us. After this, John writes, “The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem.” The time had finally come