Our study of the gospel of John resumes today as we turn to John 12:1–8 and its narration of one of the most well-known episodes from the life and ministry of Jesus. John picks up the narrative of our Savior’s life not long after Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, and we find Jesus in Bethany, located about two miles outside of Jerusalem. He is dining in the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in today’s passage (vv. 1–2).
John tells us that during this meal, Mary pours an expensive perfume—made from the root of the nard plant—on the feet of Jesus, wiping them with her hair (v. 3). This is John’s account of the same story given in Matthew 26:6–13 and Mark 14:3–9, which tell us that the home belongs to “Simon the leper.” Since John identifies the place as the home of Lazarus and his sisters, this indicates that Simon is likely a family member, probably the father of the siblings. Matthew and Mark also tell us that Mary pours the ointment on our Lord’s head. Coupled with John’s story, we get a picture here of just how lavish an amount of ointment or perfume is used. The flask containing the precious liquid is so large as to contain enough perfume to run off His head and onto His feet.
Thus, it is not surprising to read in John 12:4–5 that the perfume costs about three hundred denarii, which is equivalent to a year’s salary for a first-century day laborer in Palestine. That Mary owns such an expensive bottle of perfume means that she and her family are likely prominent in society and perhaps even wealthy. Yet, this does not mean her gift is not costly to her. The worth of the perfume is significant even for the rich people of her day, so what she does is, as Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John, “an act of extravagant love.”
Judas, who will soon betray Jesus to the authorities, objects to Mary’s act, stating that it would be better to sell the ointment and give the proceeds to the poor (vv. 4–5). However, as John writes, this concern is fabricated—Judas is the treasurer of the band of Jesus’ disciples and takes money for himself from the group’s funds from time to time (v. 6). Judas’ greed, not concern for the poor, drives his objection.
Our Savior responds by noting that Mary’s act is fitting because it anticipates His burial. There is a correct time to help the poor, but in light of what is immediately ahead, it is right for Mary to give a gift to the Savior (vv. 7–8). She is not exercising poor stewardship by honoring Christ instead of using the perfume to help the needy.