Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
(John 12:1-8 NRSV)
This passage from John’s gospel is full of dark omens for the coming days for Jesus and his friends. It is full of double meanings, it speaks of cost and hypocrisy. There is accusation and anger. There is fear and self justification. And, intriguingly, there is also a hint about resurrection.
Jesus is at the home of his old friends Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. At least some of the disciples were there with him. They live in the village of Bethany which is a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem on the road into town by way of the mount of olives. The name “beth – ani” means something like “place of the poor” or “house of the afflicted” and it may well be that which Jesus is talking about when he stops Judas in his tracks, saying “You will always have the poor with you”.
In John’s gospel the scene is a dinner party with Jesus as the guest of honour. As usual, Martha is doing the practical stuff – cooking and waiting on the table – seeing to the physical needs of her guests, whilst Mary appears to be otherwise engaged.
Lazarus is eating at the table with them. This is “gospel speak” for saying that Lazarus is truly alive. When Jesus brought him back to life, as he had done in an earlier part of the Gospel, it was not a “conjuring trick”, not an illusion. He was there, fully fit and well, and eating with them. John wants us to be clear on that.
And in comes Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with a large quantity of some of the most expensive perfume you can imagine. Nard is a very costly perfumed ointment made from the roots of a plant found in India, which would have had to have been imported most probably by camel along the ancient trade routes which ran between India and the Middle East. It would have been phenomenally expensive. This is not your average Eau de Cologne; this stuff would cost a working man a year’s wages. Nard was the perfume of palaces and princesses – Mary’s gesture was hugely extravagant. And in John’s account this gives Judas all the opportunity he needs to lash out, to condemn, to point the accusing finger: at Mary and, by implication, at Jesus.
But as we’ve seen, Jesus stops him in his tracks. John, in his gospel account, has set the scene for the climactic events of holy week, the week leading up to Good Friday and Easter. We learn that Jesus is to be betrayed – and all the high minded protestation about giving to the poor, all the deflected anger and self-righteous indignation in the world cannot cover the fact that Jesus is to be betrayed to his death.
We learn that love costs – it costs dearly. And, as many have found, an act of selfless love may bring criticism and even ridicule. We will come to learn that love will cost Jesus his all – and the ridicule will fall upon him too.
But also, tucked away in that little passage in John’s gospel, is the truth that resurrection is real. In the chronology of events we haven’t got to Easter Sunday yet, but amidst the gathering gloom there is hope – not merely wishful thinking – but the certainty of things yet to be revealed.
Love costs. Forgiveness costs – always. The greatest act of devotion can bring about scorn and ridicule. But the Christian hope – the certainty of things yet to be revealed – rests upon the truth of the resurrection of Jesus.