Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Translation: Therefore Jesus, six days before the passover, came into Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus raised out of death. Then, they made a supper for him there, and Martha was serving. And Lazarus was one of those reclining at table together with him. Then Mary took a pound of ointment of very expensive pure nard. She anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrant aroma of the ointment.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, the one who was about to deliver him over, said, "Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the begging poor?" He said this not because he was caring about the begging poor, but because he was a thief and was having the bag and was carrying off the things cast in (to it). Then Jesus said, "Release her, so that she might keep it into the day of my burial, for the poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me."
Following upon the revivication of Lazarus in chapter 11, many Judeans trust in Jesus, but some went to tip off the religious authorities who worry that such displays of power may lead many more people to follow Jesus. If that should happen, the religious authorities worry that the Romans will intervene and "destroy both our holy place and our nation" (11:48).
The "chief priests and pharisees" then plot to kill Jesus (11:53). In the face of this threat, Jesus retreats to Ephraim ("near the wilderness"). The people begin to wonder if Jesus will attend passover in Jerusalem.
Jesus does indeed return to Judea and goes to the home of Lazarus ("where Lazarus was") in Bethany, which was close to Jerusalem. Outside of a brief story involving Mary and Martha in Luke's gospel (10:28-32), the only times Mary, Martha, and Lazarus appear in scripture is in the fourth gospel. One would consider them relatively minor characters in the life of Jesus, except that these three people are the only individuals in any of the four gospels who are specifically said to be "loved" by Jesus (11:3, 5).
Who were they? This week's text, in particular, begs this question and complicates it. All four gospels include versions of the story. Mark 14:3-9 has Jesus in Bethany in the home of Simon the leper. He is anointed on the head by an unnamed woman. (Matthew's version, 26:6-13, follows Mark quite closely and need not be considered further here.)
In Luke, however, the story (7:36-50) is removed from its setting near passion week. Luke has Jesus eating dinner in the home of a pharisee (named Simon) when an unnamed woman, widely known as a "sinner," came into the house with an alabaster flask of ointment, cried on Jesus' feet, wiped them with her hair, then anointed his feet.
The fourth gospel places the story just prior to passion week, and the anointing is understood as an anointing for his burial. It is only in the fourth gospel that the woman is named as Mary. (For a comparison of all four accounts, see this chart by Peter Haynes.)
Late in the 6th century, Pope Gregory said in a sermon that Mary of Bethany and the unnamed woman in Luke and Mark were really the same person. They were all Mary Magdalene. Since Luke identifies the woman (twice) as a "sinner," many have assumed that the woman in Luke was a prostitute, though the text itself does not say so directly. In any case, this is how many have come to the mistaken view that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.
The texts have inspired many interpretations. Some have said that Simon was the father of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. (Judas' father is named as "Simon" in 6:71 and 13:26). Others have said that, since Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are identified as "loved" by Jesus, that one of them is the "beloved disciple," and, therefore, the author of the fourth gospel. Several have argued a case for Lazarus. Some have argued a case for Mary. (No one, however, has argued that dutiful Martha is the "beloved disciple." Poor Martha! Dissed again!)
Martha served (diakoneo) dinner (deipnon), thus reprising her Lukan role as busy and dutiful. (One wonders at possible connections between Luke and the fourth gospel.) Noting the use of the word diakoneo, Wes Howard-Brook mentions the possibility of this supper being a eucharistic meal with Martha "serving" as the presider (p. 269). (Deipnon is translated "supper" here, but is used as "Supper of the Lord" in 1 Cor 11:20.)
Lazarus is identified as being present, reclining at table, along with (possibly several) others. It is a strange dinner party indeed when one of the participants had been revived from being four days dead. Curiously, Lazarus never speaks in the only book in which he is mentioned, the fourth gospel. (The name "Lazarus" probably comes from the Aramaic "Eleazar," and means "God helps.") After setting the place and the situation, the fourth gospel shifts attention to Mary's action of anointing Jesus.
Mary took "a pound of ointment (myron) of very expensive pure nard." The fourth gospel appears to be using myron in the general sense of ointment or perfume than in the more specific sense of myrrh. The ointment was spikenard which comes from a flowering plant in the Valerian family named Nardostachys jatamansi.
In the ancient world, this plant was found in altitudes between 7000 and 14000 feet in the Himalaya mountains in China, Nepal, or India. (The word "nard" probably comes from India.) Importation from these distant sites would indeed have made the ointment "very expensive." (Judas will later explain how expensive.)
The nard is identified as "pure" (pistikos) nard. Pistikos would normally be translated as "faithful." Ray Brown says that, in Aramaic use, the word "faithful" is sometimes used with "nard," and means "pure nard." If the author of the fourth gospel really did mean "faithful," it may have been because, in the east, nard has been associated with healing and palliative care.
Anointing was typically associated with kingship and was done on the head. There is no known association of anointing someone for burial on the feet, though the body itself was sometimes anointed after the person was already dead.
As in the other accounts which have a connection to this story, Mary uses her hair to wipe Jesus' feet, an action of great intimacy and also great impropriety. (In the ancient near east, women were not to get this close to men.) In Luke, however, the unnamed woman uses her hair to wipe her tears from Jesus' feet. Here, Mary is presumably wiping the ointment!
The house "was filled with the fragrant aroma of the ointment." In the episode just previous, Martha had mentioned the stench of Lazarus. In the elegant phrasing of the King James Version, "Lord, he stinketh" (11:39). That supposed stench, however, is mentioned but not actually experienced. Now, however, the pleasant aroma of nard filled the entire house and affected all who were present.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, the one who was about to deliver him over, said, "Why was this ointment not sold for 300 denarii and given to the begging poor?" He said this not because he was caring about the begging poor, but because he was a thief and was having the bag and was carrying off the things cast in (to it).
Judas proves to be the skunk at the garden party. Into this intimate and aromatic moment, Judas gripes that the expensive ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. (These are Judas' only spoken words in the fourth gospel.)
Three hundred denarii would be somewhere around $30,000 in today's money--"very expensive" indeed! Judas appears to have learned well from Jesus. The money could certainly have been sold and the proceeds donated to the poor--ptochoi means destitute beggers, the poorest of the poor. (I have said the same thing myself. When told that someone had built a $10 million house, my remark was entirely consistent with that of Judas: "Why didn't they build a $2 million house, and donate $8 million to Habitat for Humanity?")
The fourth gospel hurries to assure us that Judas didn't really care about the poor. He kept "the bag" (glossokomon). Glossokoman meant, originally, a small box which was used to keep the tongues of wind instruments. It later came to mean coffer or money box (Brown). The phrase ta ballomena ebastazen means something like "he was carrying off the things thrown in" to the money box. It's as if the author were saying that before jumping to conclusions that Judas might have been right, keep in mind that he was a bad man. (Don't we call this an ad hominem argument?)
Jesus now speaks. "Release her," he says. The word is aphes, and may also mean "let her go" or (even especially) "forgive her." The translation of the next phrase is difficult and has drawn much comment. Brown has: "the purpose was that she might keep it for the day of my embalming." The KJV has: "against the day of my burying hath she kept this." I have rendered it: "so that she might keep it into the day of my burial."
The meaning seems to be that Mary "has kept" the ointment until this moment so that she might use it to anoint Jesus. It would not make a lot of sense for the phrase to mean keeping the ointment for later embalming because she has already used it up. In any case, Nicodemus (19:39) will supply a huge amount of burial spices. Mary's leftovers wouldn't be needed.
The real significance of the phrase would be Jesus' explicit association of anointing with his burial. His remark is an affirmation of Mary. In the fourth gospel, she is the first to comprehend that Jesus' revivification of her brother has set in motion the final stages of Jesus' martyrdom.
Jesus then adds "for the poor you always have with you, but you will not always have me." Food distribution for the poor was made through the Temple in the time of Jesus. Later, in the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, the pharisees were in charge. (The Sadducees had been wiped out when the Temple was destroyed in AD 70.) The pharisees managed food distribution through local synagogues.
"You always have the poor with you." The destitute beggers are to be a part of the Christian community, not outsiders to whom one may condescend. Wes Howard-Brook: "That is, the poor should not simply be objects of charity but are to be an integral and permanent part of the discipleship community" (p. 272).
The action of Mary at the feet of Jesus anticipates Jesus' own washing of his disciples' feet (13:5). Thus, Mary is presented as a true disciple, especially in contrast to Judas, one of the twelve, who is not a true disciple. Mary understands the meaning of Jesus, his coming passion, and his mission in the world. Mary gets it. Aside from Jesus at this point, she is the only one who does.