Mary of Bethany Anoints Jesus
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 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 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.