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The Value of a Gift, the Value of Jesus -- a study of John 12:1-11

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Do you think it's a good idea to cheap out on Jesus?


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 12:1-11

In this beautiful event, we learn yet again that Martha and Mary "got it" so much better than Jesus' own disciples. Mary rightly realized that it was time to give Jesus the costliest gift she had to give. Judas insincerely challenged her priorities, but in doing so only revealed his own. Is there a gift or sacrifice you could give that Jesus isn't worthy of?

Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. (12:7)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Best Gift Ever

Actually, there are two equally valid ways to approach this:

  • What's the nicest gift anyone has ever gotten you? -or-

  • What's the nicest thing anyone has ever done for you?

I've heard some pretty great stories from y'all over the years, so I would hope that your group would be happy to share some personal favorites.

I'm a sucker for the surprise-military-visit-home stories. And everyone has a favorite gift they're received. How about you?


This week's story combines both ideas. Mary gives Jesus a gift that one onlooker thought cost a year's wages. And Jesus acknowledges the gift as the most thoughtful and tasteful thing any person could have done for Him at that time.


I think we all love the power of the perfect gift.


Read the Room, Ted

We've all been in this situation -- a beautiful moment is coming together, and someone ruins it by saying the worst thing possible, making everybody uncomfortable and upset.


Without throwing anybody in your group under the bus, what's a time somebody said the wrong thing at the wrong time? How did it make you (and everybody else) feel?


In today's passage, Judas attempts to walk all over Mary's beautiful gift with the "worst take" possible. He may as well grow a jet-black twirly mustache. However awkward your experience was, my guess is that Jesus' company must have felt a whole lot more awkward. Don't worry -- Jesus stood up for Mary, and that's why Mary is "world-famous" to this day.

 

Where We Are in John

We're starting a new quarter, so I feel obligated to show the appropriate Bible Project video. However, they place their primary division one more chapter in, so I'll be linking this video again in a couple of weeks.

And here's the Visual Bible video:

Two things to catch from a video version of the chapter: (1) there's plenty of opportunity for awkwardness in this encounter, and Judas flies in off the top rope; (2) it would be possible to sexualize this encounter, and indeed many not-very-conservative scholars have done exactly that. (They confuse this Mary with Mary Magdalene and somehow we end up with "The Last Temptation of Christ".) As modern American readers, we have to be willing to accept that this is simply the purest of gifts given in the most beautiful of ways. Don't read anything else into it.


But now that we're in Holy Week in the Gospel (depending on how you interpret the context of this passage, see below), a lot of things are happening, and it's possible to get lost. Here's a quick bullet list of some Gospel events:

  • Meeting Zaccheus

  • Raising of Lazarus

  • To Ephraim and back to Bethany

  • [Anointing by Mary -- Gospel of John]

  • The Triumphal Entry

  • The Events of Holy Week, Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday

  • [Anointing by Mary -- Gospel of Matthew/Mark]

  • Judas agrees to betray Jesus

  • The Last Supper

Wait, huh? Yep -- we have potential confusion. Even the "Blue Letter Bible" harmony of the Gospels I've recommended before kinda throws up its hands at this one.

Long and short is this: Matthew and Mark also report an anointing of Jesus during Holy Week, but they place it later in the week, and that has caused some lively debate as to what to do with it.


Let me make one thing clear: there are no questions about the clear and obvious meaning of this passage in John. If you want to skip the next section, you won't hurt anybody's feelings. But if you want to see how you can wade through Bible debates and come out on the other side with an unwavering faith in God's Word, you might keep reading ...


This Week's Big Idea: Which Event Is This? (Harmony of the Gospels)

I'm going to dive deeper into this topic that you would have time in your group; part of the reason is to show how you might approach this kind of study, part is to show that trustworthy Christians can disagree, and part is simply because I've mentioned it multiple times --

An invaluable tool for studying the Gospels is to see how the other Gospels describe the same event. When we put all of the events in the Gospels together, we call it a "Harmony of the Gospels". The challenge of writing a harmony is knowing when the Gospels are describing the same event or similar events. For example -- is Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount" the same as Luke's "Sermon on the Plain"? Or are they separate but similar teaching events?


For this week's topic -- each Gospel mentions an event of Jesus being anointed. But are they the same event, or are they similar events? One way to find out is to study each event. They're short enough that I'll paste the entire relevant passage.


Matthew

Matthew 26:6 While Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman approached him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. She poured it on his head as he was reclining at the table. 8 When the disciples saw it, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This might have been sold for a great deal and given to the poor.”
10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a noble thing for me. 11 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. 12 By pouring this perfume on my body, she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

Mark

Mark 14:3 While he was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured it on his head. 4 But some were expressing indignation to one another: “Why has this perfume been wasted? 5 For this perfume might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they began to scold her.
6 Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a noble thing for me. 7 You always have the poor with you, and you can do what is good for them whenever you want, but you do not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body in advance for burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

Luke

Luke 7:36 Then one of the Pharisees invited him to eat with him. He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And a woman in the town who was a sinner found out that Jesus was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house. She brought an alabaster jar of perfume 38 and stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to wash his feet with her tears. She wiped his feet with her hair, kissing them and anointing them with the perfume.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “This man, if he were a prophet, would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—she’s a sinner!” 40 Jesus replied to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” He said, “Say it, teacher.” 41 “A creditor had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Since they could not pay it back, he graciously forgave them both. So, which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one he forgave more.”
“You have judged correctly,” he told him. 44 Turning to the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she, with her tears, has washed my feet and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. 46 You didn’t anoint my head with olive oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfume. 47 Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much. But the one who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?”

John

John 12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there; Martha was serving them, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took a pound of perfume, pure and expensive nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it.
7 Jesus answered, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. 8 For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Now -- just reading through the passages, I think it's pretty obvious that Matthew and Mark are describing the same event.


I think it's equally obvious that Luke is describing a totally different event. BUT there are Bible scholars who disagree with me. The host's name is Simon in Matthew/Mark/Luke, and the woman breaks an alabaster jar in Matthew/Mark/Luke. Hm. With a little research, we could find out that "Simon" was an extremely common name, and alabaster jars were a common container for perfume (see the Luke 7 link).


In other words, Luke's event is similar, but it's a different event. (To me, the fact that Luke records it in a completely different section of Jesus' ministry is our biggest clue.) (If someone told you, "I went to a party at James's house, and there was a Tesla in the driveway," on two different occasions, you would be willing to believe it was two different parties.)


But now we come to John's event. We've repeatedly pointed out that John shaped and recorded his Gospel very differently from the first three, and indeed there seem to be some differences here. So, think like an engineer: let's make a chart! 😎

​Matthew/Mark

Luke

John

Event before

Plot against Jesus revealed

Jesus praises John the Baptist

Plot against Jesus revealed

Timestamp

2 days before Passover

While preaching in Galilee

6 days before Passover

Location

Bethany, home of Simon the Leper

Unknown town, home of Simon the Pharisee

Bethany, dinner in Jesus' honor

Key person

"A woman"

A woman with a sinful reputation

Mary

Object

Alabaster jar of expensive perfume (Mark: 300 denarii)

Alabaster jar of perfume

Pint of expensive perfume (300 denarii)

Action

Poured it on Jesus' head

Poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair

Poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair

Reaction

"Why not sell it?" (the disciples")

"Does He know she is a sinner?" (Simon)

"Why not sell it?" (Judas)

Jesus:

"You will not always have me"

"Everyone who has been forgiven much loves much"

"You will not always have Me"

Verses after

Judas agrees to betray Jesus

Jesus preaches throughout Galilee

Priests decide to kill Lazarus

​Next major event

The Last Supper

The Triumphal Entry

Looking at it that way, John seems to be describing the same event as Matthew/Mark:

  • Similarities: location, the reaction, what Jesus said

  • BUT Differences: the day, the action

Because I'm OCD about certain things, that difference in the day has greatly bothered me, so much so that I've been willing to believe that these were two different anointings.


Your study materials suggest that Matthew, Mark, and John all describe the same event. There are plenty of scholars who believe that John describes a separate event. I have waffled between those two opinions; at the moment, I believe that John is describing the same event as Matthew and Mark.


And here's the question some of you are probably asking: why does it matter at all? You might not care in the least, and I couldn't blame you. But skeptics will say that the differences between these passages "prove" that the Bible is not trustworthy.


So, how do we handle those differences?

  • Six days vs. two days before Passover -- the Lifeway material says that the preparations for the banquet began six days out and the banquet took place two days out. Okay, but if you read John carefully, he just says that Jesus came to Bethany 6 days out; that note might not have anything to do with the banquet.

  • Before the Last Supper vs. before the Triumphal Entry -- this is the detail that bugs me the most. The short answer is this: Bible scholars I respect a great deal say that "chronology" wasn't as important to these authors as we might think of it today. John thought of this event as Jesus being anointed as King, so he put it before the Triumphal Entry, even though it happened after. That makes sense, especially when we factor in...

  • Anointing the head vs. the feet -- this is simple: Mary anointed both His head and His feet. Matthew focused on the head because that was the most common practice (in burial, the entire body would have been anointed). John focused on the feet because he wanted to emphasize Mary's humility before Jesus the King.

But what about the similarity between John and Luke -- the woman pouring perfume on Jesus' feet and drying His feet with her hair? Remember, I believe that Mary anointed Jesus' feet and His head, so this similarity is contrived. But who's to say that the disciples hadn't told Mary about what the woman did in Simon the Pharisee's house, and Mary realized the symbolism of what that woman did, rising to the occasion? Last week, didn't we say that Martha had gotten something more right about Jesus than the men? And hasn't Jesus repeatedly been talking about His impending death? Perhaps Mary was the one to accept that Jesus is going to die and acted accordingly? Note that Mary wasn't listed among the women who went to the tomb ... maybe she truly believed that Jesus wouldn't be dead for long.


What Changes If John's Event Matches Matthew's Event?

Again, nothing changes. If we only read John's Gospel, we would know everything we needed to know. Bringing in Matthew's Gospel adds:

  • the banquet took place at a man named Simon's house, who is probably someone Jesus healed of leprosy;

  • Mary didn't just anoint Jesus' feet but also His head (which is an even clearer indicator of preparing His body for burial);

  • the banquet took place the day before the Last Supper, making this His final "celebration" in the human sense of the word;

  • this is the event that pushed Judas "over the edge" in deciding when to betray Jesus.

Those details add some atmosphere to this event, but they don't change the meaning of anything.

 

Part 1: Honored (John 12:1-3)

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there; Martha was serving them, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took a pound of perfume, pure and expensive nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

If you skipped the section above, you missed a couple of clarifications:

  • Jesus came to Bethany six days before the Passover -- the day before what we call "Palm Sunday" (and the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem);

  • Matthew and Mark describe an event a whole lot like this one that took place two days before the Passover at the house of "Simon the leper";

  • We tend to assume that John is telling us that this banquet took place at Lazarus's house on the day that Jesus came to Bethany, but John doesn't say that.

Scholars disagree about this, but I'm going to suggest that John is describing the banquet that took place at Simon the leper's house in Bethany, and it actually happened four days later. Perhaps it took that long to prepare it? If Lazarus is a guest at table, then he is certainly not the host. Jesus has been going back and forth to Jerusalem in the meantime, and He and His disciples have possibly been staying at Lazarus's house. Maybe Simon's house was bigger, making it the better place to host a large banquet. John highlights Lazarus simply to help his readers understand where Jesus was.


Why Emphasize "Six Days"?

My Klink commentary offers a reason why John might have focused on the "six days" rather than the "two days". John the author did this before -- he emphasized the first six days of Jesus' ministry back in chapters 1 and 2 (if you count up all the "next day/third day"s, you come to six days).


What else took six days? And Whose work has Jesus been comparing Himself to throughout John's Gospel?


That's deep. So -- John emphasized the first six days of Jesus' ministry, and he is now going to emphasize the last six days of Jesus' ministry. The first six days were inaugurated by John the Baptist's announcement (plus the Spirit descending upon Jesus). John the author sees the Triumphal Entry (which is the next event in the Gospel) as the inauguration of these final six days (which makes me think that he sees Mary's anointing oil as parallel with the Spirit's descent -- the Spirit prepared Jesus for ministry; the anointing oil prepared Jesus for burial). (But more on this below.)


John sees symbolism in time -- that's more important to him than "itineraries". (If you want to dig deeper -- in what ways were Jesus' first six days of ministry a kind of creation? In what ways were His last six days of ministry a kind of creation?)


Back to the passage.


(Note: Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead; Jesus healed Simon of leprosy. Both men were closely bound to Jesus' ministry.)


(Also note: Martha was serving, and Mary was at Jesus' feet. Because of course, right? I love all of these details.)


About Mary and the anointing. Once again, if you skipped the section above, you missed these clarifications:

  • Matthew and Mark say that the woman (Mary) anointed Jesus' head, and also that she brought the perfume in an alabaster jar.

Almost certainly, Mary anointed Jesus' head and His feet. That would be in keeping with the symbolism of preparing Jesus' body for burial (which He explains shortly). But John emphasized the humility of Mary's action. These were the feet that were soon to carry a cross up Calvary's hill. What better way to honor then than to care for them with oil?


The Importance of Footwashing

There's another reason John the author would have emphasized Mary anointing Jesus' feet. Can you think of it? Yes -- Jesus' washes the disciples' feet in chapter 13. Here are some highlights from that chapter:

5 Next, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around him.
10 “One who has bathed,” Jesus told him, “doesn’t need to wash anything except his feet, but he is completely clean."
14 "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet."

See it? Apart from the humorous observation that Jesus' hair isn't as long as Mary's, we realize the symbolism of the feet.


Last week, we talked about how Martha "got it". This week, we realize that Mary "got it" in a way that Jesus' disciple's didn't (but more on this below).


The Importance of Anointing

You've probably picked up on this already. The Bible is filled with references to anointing with oil:

  • Aaron and his sons as priests (Ex 29)

  • Saul (a Sam 9) and David (1 Sam 16) as kings

  • The Messiah (Isa 61)

Ancient cultures also used oil for its skin-protective qualities, and it would be used as a perfume to make a dead body not smell so bad so quickly.


So there are two things going on here:

  • The people would have understood Jesus being anointed as King

  • Jesus explained that He was being anointed for burial

They can be (and both are) true.


[Aside: Exodus 30/31 describes the special anointing oil used in the tabernacle. I wonder what it smelled like?]


A Pound of Pure Nard

John describes the perfume as "pure", which is what makes it "expensive". Mark and John both highlight the detail that it was worth 300 denarii -- more than a year's wages for a common man. This perfume likely refers to a rare plant imported from India. By referring to weight (a "pound" or probably 12 ounces) rather than volume, John is emphasizing the extravagant amount of oil/perfume being poured on Jesus.

How do you use cologne/perfume? I think of the people who spray the air and then walk through it, or put a tiny drop on their wrist and transfer it around. Tiny, tiny amounts.


As far as I can tell, a good-sized bottle of perfume holds about 3 ounces. Imagine dumping four of those of yourself. I can't encourage you to test that with your group because you'd probably cause the entire church to have an allergic reaction. And maybe everybody around the block.


That's what we're talking about. An unnaturally, ridiculously luxurious amount of aromatic oil.


What do you think would be too lavish a gift for Jesus?

 

Part 2: Questioned (John 12:4-8)

4 Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it.
7 Jesus answered, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. 8 For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Judas, why don't you just put on a t-shirt that says, "I'm the villain"? This must have been jarring for John to write -- a disciple ... who was about to betray Jesus.


Matthew indicates that other disciples may have been taken in by this line of reasoning, but John makes it clear that it was Judas all along.


How do you think this would have made Mary feel?


Here's an obvious talking point: what is the difference between how Judas viewed Mary's gift and how Mary viewed her gift?


And then the all-important follow-up: how might we make that same analysis today?


For the moment, set aside the fact that Judas was being insincere in his concern. Let's pretend that Judas really did care about the poor. What's more important, honoring Jesus or taking care of the poor? Jesus answers this question in verse 8 -- this was the last opportunity anyone would have to do something like this for Him, making it appropriate. So is that that? Now that Jesus is in heaven, the ministry of the poor is all-important?


I think this is a tense, divisive topic for a church to dance around. The first church Shelly and I joined after we got married was in the middle of a capital campaign to renovate their sanctuary. They called the campaign "Worthy of Worship". There were many, many debates over how much money was appropriate to be spent on the sanctuary.


When I went to seminary, a big church down the road built a new sanctuary building and spent $1 million on a chandelier for their foyer. Let's just say that that sparked debate -- not only among their church members but among every church in the neighborhood!


So, how do you think Jesus' words apply to us today?


There is one thing we should all agree on -- if any human wants to take a gift directed at Jesus and profit from it, then that's bad. Pastors turning offerings into exorbitant salary, private jet, mansion, whatever; church members trying to build a big, flashy building for the "prestige"; those scenarios are out. There is no justification for that.


But after that, it seems to be driven by the motivations of the heart.


We can look at the early church to see that they didn't build big buildings! Most of their offerings went toward caring for the poor. That seems good.


And in the Middle Ages, most of the money went into financing massive cathedrals and palaces for bishops, all the while people died of starvation and exposure. That seems bad.


But -- Judas reduced Mary's offering to its financial value. In doing so, he made something done for Jesus to be wasteful (hey, He was about to die anyway, right? just trying to be pragmatic). That seems wrong.


I am not going to tell you or your church what you should prioritize. I'll just say two truisms: God wants us to take care of the poor, and Jesus is worth even the most priceless offering. (Perhaps the problem is in our generosity?)


Our devotion to the poor must reflect our devotion to our King who has commanded us to care for the poor. It's not an either/or. Giving our best to Jesus and caring for the poor is a both/and. This makes me think of a parable Jesus told right around this time:

Matt 25:31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
35 “‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; 36 I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you took care of me; I was in prison and you visited me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or without clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’
40 “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

[The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats]


Note: this was a unique situation in history. We can say that Jesus was "in need" -- this was something that was right for Mary to do for Him. Jesus is not "in need" from us today. So, what does that mean?

 

Part 3: Division (John 12:9-11)

9 Then a large crowd of the Jews learned he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, the one he had raised from the dead. 10 But the chief priests had decided to kill Lazarus also, 11 because he was the reason many of the Jews were deserting them and believing in Jesus.

First, note that the section title refers to a very different kind of division than what I mentioned above. We are not told about division among the Jewish leaders -- they were united in their determination to kill Jesus (and Lazarus) (with a few notable exceptions). (Note that we don't know what happened to Lazarus.)


Really, we can see the Jewish leaders and Judas as cut from the same cloth in that they cared most about what Jesus was taking away from them:

  • By pouring the perfume out on Jesus, Mary prevented Judas from being able to skim off of the cash value

  • By attracting so many followers, Jesus was taking people away from the Jewish leaders' influence

That's what they noticed. That's what they were upset about. They wanted to put themselves first. But our only option is to put Jesus first.


Now -- let's do some sleuthing. Remember how earlier I said that this was the same event as what happened later in Matthew/Mark, and John chose to report it earlier in his Gospel? So, where does that event end? Which verse picks back up the main timeline? In other words, did this crowd learn that Jesus was there right when He got there? Bethany is close to Jerusalem, and word would have travelled quickly, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead was still fresh on everyone's mind. Or, is this the crowd that has been observing everything Jesus has been doing in Jerusalem from the Triumphal Entry?


We don't know, and it doesn't change the meaning of anything.


Here's a possible discussion: why did the Jewish leaders want to kill Jesus? In what way was He a threat to them?


I truly love the irony of the outcome. Here we are, two thousand years later, and who are we still talking about? Because Mary's gift was so purely motivated, --

Matt 26:13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.

Key takeaways:

  • We are to be humble before Jesus

  • Jesus is worth any "gift" we could bring Him

  • We must always put Jesus before anyone/thing else

  • Caring for the poor is one way we give glory to Jesus

What are you going to do this week to demonstrate your devotion to Jesus?

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