Part 26: John 12:3
Now we come to a quite amazing episode: “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.” Amazing because up to this point John has recorded many things that Jesus did and said, nothing about what anybody else did of any consequence. Everything flowed out from Jesus; nothing flowed in to him. It is Mary who breaks through in a spontaneous demonstration of an act of pure loyalty to Jesus. Of the two sisters it is the one who sat at his feet drinking in the words and ideas that he said who carries out this wonderful act of dedication. She is a good example for us – it is only as we spend much time learning from the Master that we will get to the point of true devotion to him, and as we shall see in a moment that is all important.
All four gospels record an anointing of Jesus by a woman. It is likely that this happened on 2 occasions. We have to remember that these are the first written accounts of what must originally have been verbal stories told about Jesus passed on from the people who knew him to the next generation. In this case we have 4 written accounts of what are probably 2 incidents: here, and in Luke 7, Mark 14 and Matthew 26. The one in Luke 7 almost certainly refers to a different occasion because although there are some similarities there are also some considerable differences. But the one recorded here and those in Mark 14 and Matthew 26 in spite of some differences, probably all refer to the same event. The main difference in these accounts is in what was anointed: head or feet. Most probably both head and feet were anointed. The two accounts in Mark and Matthew emphasize that it was Jesus’ head that was anointed thus emphasizing his royal standing as the King of the Kingdom. John emphasizes the anointing of the feet of Jesus as he is more interested in his humility. John has moved the event forward to before the entry into Jerusalem to suit his theological requirements rather than stay with the strict historical order. He is intent on telling us about what Mary did before he tells us about Jesus washing the disciples feet.
John seems to have been always more concerned about the order of meaning of the various passages in his Gospel than the historical order so he puts Mary’s action ahead of the very similar washing of the disciple’s feet by Jesus. We have to ask the obvious question – why? The more obvious and natural thing to do would have been to use the historical order and tell us first about the washing of the disciples feet by Jesus and then to tell us about this anointing by Mary as an act of worship. They are probably in the order they are because it is not the obvious order! The obvious order would have highlighted the act of service carried out by Jesus and therefore as something we should imitate. The unobvious order John actually used throws the emphasis of both events on Jesus. Jesus is the target of the act of worship by Mary and he is the one who carries out the act of humble service in the foot-washing incident. As always John has sought to put Jesus first and make him the focus of each event. The foot washing by Jesus is often taken in both writing and preaching to be mainly an act for imitation, but that was not how John wanted us to see it. He wanted to emphasise Jesus as Lord, and as a very special sort of Lord. We too should always place Jesus first in all our thinking – not to let even the most worthy of considerations, like concern for the poor usurp our prime focus on him. That is why this episode emphasizes the over-riding significance of Jesus above all else.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand what Mary’s motives were. She did not know Jesus would die so soon. She did not know he would die for many years to come. Was it an act of pure worship using what was perhaps the most expensive thing she possessed as a token of homage to him? With so much strong perfume being used some must have got onto his clothes and he would have smelt good right through the ordeals of the following week. That would have been a real encouragement to him.
The basic point in this account is to compare the importance of the worship of Jesus with the importance of caring for the poor. Perhaps rather surprisingly it is the former that is the more important. There are many who would challenge that order of priorities. Yet it is so. When you go overseas to a country that needs much help, both spiritually and practically, it is the evangelicals with their determined focus on the Lord and his Word, just like Mary, who are the active ones in all spheres. The more liberal wing of the church is conspicuous by its absence!
For us it is a great challenge to be always prepared to step out for our Lord in outrageous consecration.
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