Five Minute Devotions: John 12
John 12 begins with one of the more head-scratching interactions of Jesus. Jesus is once again at Bethany, preparing for the Passover—preparing for his death—and spending time with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. At the end of the meal, Mary does something that is a little odd.
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. – John 12:3
A few verses later, we learn that Judas believes this perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii—the equivalent of 300 days of an average wage. Using the modern American median wage, this was in the range of $45,000 that Mary poured over Jesus’s feet. This was scandalous. Nard was an exotic perfume used to anoint the heads of royalty, not the feet of peasants.
There is immediate backlash:
Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him), said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” – John 12:4-5
In other words, this is a big financial waste, Jesus! You told the rich young ruler to give up all that he owned. We’ve left our own chances at wealth to follow you. Your entire ministry has been among the poor and the marginalized. This doesn’t seem like an appropriate financial decision. This money could have been used better.
And you find yourself empathizing with Judas. Especially when you do the math and see the numbers and understand the cost.
Jesus answered, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:7-8
These words from Jesus are probably among his most misused and misinterpreted. Time and again, I have heard it for some sort of justification for an extravagant and extraneous expense. Or I have heard it to shrug away the problem of poverty. There’s no use. The poor will always be there. Better buy me some expensive perfume.
That’s not at all what Jesus is saying. In fact, he’s saying the opposite. When Jesus says “For you will always have the poor with you” he is quoting the book of Deuteronomy.
For there will never cease to be poor people in the land; that is why I am commanding you, ‘Open your hand willingly to your poor and needy brother in your land.’ – Deuteronomy 15:11
The prevalent, pervasive problem of poverty should drive our efforts to eradicate it. And Deuteronomy says we could—but we won’t.
There will be no poor among you, however…if only you obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow every one of these commands I am giving you today. – Deuteronomy 15:4a-5
The poor will always be with you…therefore give open-handedly. And that command is separate from what it going on here. Expensive, extravagant giving to Jesus cannot come at the expense of forgoing the poor. In fact, I would say that in light of the lack of Jesus’s physical presence, he becomes the “least of these.” We pour out our expensive perfumes through our extravagant giving to the poor.
Anytime that we find ourselves affirming the words of Judas Iscariot, that should be a red flag to check our beliefs and motivations. Judas’s purpose in calling out this so-called waste was not entirely altruistic. John lets us in on a secret.
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. – John 12:6
His motivation was not to the poor, but to himself. And that’s really what’s at the heart of so much of the misinterpreting. Our true motivations aren’t toward the worship of God, but toward the worship of self. He wanted his part. When we use this verse to justify ignoring the poor on the basis of poverty not being solvable, we become modern-day Judases.
If we are going to affirm that the poor are always with us, then we must affirm Deuteronomy 15, where Jesus quoted it from. And Deuteronomy 15 is a challenging chapter. It is the chapter of Jubilee. It is a reminder that every seven years, all debts must be canceled, all slaves must be set free, all people must be generous with their money. We cannot just affirm the problem; we must also affirm God’s solution.
But what of Mary? This is still an incredible amount of money to just pour out. Jesus pinpoints the specificity of her sacrifice and the purpose as the factors which make it reasonable. He understands the immediacy of the situation. Mary will have many opportunities to care for the poor, and she’ll take those, just like she always has. This is her last opportunity to be with Jesus.
Mary’s selfless act is extravagant, but it is well thought out. It’s planned. It’s purposeful. And it recognizes the person of Jesus for who he is. Mary’s extravagance is not a justification for ignoring the poor. It is a reminder that worship is more than just the social gospel. That there is an upward component as well as an outward component and both are equally important and to be recognized.
Father, may we recognize your face in the faces of the poor and marginalized. Lead us into extravagant generosity for your name’s sake. May we never use your word to excuse our inaction or justify our failures. Make us open-handed—to give and to receive.
The other Gospel accounts share stories similar to this (a woman who anoints Jesus’s feet with perfume), but have different details. Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, and John 12:1-8 all tell this story but not in the same way. How would you reconcile the differences?
How does the connection to Deuteronomy 15 change the nature of the passage?
Where do we find the balance between giving to God and giving to man? What does that look like in our modern context?
Today’s header image is a photo of an anonymous 16th century stained glass representation of the Anointing at Bethany called Het Gastmall bij Simon te Bethanië. It is currently housed in the the Rijksmuseum.
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