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Bible Study Outline
John 12: 1-8 depicts the encounter of Jesus at Bethany, where Mary anointed his feet with oil and wiped them with her hair
The nature of this passage has theological significance in terms of service, the divinity of Jesus, as well as the prophetic significance of the acts of Mary and the disciples. The first four verses are highlighted in the context of this analysis that follows for the differences in service, and the significance of Mary’s actions. Mary could have washed Jesus’ feet with a basin and water, and wiped them with cloth. Why did she feel the need to use the extravagant oil to clean Jesus’ feet and wipe them with his hair? The act in itself is intimate, if not uncomfortable to witness, especially through the eyes of a believer in the modern context. In fact, while the condemnation for Judas may be expressed in the passage for his having been a thief, it is possible he was lashing out at the discomfort of the situation.
How are the actions of the non-believer relevant to the life of service in Christ? John makes certain to document the reaction of Judas, and even explain their motivation, and the reaction of Jesus. Mary would probably have never been recognized had Judas not complained of her extravagant actions, and Jesus come to her defense. Essentially, we would not know Mary as we do today were it not for the savage reaction by Judas. It is true that the service to the poor is important, but this does not mean believers should not spare the opportunity to offer direct service to Christ. It is true her anointing of Jesus would be a conspicuous event, but the protest and Jesus’ retaliation makes this encounter even more critical. The account of this event in Matthew conspicuously omits Mary’s name, but it adds a promise that her name will be remembered in all the ministries of the future. Such is the impact of Jesus’ promise and his defense of Mary even as his time on earth drew to an end.
The narrative of John’s Gospel serves to lead the readers towards one conclusion: the Christ is Jesus. The destruction of the temple left the Jews in a religious void, and affirmation of the divinest of Christ gives a new directionality through introduction of the gentle gospel. By John 12, Jesus is fast approaching the time of his death. Once more, John uses the encounter of Jesus at Bethany to depict the prophecy of his death and highlight the roles of different people in the path to the cross. This essay briefly exegetes the anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-8), noting its historical and literary contexts as well as the theological implications of this encounter.
The Anointing of Christ’s Feet
Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. (v 3)
While John’s narrative begins at the announcement that Jesus was in Bethany, the core of this event is the anointing of his feet by Mary. The emphasis in the Gospel is on the quantity (a pound), and the extravagance with which Mary accorded her treatment of Jesus. The oil is barely the crux of the matter as the focus rivets to the place where she poured it and her approach to wiping the oil. She wiped his feet using her hair. These combined actions are the indicators of absolute self-humiliation in the presence of divinity. Mary has already anticipated the death of Christ and seeks to anoint him in the manner that she would of his dead body. Chrysostom affirms this view of the acts, elaborating that wiping his feet with the hairs of her head is the action of someone that held a different view of Jesus from the others. The head is the most honorable member of the whole body, and yet she laid it at the feet (the least honorable part) of Christ. This action was clear manifestation of her recognition for his divinity.
The account of this event emphasizes on this Mary being the sister to Lazarus. However, Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9 present anonymous identities, creating the possibility of this Mary having been Mary Magdalene the former prostitute. At the same time, these former Gospels indicate the woman anointed Jesus’ head too. John overlooks this gesture, a move that has been interpreted by Gill as having been motivated by the reservation of such anointing to the high priest. It is possible to consider that the emphasis on the humility of Mary by John sought to affirm the divinity of Jesus within his audience, prompting the choice of content available in the account.
The Criticism of Judas
John’s account introduces Judas as the ultimate antagonist in this context. The author not only highlights his objections to the actions of Mary, but ensures to explain that Judas is a thief (v 4-6). The pilfering nature of Judas’ conduct with their coin box is unquestionable. The Greek version [ἐβάσταζεν] refers to taking away in stealth, implying that Judas was already a habitual thief even in the course of his discipleship. Therefore, it seems logical that he would be offended by the actions of Mary and her seemingly wasteful gesture.
However, the contextual consideration of the events places into doubt the explanations for Judas’ protest. Luke 7:38, the account of the same event, introduce the sentiments of those present regarding the actions of Mary even without consideration for the cost of the oil. The thoughts of the Pharisee: “If this man were a Prophet…for she is a sinner” (Lk. 7:39). This account may be particularly contradictory due to the differences in the authors’ versions of Mary. Nevertheless, with these doubts in light, it becomes possible that the offense by Judas was an expression of his discomfort. Fristzsche elaborates that since it was customary for daughters to anoint the feet of their fathers with oil, only the action of the wiping his feet with her hair was inappropriate. It is also possible that Judas took offense to the pungent odor that filled the room, as the criticism is seen as emanating from multiple occupants in other Gospels. John’s account, once more, appears focused on propagating the divinity of Christ and casts doubt as to the accuracy and interpretation of the narrative.
The climax of this encounter is the pious defense by Jesus, where he tells Judas to let her alone as she has reserved the oil for his burial. He adds that while the poor will always be present, He will not always be (v 8). At this point, the Gospel compels noting that it is only six days to the Passover (v 1), and thus his death is approaching. Chrysostom notes that in this context, Jesus is already aware of the pretentious nature of Judas. Jesus may be aware of the betrayal of Judas that is imminent, but even then he does not expose him as a traitor. Instead, he persists in elaborating the nature of good acts and dividing those acts among the earthly people in need as well as the worship of God. The reminder that He will not always be there is a speech of kind words and his relationship with his disciples.
While the words of Jesus may seem controversial considering his history of helping the poor, they should not be misconstrued to propagate a callous attitude towards the needy. Even though Mary may be unaware of his impending death, Jesus knows he is about to meet his end. The same literary context is available in Deuteronomy 15: 11, “For the poor will never cease out of the land: therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor, in your land.” The disciples, therefore, need to take advantage of his presence while he still is there because they will soon have to contend with his absence after death. His words propagate the notion of seizing the opportunity to serve him as opposed to waiting too long.
The account of the anointing at Bethany characterizes a transitory encounter from the journey of Jesus to the reality of his approaching death. Like the whole book, however, John uses this narrative to highlight the divinity of Jesus. The actions of Mary and the responses of Jesus give the opportunity to emphasize service to God alongside service to man. While this account may be controversial in the literary context, it allows recognizing the nature of Judas and Jesus’ faithful followers in anticipation of his trial and eventual death.
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