Six days before the Passover, Jesus, therefore, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary, therefore, took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor, you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Understanding And Applying the Text
Six days before the Passover Jesus returns to Bethany. This is the home town of Lazarus. So right before going to Jerusalem Jesus is in Bethany. Bethany is only two miles from Jerusalem. This gave Judas the opportunity to arrange with the Jewish leaders his betrayal. Judas arranged his betrayal before the preparation of the Passover.
There have been many theories about what motivated Judas to betray Jesus. Was he trying to force Jesus’ hand to throw out the Romans? Was he a disillusioned with Jesus? But there is no need to speculate. John tells us why. There was a bounty on Jesus’ head. And John tells us Judas was money motivated.
All of the dominoes aligned. Judas could get away and arrange his betrayal. So this is the most probable time Judas met with the priests.
While Jesus is in Bethany there is a dinner party in Jesus honor. Mark and Matthew tell us the meal took place in the home of Simon the leper. During this meal, Mary anoints Jesus with nard.
The ancients used Nard in the preparation for burial. Nard was also used on the incense altar in the Temple. As Christ prepared to atone for our sins, the aroma that filled the temple surrounded Him.
The accounts of this event in Matthew, Mark, and John all state Mary used a lot of ointment anointing Jesus. She used about a pint of pure nard.
Nard has an intense aroma. It is clear from each account Mary’s action prepared Christ’s for His burial. The anointing occurred a few days before Jesus trial and execution. So it is possible the aroma of the nard clung to Jesus throughout His crucifixion. The scriptures do not mention anything about the aroma during Christ’s crucifixion. So, I may be going off the reservation with this thought. But here is what I imagine. While the soldiers were beating Him, this sweet aroma filled their nostrils.
What a beautiful representation of the sweetness of Christ’s love for us. Even while we reject Him the sweet fragrance of His love fills the air.
The nard Mary used was expensive. So how expensive was it? In researching the value of the nard, the best number I could come up with was about $24,000. Here is how I arrived at that figure.
A denarius was a typical day’s wage for an agricultural worker. (Matthew 20:2) If we assume $10 per hour, that in today value a denarius was worth about $80. Judas says they could sell the nard for 300 denarii. Pliny, a Roman historian of the time, values nard at 300 to 310 denarii. So both Judas and Pliny give nard the same value. 300 times $80 is $24,000. This means this was not a trivial gesture.
Judas complains the use of the nard was extravagant and wasteful. Matthew and Mark attribute the complaint to others as well as Judas. “There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that?’”. (Mark 14:4) “And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste?” (Matthew 26:8)
This is easy to reconcile. Judas initiated the complaint. The rest of the disciples joined in. We often enjoy joining other in their sin.
The others condemnation of Mary is not from impure motives. But, John’s tells us Judas motive was not a concern for the poor. His concerned was lining his own pockets. Judas gives a plausible pretext for his sin. He worries about the poor. And the others joined him. But Judas was after the money.
Judas was a thief. Yet Christ put him in charge of the treasury. Christ figuratively gave Judas the rope to hang himself. And Judas literally hung himself
Many have misused Christ’s reply to the concern over the extravagance. “For the poor, you always have with you…” I have heard this abused to defend not trying to help the poor. They say, “You are always going to have poor. There is nothing you can do about it so there is no need to try.” This is not what Jesus saying. This flies in face of the scripture. In fact, Deuteronomy 15:11 contradicts this understanding. “For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’”
The next misuse of Jesus response is to claim Jesus justifies extravagant worship. Jesus is not saying magnificent and costly worship pleases God. Jesus excuses Mary expense not because of the extravagant cost. He excuses her for her service. Mary gave Christ extraordinary service. That is the rule we should follow. We are to give extraordinary service to God. Those who try to imitate Mary by giving extravagant things miss the point.
We learn two things in this passage. First, it is possible to sound pious and be sinful. Judas did that. And he dragged others into his web of deceit. Second, we are to give extreme service to Christ. This is not the same as giving extravagant things.