Anointing Jesus’ feet

1 Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.2 They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. 3 Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. 4 Then Judas the Iscariot, one (of) his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said, 5 “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” 6 He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. 7 So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 (The) large crowd of the Jews found out that he was there and came, not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, 11 because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.

Context and Background All four gospel contain an account of an anointing of Jesus by a woman. The account in Matthew and Mark is similar (Mark 14:3–9 and Matt. 26:6–13). It recounts the events of Bethany where a woman poured “very expensive perfume, made of pure nard” over Jesus’ head. This incited resentment among some who thought the perfume might have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus defended the woman, saying, “She has done what she could. She has anticipated anointing my body for burial.” (Mark 14:8). The second story is in Luke 7:36–50. It appears to take place in Galilee earlier in Jesus’ ministry and is located in the house of a Pharisee. His name is given as Simon, but he is not called a leper (as in Mark), nor indeed could he be under the circumstances. In any case Simon was one of the commonest of names, so we need not think of these persons as identical. The woman who carried out the anointing is called “a sinner.” She first wet Jesus’ feet with her tears, then wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and finally anointed them. This led the Pharisee to think that Jesus could not even be a prophet, and this opened the way for Jesus to speak of the greatness of the woman’s love. The story in John is clearly different from that in Luke. There is no reason for equating Mary of Bethany with Luke’s “sinner” and, although the anointing is of the feet, and the hair is used to wipe them, the time, the circumstances, and the discussion are all different.

The chief priests and the Pharisees were seeking to put Jesus to death. He had no intention of rushing needlessly into danger and accordingly had retired to a quiet spot. But this Gospel is written out of a deep conviction that Jesus came to die for sinners. It was in the purpose of God that he should lay down his life for others. “Therefore” at the set time he came to the city where he would be delivered up to death. John’s interest in precise detail comes out in that he tells us exactly when Jesus came to Bethany, locating his arrival characteristically with a reference to one of the great feasts. Six days before Passover would be the Sabbath, presuming that the 14th of Nisan that year fell on a Friday. Jesus may have arrived on the Friday after sunset, or alternatively he may not have traveled very far so as not to exceed the Sabbath Day’s journey. John proceeds to characterize Bethany by the great miracle he has just described. It was the place “where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”

Foot Washing  Koester offers a number of comments about foot washing in the first century.

People generally washed and anointed their own feet. Foot washing was a routine matter of cleanliness, and the use of oil or ointment on one’s feet was soothing for those shod in sandals. When guests arrived at someone’s home, especially after a journey, the host usually provided a basin and water for the guests to wash their own feet before sharing the meal. In the Scriptures, for example, Abraham welcomed visitors to his tent by saying, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree” (Gen 18:4). The same practice is attested in other biblical texts and Greco-Roman sources. In some cases, a host might also provide oil for his guests, although they would ordinarily rub it onto their feet themselves.

A slave was virtually the only one who could be expected to wash and anoint the feet of another person….washing or anointing the feet of another person remained identified with slavery.

Because of these connotations, those who voluntarily washed someone else’s feet showed they were devoted enough to act as that person’s slave….

The act of anointing Jesus’ feet, when taken in its literary and cultural context, displays Mary’s utter devotion to Jesus following the resuscitation of her brother. Other elements of the action are consistent with this. The ointment she used was very expensive…. Since there is no indication that Mary belonged to one of the wealthier classes — the meal was served by Martha rather than a servant — the ointment was apparently a major expenditure. It was also significant that Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair, since well-kept hair contributed to a person’s dignity in the ancient world. Women took pride in long hair, which was considered attractive, and damage to one’s hair was considered degrading. By using her hair to wipe the feet of Jesus, Mary heightened the sense of self-effacement already reflected in her willingness to serve him as a slave. [pp. 112-114]

Bethany and the Upper Room There are a number of connections between our text and the upper room events. Perhaps a key to understanding our text is what Jesus tells the disciples after he washes their feet: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. ” [13:15].

Mary is the model disciple. She “follows” his example — albeit, prior to the example. She does what Jesus will do — washing and drying feet. If Mary is the model disciple, then Judas is presented as her contrast. Mary is generous. If the ointment were worth 300 denarii, that is roughly equivalent to a year’s salary. Judas is greedy — taking what doesn’t even belong to him. Mary illustrates her faith with actions. Judas talks piously — “giving to the poor” — but we know that he is not sincere. Both “prepare” Jesus for burial — she by the “anointing” and he by the betrayal.

O’Day (John, New Interpreter’s Bible) highlights this contrast:

Mary’s act of discipleship is brought out even more strongly in the contrast with Judas in this scene. Judas does not respond to the impingement of Jesus’ hour with an act of love for Jesus, but with self-centered disdain. Judas’s response leads to the destruction of the flock, whereas Mary’s actions model the life of love that should characterize Jesus’ sheep (p. 703]

Her reference about “the destruction of the flock” comes from ch. 10, where all the other occurrences of “thief” (kleptes) in John are found (vv. 1, 8, 10; and the verbal form in v. 10).

Mary’s action constituted an anointing of Jesus’ body for burial, and thus unconsciously she performed a prophetic action. And indeed this may explain why the rather implausible detail of the anointing of the feet was kept in the Johannine narrative — one does not anoint the feet of a living person, but one might anoint the feet of a corpse as part of the ritual of preparing the whole body for burial.

The Poor  “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8) It is not clear what to make of the “poor” in John. Apparently some ancient writers weren’t too sure about v. 8 either. It is omitted in some manuscripts. The “poor” are not mentioned much in John. Besides the three occurrences in our text (vv. 5, 6, 8), the only other occurrence is in the upper room when the disciples misunderstand Jesus’ word to Judas, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Some think that it refers to giving to the poor (13:29).

This verse (8), harkens back to Dt 15:11: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Joachim Jeremias thinks the story of the anointing is comprehensible only on the basis of the Palestinian distinction between almsgiving and acts of charity. A gift of money to the poor would be almsgiving; the burial of the dead would be a special act of charity, considered higher and more valuable.

Final thought: …if in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is fully revealed, then in Mary’s anointing of Jesus, faithful discipleship is fully revealed. Mary’s act of anointing illustrates the Evangelist’s eschatological vision of the new life to be lived by those who embrace Jesus’ life and death and become children of God (1:12; 11:53). [O’Day,703]

Sources

  • Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
  • Neal M. Flanagan, “John” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
  • Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003)
  • Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
  • Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995)
  • John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989)
  • Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996)
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