“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”[1] This simple, factual description with which our passage opens seems straightforward enough yet knowing the events that have preceded and will follow this day, these nineteen words take on tremendous import:

First, we know that “six days before the Passover” would actually be Jesus’ last Passover meal so we’re being offered a poignant glimpse of some of Jesus’ final experiences before going to the cross to take away the sins of all who believe in him by dying in their place. And John makes a point of noting that Jesus knew his final days on earth were here. Even though, as we’ll focus on next week, the first Palm Sunday took place with crowds coming out to greet Jesus as their King following the events recorded in our morning’s passage, Jesus himself never lost sight of what was to come afterwards. In fact, as recorded at the end of this chapter, when he predicted his own death his heavenly Father audibly proclaimed how he had glorified his name and would glorify it again. Then Jesus told all who were present that the Father’s voice that they had just heard, “was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” As John states, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.”[2]

So, too, in chapter 13 we’re told that just before the Passover Festival, “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”[3] Part of loving his disciples “to the end” was displayed during this meal when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.[4] And ever the Rabbi, afterwards he used this humble gesture to reinforce his teaching, saying “14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”[5] Those who know God in Christ are ever called to “Go and do likewise;” to forgive and love and serve others as he always did.[6]

Lastly, part of Jesus knowing that his hour had come is indicated in John stating that during the Passover meal, Judas had already determined to betray Jesus[7] and that Jesus knew[8] and shared this with his disciples.[9] He further let them know that he would be with them “only for a little longer”[10] as he said to them, “34 A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”[11] Again, in the final days he had on earth with his beloved disciples, Jesus continued in word and deed to reinforce the teachings he had lived out before them for three years, knowing that his crucifixion was imminent; knowing that he would soon be leaving them. All of these events highlight some of the import of the first half of our opening verse.

But, second, the final part of the opening verse is equally pregnant with meaning for “Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” And indeed in chapter 11 of John which precedes our passage, Jesus raising Lazarus from death resulted not only in “many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believ[ing] in him,”[12] but also in “the chief priests and the Pharisees call[ing] a meeting of the Sanhedrin.”[13] Their concern was the following: “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”[14] But Caiaphas, the high priest that year, responded, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish”—and John notes that “51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.”[15] The point is this: that the end result of Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead, was that after consulting together, “from that day on [the chief priests and Pharisees] plotted to take his life.”[16] And so they gave “orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.”[17]

Again, all of this is to say that this simple introduction to our passage which provides factual information about when Jesus came to Bethany—six days before the Passover; and with whom—with Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead, is in fact filled with tension for it sets the stage for the final two weeks of Jesus’ life on earth. So we arrive at verse 2 in which we’re told, “a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor”—and from parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark we know that this dinner took place at the home of a man known as “Simon the Leper,”[18] who, like Lazarus, was from Bethany. And there we find Martha, Lazarus’ sister, doing what Martha so often did.[19] She was serving Jesus and “those reclining at the table with him,” including Lazarus. And in verse 3 we see that Mary—sister of Lazarus and Martha—too, was doing what Mary so often did, choosing “what is better,” this time not by sitting at Jesus’ feet to learn from him as in an earlier account[20] but by using her hair to wipe his feet with some ridiculously expensive perfume.[21] As noted in verse 5, this “pint of pure nard” “was worth a year’s wages.” And as a result of Mary’s pouring this pure nard upon Jesus’ feet, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

But Martha and Mary weren’t the only ones acting in accordance with the brief glimpses we’re elsewhere provided of their respective character, but so, too, was Judas. As John notes in verse 4, this was Judas Iscariot, “one of [Jesus’] disciples,…who was later to betray him.” When Judas saw that Mary was extravagantly pouring out this costly perfume—to wipe Jesus’ feet, no less[22]—he objected and made his objection clear by asking, verse 5, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” But, as John goes on to explain in verse 6, “[Judas] did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

And I want to pause here to consider briefly a portion from Scripture that people often misquote. Namely, “money is the root of all evil.” The problem is that Paul never said this. What he said was that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And listen to the context in which he states this:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.[23]

This love of money seems to have been Judas’ fatal character flaw. As we know, his love of money is what later drove him to betray Jesus as he “went to the chief priests 15 and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?’ So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.” Therefore, “16 [f]rom then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”[24] Yet by his own admission, Judas later told the chief priests, “I have sinned…for I have betrayed innocent blood.”[25] Judas is such a poignant example of what Paul is saying: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction…. 10 Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Judas, one the 12 chosen by Jesus, “wandered from the faith and pierced [himself] with many griefs.” Judas’ example should serve as a sobering reminder for all of us about the great gain that is to be found in “godliness with contentment.” For truly, if in addition to knowing Christ “we have food and clothing” then what more do we really need?

Well, as we’ve already noted, Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him. Even early on in John’s Gospel when many disciples were leaving Jesus, he turned to the Twelve and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” and Peter offered his well-known reply, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” And Jesus in turn replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” And John adds a parenthetical note, saying “71 (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)”[26] And so in our passage, knowing Judas’ heart, Jesus responded to him, beginning with verse 7, saying, “Leave [Mary] alone…. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s difficult to know how those who were present would have heard these words. The first part is astonishing for Jesus was making clear that he knew the day of his crucifixion and death would soon be upon him. Therefore he noted that this anointing with perfume was for the day of his burial. And though the latter part of what he said may sound selfish and heartless, it actually isn’t. As we’ve noted before, oftentimes when Old Testament Scriptures are referred to these partial references are, in fact, pointing to a greater teaching. Most recently[27] we saw how Jesus, who had been fasting for forty days, resisted the devil who was tempting him to turn stones into bread by saying, “Man shall not live on bread alone”—the rest of which verse states, “but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[28] And living by every word was precisely what Jesus was doing.

Well similarly here, Jesus was quoting only a part of a verse from Deuteronomy 15:11 as a way of eliciting a greater teaching—which teaching would have been known by his disciples which, of course, included Judas. This part of Deuteronomy addresses the importance of canceling the debts of fellow Israelites every seven years.[29] There the LORD further exhorts his people to pay special attention to any who may be poor among them, commanding them, “do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.”[30] Further, they are to “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart….”[31] And then the specific portion Jesus quoted to Judas is given: “There will always be poor people in the land.” But note what follows: “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”[32]

We can see, then, the importance of context for Jesus’ point is just the opposite of what it may appear if we’re unfamiliar with this convention of referring to a part of passage in order to point to its broader teaching. If we didn’t know this, then to hear him say, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me,” might lead us to conclude, wrongly, that Jesus was being selfish and uncaring towards the poor. But the very opposite is the case for the end of this verse states, again, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” In other words, these words were a rebuke to Judas who, as John has noted, didn’t protest about Mary’s extravagant gesture because he actually cared about the poor but rather “because he was a thief” and, “as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it” (verse 6). Therefore by quoting this passage, Jesus was pointing out to Judas how wrong his greediness and stealing were for rather than following and obeying the LORD’s command to be openhanded towards those fellow Israelites who were poor and needy, Judas was stealing money collected for his own selfish ends. And it’s interesting to see Mark and Matthew’s account of these events for both record that after Jesus made these comments, he not only defended Mary but also praised her saying, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”[33] And both also record that “10 Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. 11 They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”[34] In other words, message received. Judas wasn’t going to take Jesus’ rebuke but upon hearing these words, he left to do what he could to betray him.

Well, in these brief eight verses we’ve so far considered the parts that Martha, Mary, and Judas played. But we mustn’t forget Lazarus with whom the passage begins. As already noted, in the previous chapter John records the account of Jesus raising Lazarus, brother of Martha and Mary, from death. And Jesus used the tragic occasion of Lazarus’ death to provide Martha, his servant-minded and beloved sister, a foretaste of what was to come. As John records, “20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” And Martha expressed both her disappoint and hope in Jesus when she said to him, “21 Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” When Jesus reassured her that her brother would rise again, Martha thought he meant at the last day but Jesus took her misunderstanding to further reveal to her who he was, saying, “25 I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Following this, Jesus raised Lazarus from death and, as we’ve already noted, this set off the series of events that would lead to his own crucifixion, the death of him who had just proclaimed he was the resurrection and the life and offered that eternal life to any who believe in him.

And as we’ve also just noted, the next domino that fell was when Jesus rebuked Judas. And the final few verses following our passage note, again, the role Lazarus played. In verse 9 we’re told, “Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Now if you had heard of someone who had undeniably died and then was raised to life, wouldn’t you want to see them and the one who had performed such a miracle? Yet as word of what Jesus had done in raising Lazarus spread, the chief priests not only sought to kill Jesus but, as stated in verses 10 on to 11, “the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”

So let’s return again to our opening, so pregnant with meaning:

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”

The death of Lazarus was the occasion for Jesus disclosing himself as he who is the resurrection and the life;

And the death of Lazarus was the occasion that led the religious leaders of the day to call a meeting to plot to take Jesus’ life;

When Jesus and Lazarus went to Bethany for a dinner held in Jesus’ honor, Mary’s anointing of Jesus with perfume worth a year’s salary caused Judas to criticize her;

And when Jesus implicitly rebuked Judas for not following God’s commands to care for the poor, Judas left to join ranks with the religious leaders in plotting Jesus’ death.

But I want to end with Mary’s anointing Jesus. Jesus defended her by pointing to his death. Her anointing him with this expensive perfume was in preparation for the day of his burial. And though Judas may have expressed righteous indignation for such extravagant waste, when we stop and think about it, is anything too expensive to anoint the feet of God? Is anything too expensive to anoint the feet of Christ Jesus who came to die once that we might live with him forever?

Mary got this. In anointing Jesus’ feet, she again had chosen the better portion. And so this communion Sunday when we celebrate the good news of the Gospel, of Jesus Christ giving his life and rising from death that we might live with and in and through him, we also celebrate Mary’s memory as we follow Jesus’ admonition:

“Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”[35]

Let us pray.

[1] Parallels of this account may be found in Matthew 26:6–13 and Mark 14:1–11.

[2] John 12:23–33: 23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. 30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

[3] John 13:1.

[4] John 13:4–5: so [Jesus] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

[5] John 13:14–15.

[6] See the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25–37.  The takeaway is given in the closing two verses: “36 Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

[7] John 13:2: The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus.

[8] John 13:10–11: 10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

[9] John 13:21: After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”

[10] Joh 13:33: “My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.

[11] John 13:34–35.

[12] John 11:45.

[13] John 11:46.

[14] John 11:47b–48.

[15] John 11:49–52.

[16] John 11:53.

[17] John 11:57.

[18] Matthew 26:6–7: While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.; Mark 14:3: While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

[19] See Luke 10:40: But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

[20] Luke 10:39: [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.; In verse 4b2 Jesus—“the Lord”—answered Martha, “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

[21] This account is similar to but clearly a separate account from that recorded in Luke 7:36–50 in which Jesus dines with a Pharisees (verse 36)—not at the home of Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3). There he also has his feet wiped with an alabaster jar of perfume by a woman from town “who lived a sinful life” (verse 37)—clearly not Mary. As does Mary, this woman wiped and kissed Jesus’ feet not only with her hair but with her tears (verses 38, 45–46) and by her act “her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown” (verse 47).

[22] Matthew and Mark state she poured this perfume on Jesus’ head as well. Matthew 26:7b: which she poured on his head; Mark 14:3c: She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

[23] 1 Timothy 6:6–10.

[24] Matthew 24:14–16. A parallel account may be found in Luke 22:3–6: Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus. They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented, and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present….

[25] Matthew 27:4.

[26] John 6:66–71.

[27] Sermon preached on March 10, 2019, Called to Live by God’s Word on Jesus’ temptation from Luke 4:1–13.

[28] Deuteronomy 8:3.

[29] Deuteronomy 15:1–6: 1 At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. 2 This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the Lord’s time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. 3 You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. 4 However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, 5 if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. 6 For the Lord your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.

[30] Deuteronomy 15:7–8: 7 If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8 Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.

[31] Deuteronomy 15:10a.

[32] Deuteronomy 15:11. Verses 9–10 state: 9 Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10 Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.

[33] Mark 14:9. See parallel in Matthew 26:13: Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.

[34] Mark 14:10–11. See also Matthew 26:14–16: 14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

[35] Mark 14:8; Matthew 26:13.