Let me tell you where I think this story is going. And then we will get inside the story and follow John there. I think the point of this story is this: it is a beautiful thing when the worth of Jesus and the love of his followers match — when the value of his perfections and the intensity of our affections correspond. And it is not beautiful, but suicidal, when they don’t.
Jesus’s Worth in Resurrecting Power
But we can be more specific, and put a finer point on the story: the worth of Jesus — the perfection of Jesus, that Mary and Martha and Lazarus have in mind in this story, is his grace and power to raise the dead. Jesus said to Martha in John 11:25–26, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”
“It is a beautiful thing when the worth of Jesus and the love of his followers match.”
And there are affections of wonder and gratitude and ecstasy that match this resurrection power — especially when you see your dead brother come walking out of the grave. And Jesus wants to make sure that in six days at another grave — his own grave — they don’t lose their sense of wonder and joy that he is indeed the resurrection and the life, but that they “keep it” — even on the day of his burial.
So let’s listen as John tells us this story. Verse 1: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” John had just said in John 11:57 that the chief priests and the Pharisees had issued a warrant for his arrest. So when the next verse (12:1) says “therefore” Jesus came back to the very town he had just left to go into hiding, we know that the time is near. Jesus is moving into danger not away from it. This is the Passover when he will die.
Not an Ordinary Meal
Then verse 2 says, “So they gave a dinner for him there.” In other words, this is a celebration of the resurrection of Lazarus. They “gave” him this dinner. This is a thank you dinner to Jesus for raising Lazarus from the dead. This is not just an ordinary evening meal among friends. Its focus is on Jesus and his amazing power in raising Lazarus from the dead. And Lazarus is right there reclining at the table as exhibit A of the wonder of it all. Verse 2b: “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”
My sense is that this dinner has been planned specifically to honor Jesus and thank him for the overwhelming miracle of life for Lazarus. Martha is in her usual place organizing the meal and making sure it’s well served. Mary is about to express her heart to Jesus in a lavish way. And Lazarus is quietly watching the one who gave him life.
The Scene of Their Gratitude
So when verse 3 begins with “therefore” the point is that since this is a dinner to honor and thank Jesus for his gift of life, Mary will now make her presentation. Perhaps the whole family planned this moment. Perhaps they pooled their savings to buy this gift. Or perhaps it is a hugely valuable family heirloom that has been passed on for years, and now the time has come to pour it out.
Verse 3: “Mary therefore took a pound [the word is a litra which was about eleven ounces — think the size of a can of pop or soda] of expensive ointment made from pure nard [a very highly valued fragrance], and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
So Martha’s role was to thank Jesus by seeing to the details of the dinner, and Mary’s role was to thank Jesus by pouring this expensive ointment out on Jesus. In both these ways they would express their wonder and joy and thanks for the greatness of Jesus and his grace and power to raise Lazarus from the dead.
Judas Speaks Up
Then in verses 4 and 5 Judas speaks up with unbelievable disregard for what Mary has done. Verse 4: “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?’” These words show us two things: how expensive the ointment really was and how suicidal it is when our hearts don’t match the worth of Jesus. Judas will eventually die at his own hands. And he is paving the way right now.
If Judas wasn’t exaggerating, this eleven-ounce flask of nard was worth about $25,000 (three hundred twelve-hour days at our minimum wage, a denarius was a simple, full day’s wage). Judas’s scheme of values was so deeply different from Mary and Martha and Lazarus’s that in a few days he would do the opposite of giving $25,000 for Jesus: he would sell him for a thousand dollars (thirty pieces of silver).
Different Responses to Jesus’s Worth
John tells us in verse 6 what is in Judas’s heart: “Judas 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.” In other words, in response to the worth of Jesus, Mary’s heart was full of wonder and thankfulness and joy overflowing in lavish demonstrations of affection. And Judas’s heart felt none of that but valued money more than he valued Jesus. Mary loved Jesus. Judas loved money. Mary’s heart corresponded to the treasure that Jesus is. Judas’s heart contradicted the treasure that Jesus is.
Now Jesus responds to Judas, and gives three reasons why he should leave Mary alone. And these three reasons sum up the point of the whole story. Verse 7: “Jesus said [to Judas], ‘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.”
Three Reasons to Leave Mary Alone
Let’s look at the reasons in this order:
Verse 8b: Leave her alone, because you do not always have me with you.
Verse 8a: Leave her alone, because the poor you always have with you.
Verse 7: Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. That is, leave her alone and don’t hinder her from keeping her love and wonder and joy in the face of my death.
The first reason relates to the value of Jesus. “You do not always have me with you,” Jesus says. My presence in the body — for you to see and hear and touch and eat with me — will be here only for a short time longer. Mary feels the preciousness of Jesus’s presence and what it has meant for her and Martha and Lazarus. So leave her alone, Judas. Her heart is right. She feels my worth.
The second reason relates to Judas’s sense of the value of money. When he refers to the poor, it’s a cover for his covetousness. He’s a thief. He wants money, not Jesus. His heart is the opposite of Mary’s. Your heart is wrong, Judas. So leave her alone.
The third reason relates to whether Mary will be able keep on treasuring Jesus even when he is being buried. Remember, Mary is thrilled with Jesus as the resurrection and the life. He had just raised her brother from the dead. He has life in himself. He shares it with those who trust him. She is feeling this. She is showing this lavishly. But will she be able to keep it for the day of his burial. She has exulted in Jesus’s power at her brother’s grave. But will she be able to exult in his power at his own grave? Not if Judas infects her with his worldliness. So leave her alone, Judas.
Let’s look now at these three reasons more closely. Remember, Jesus didn’t have to say these things. He could have just said, “Judas, keep your mouth closed.” Period. But he chose to say out loud so that everybody could hear, including us, reasons why Judas should leave her alone. And when you start pondering each of these three reasons for Judas to leave her alone, lights go on all over this text.
1. You [plural] do not always have me with you.
Judas, tragically, you are not born of God, and therefore you cannot see the most obvious thing in the world. To know me, and see me, and hear me, and touch me, and fellowship with me is infinitely valuable. The Word was made flesh and is dwelling among you full of grace and truth (John 1:14). This season of the presence of God in frail human flesh is almost over. I’m not staying.
Mary has seen my glory. Mary has tasted my grace. Mary has glimpsed my truth. And Mary’s heart has been formed by this experience. And she has reached for the most lavish thing she could find to express the inexpressible: a heart that matches my worth. Leave her alone, Judas. You have no inkling of what is going on here. Look at it, Judas. Look at it, Bethlehem. Look at it, world.
Look at how lavish this display of love is. Three hundred days’ wages! Gone in a moment of lavish affection. Think what she could have bought with this! But her brother is alive. And Jesus is the one who raised him and Jesus is the reason its worth living. He is the resurrection and the life. There is no measuring the value of Jesus. There is no quantifying his worth. So there is no way to calculate the cost of love. There is no way to put the heart in a scale and say, this much affection for Jesus and no more. Jesus is inexpressibly wonderful, and Mary is inexpressibly affectionate. They match.
“The lowliest aspect of Jesus is infinitely more precious than the highest gift of man.”
And look at Jesus’s feet. She pours this lavish love on his feet. His dirty, smelly, human feet. Why? Because the least of Jesus is worthy of the best of us. You don’t put the best ointment on his head, and the worst ointment on his feet. Because the lowliest part of Jesus is infinitely more precious than the highest gift of man.
And look at what she does with her hair. Verse 3b: “[She] anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.” Why didn’t she use a clean, soft towel? Do you remember how Peter responded when Jesus worked the miracle of the huge catch of fish? It says, “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’s knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord’” (Luke 5:8). The goodness and the power of Jesus made Peter feel utterly unworthy.
So it is with Mary. Jesus, cleanness and sweetness befit you and your purity and holiness and power and grace. But as for me, dirt and odors befit me. My hair is the most beautiful and the most clean thing I have. But if it could serve to magnify your purity and your sweetness, it would be my honor to turn it into a rag for your feet.
And look at the whole room of people at this dinner. The end of verse 3: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Heartfelt worship of King Jesus is never merely private. It always spills over onto others — one way or the other. The lavish, heartfelt, sacrificial, grateful display of affection was for Jesus. But everybody was blessed. Even Judas.
So leave her alone, Judas. I am only here a few more days. Unless you wake up to my worth, you will die, and never see me again. That’s the first reason Judas should leave her alone.
2. You always have the poor with you.
Judas, let me start by giving you the benefit of the doubt: If you really care about the poor, as indeed you should, and as I do, you now have the rest of your life to serve them with all your heart and all your might. And nothing she has done here can stop you. In fact, if you had eyes to see, what she has done here would help you.
But Judas, I know you. You don’t love the poor. And you don’t love me. You love money. In five days you will sell me for thirty pieces of silver. Listen Judas, listen Bethlehem, to the words of the apostle Paul:
We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith [O, Judas!] and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:7–10)
Judas, Jesus says, Bethlehem, the love of money, the desire to be rich, is suicidal. It blinds you to my worth. If you can’t see that I am to be desired above all riches, you will die. Your preference for money is a preference for death.
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. Judas, you cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). You are devoted to money. And therefore you cannot comprehend what Mary is doing. The desire for riches has blinded your eyes. So leave her alone.
That’s the second reason to leave her alone.
3. Keep it for the day of my burial.
Verse 7: Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.”
This is a very difficult verse. The clue that holds the most weight with me is that Jesus seems to imply that the words of Judas, if they infect Mary with his disease, could keep something from happening. Judas, back off. Leave her alone, so that . . . so that something. You be quiet, and let her get on with what she is doing — including at my burial.
Let her keep it all the way to the day of my burial. The ointment has been poured out. That’s not what she is keeping. Jesus wants her to keep her thrill, her gratitude, her amazement, her wonder, her love. And specifically her amazement and wonder and love for him as the resurrection and the life.
“If any voice tells you to moderate our love for Jesus, do not listen.”
Be quiet, Judas, because it’s your kind of mindset that would stand by my grave and say: So much for that Messiah. So much for that way to succeed. So much for that way to get rich. So you be quiet, Judas, and let her keep it for the day of my burial. She is lavish with her love toward me because she has seen her brother die and rise again because of my grace and my power. Now you be silent, Judas, and let her keep that same love and hope when she stands by my grave in six days.
Do Not Listen to Those Voices
So, Bethlehem, if any voice tells you to moderate our love for Jesus, do not listen. Let your affections for Jesus be lavish.
If any voice tempts you to want to be rich in money, do not listen. Jesus is your riches, and all that money can buy cannot compare to him.
If any voice tells you that his death is anything less than the triumph over death, do not listen. He is the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in him, though he die, yet shall he live. And whoever lives and believes in him shall never die.