Holy Week: The Anointing at Bethany

Holy Week discussions most often begin with the account of Jesus entering Jerusalem, often referred to as the triumphal entry. It was a beautiful, public recognition of who Jesus was, with people publicly lavishing Him with praise. Even if the crowd in Jerusalem did not fully understand the importance and beauty of the Man before them, they recognize that He had done amazing things.

But what happened right before this? What powerful biblical account came just one day prior? The day before the triumphal entry took place, just six days before the Passover, a dinner was held in the town of Bethany in Jesus’ honor.

Lazarus was there, reclining and eating with Jesus, and the two of them together caused quite a stir. This was the same Lazarus who had been dead for four days (John 11:39) before Jesus brought him back to life. He was a walking, talking, miracle, giving testimony to the incredible power of Jesus just by being present in the room. John 12:9 says, “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.” The man who was raised from the dead was spending time with the Man who raised him. That was enough to draw crowds! 

We know from previous accounts that Lazarus has two sisters. Martha was serving the meal, which seems very characteristic of her (Luke 10:38–42), but the bigger story unfolds when Lazarus’ other sister, Mary enters the room. John 12:3 says, “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” This was countercultural on many levels and would likely have been shocking for those in the room. Not only was the anointing costly, but she used her hair to wipe His feet. Barclay’s Daily Study Bible points out:

For a Jewish woman to appear with hair unbound was an act of the gravest immodesty. On her wedding day a girl bound up her hair and never would she appear with it unbound again. The fact that this woman loosed her long hair in public showed how she had forgotten everyone except Jesus.[1]

Mary disregarded social norms and anointed Jesus with humility and abandon. She clearly put her faith, her hope, and her love for Jesus before all else, and her seemingly reckless actions showed how her whole focus was on Him. Hers was a posture of worship, recognizing Jesus for who He was.

Judas Iscariot, who would soon betray Jesus, showed his adoration for money, not Jesus, when he questioned Mary’s actions. John’s account continues by saying, “‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ He 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” (John 12:5-6). The Bible does not mince words about Judas’ motivation or his focus. Caught up with greed, the act of using an expensive ointment or perfume to honor Jesus rather than selling it and taking the money, seemed to irritate him. Even after all the time he had spent in Jesus’ presence as one of His disciples, Judas’ heart and mind were focused on his pockets instead of on his Lord. How heartbreaking. 

Jesus doesn’t agree with Judas’ assessment. He instead commends Mary for her actions and references the foreshadowing of his death and burial. “‘Leave her alone,’ Jesus replied. ‘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’” (John 12:7-8). 

As we approach Holy Week, let’s take time to reflect on our own hearts and postures toward Jesus. Who are we most like when we interact with Him? Lazarus was a living testimony to the work of Jesus in his life, enjoying His company and marveling at His greatness. Martha had a servant’s heart and was not rebuked for serving Jesus and others in this case, which leads us to believe she was serving with a joyful spirit and an outpouring of love. And Mary, precious Mary, was worshiping her Lord with extravagance and abandon, paying attention to only Him. In sharp contrast, Judas was disgruntled and greedy, with his eyes and heart looking around rather than gazing at the Messiah. Let us be like Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, by living, serving, and worshiping with unbridled joy and love for our Savior. 

  1. Barclay, William. The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke (London: WJK, 2001).

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