Having spent some time away in the desert in Ephraim, Jesus begins to head back towards Jerusalem, calling in on Lazarus in Bethany. Martha prepares dinner and we sense John’s glee in relating that Jesus and Lazarus were reclining together – the same Lazarus who had recently been raised from among the dead (vv.1-2). It is a reminder of how Jesus has the power to transform people.
Then, something quite unexpected happens: Mary, Martha’s sister, takes a pound of costly, genuine nard perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet with it. She proceeds to dry Jesus’ feet with her own hair (v.3a). There is evidence that it was improper for women to let their hair down in the company of men, but Mary’s devotion to Jesus transcends such social norms: here is total and costly reverence; liquid and love poured out. The result is that the fragrance of the perfume filled the house (v.3b). It is not a stench or an odour; but a fragrance (Greek: osme) – a sweet smell. When Paul thanks the Philippians for their financial gifts, he calls it a “fragrant (osme) offering” (Philippians 4:18). Following Jesus today remains costly, but we can be assured that when we give of ourselves in a costly or sacrificial way to please God, He is pleased, and the smell is sweet.
This episode is narrated in similar fashion in some of the other gospels (cf. Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9). In all three versions, there is some opposition from the disciples (and those present) to this costly outpouring. It is wondered why this resource was not kept and sold to benefit the poor (v.5). In John, however, Judas Iscariot is the sole objector, but his character is somewhat darkened in preparation for his betrayal (v.6). It is a significant departure from the other three gospels, although Mark records that it was following this event that Judas went to betray Jesus (Mark 14:10).
Nevertheless, the question remains: why this costly outpouring? Is it a waste? This act is a special exception because it symbolises Jesus’ burial (v.7). Jesus is naturally aware of the good teaching of the Law concerning giving to the poor, who are always present (cf. Deuteronomy 15:11). Yet, he is mindful that he is going to his death. When the Magi came to visit Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11) to symbolise Jesus’ being King, Priest and Sacrifice. That myrrh (Greek: smyrna) and the incense (myron) here are not identical, but they are still similar. Jesus is prepared to allow Mary to do this because it symbolises his forthcoming burial following his death on the cross, whither he soon must go…
 Jesus is also anointed in Luke 7:37-47 but this is likely not the same event: here, a woman anoints Jesus, seeking for her sins to be forgiven
 This seems the likely explanation of John 12:7 but there is a degree of textual uncertainty caused by the slightly mysterious remark. There are two main readings, which the NIV fuses:
- “allow her, so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (better attested, but somewhat unclear);
- “allow her, (because) she has kept it for the day of my burial” (less attested, but perhaps clearer).