As we open chapter 12 today, John’s Gospel will “turn the corner toward home,” as this marks the end of Jesus’ public ministry and brings him triumphantly into Jerusalem as the promised Messiah King.
The scene is in the home of Simon the Leper (we know this from the parallel passage in Mark 14), which is in Bethany – the hometown of Martha, Mary, and the recently-resurrected brother Lazarus. In typical fashion of the two sisters with opposite personality types, Martha is serving and Mary is creating another “awkward moment.”
12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 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.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 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.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
This aromatic nard from India was incredibly expensive. In today’s terms, it would be about like a bottle of perfume that would cost approximately 50-60 thousand dollars! And the bookkeeper of the disciples – Judas Iscariot – runs the math through his head and sees this as an incredible waste of money. And on one hand, we can sort of understand that … imagine what a $50,000 gift to the REACH Cold Weather Shelter here in Hagerstown could accomplish. On the other hand, think of the personal benefits that Mary could have accrued for herself had she sold the nard and pocketed the proceeds (which is really what Judas would have done and actually wanted to do). The passage in Mark gives us some additional understanding of the scene:
From Mark 14:6-11 … “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
Dead Men Don’t Tell Tales
According to the authoritative Urban Dictionary (insert smiley face), this is a saying that has existed for a long time but became famous through the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, in which a pirate-ish skull and crossed bones on the wall utters this very phrase. It means that to keep something quiet, kill anyone who knows about it and, since that person is dead, it would be pretty much impossible for them to tell your secret. A similar saying is “Three can keep a secret if two are dead,” invented by Benjamin Franklin.
The chief priests in Israel would love these sentiments, as they essentially come to the same conclusion: the only way to stop the growing popularity and distraction of this magician dude from Galilee was to kill him and his #1 carnival prop – Lazarus …
9 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. 10 So 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.
… and let me momentarily skip a few verses to put the end of today’s reading at this point …
17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!”
Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King
The event that we know and celebrate on Palm Sunday was a scene fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. The “blessed is he who comes” is from Psalm 118:25,26; and the entrance on a donkey fulfills a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9 …
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Hosanna!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Blessed is the king of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him.
A professor friend of mine from Dallas – whom I knew well from his service as an elder at the church where I was the Minister of Music – had done research for his Ph.D. from Cambridge University and later published what he believed to be the exact date that this event occurred. Dr. Harold Hoehner took the passage from Daniel 9:24-25 – which says that from the time of the decree of the Persian King Artaxerses to rebuild Jerusalem until the time of the official presentation of Jesus as the King of Israel (this triumphal entry) would be 483 years. He then went through all the calculations of dates, calendar changes, etc., and arrived at a final date of Monday, March 30, in the year A.D. 33! Is this absolutely true? We don’t know for sure, but it could be … and it powerfully does argue for the incredible accuracy of Scripture and the overarching plan of God for the ages.
Application: It is all about Priorities
We have to set priorities every day. Seldom are our priorities about what is “good” or “bad,” rather, it is about what is “better” or “best.” It is good to care about the poor, but it is best to care deeply about God himself – loving him and serving him together with God’s people … which, of course, involves serving the poor as Jesus did. Yet the greatest priority of seeing Jesus for who he is – the King of Kings – is fully lost on the masses of humanity in our culture and world, even as it was on the religious “in crowd” when they rejected his offer as their king in March, A.D. 33. Don’t be like that … set your priorities well.