Translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there, and Martha was serving, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him. Then Mary took a pound of very expensive perfume of genuine nard and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Then Judas Iscariot spoke up, one of his disciples, the one who was about to betray him, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief who was in charge of the common purse, and used to help himself to its contents.
Jesus said, “Let her be, so that she can keep this to prepare my body for burial. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
This incident is recorded in Mark and Matthew, and the detail of Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair is shifted from the very different incident in Luke 7. In Mark and Matthew the woman pours the perfume on Jesus’ head, which can be taken as reference to the anointing of a king (=messiah, anointed one), whereas this writer emphasises Jesus’ feet, as if he wants to insist that this is an act of grateful love rather than a hint of messianic faith. The verb used here for anointing always refers to ordinary, secular actions rather than ritual ones. The writer is presenting human affection for the flesh-and-blood Lord. Love and its gestures had special importance in the Christian community for which this Gospel was composed.
The objection of Judas is reported also by Matthew, who presents it as a real challenge to what the speaker sees as a personality cult; whereas this writer debases the issue by casting Judas as a thief, an accusation not attested elsewhere in the bible tradition.
Jesus’ rebuke is common to all the versions of this story, in a) telling critics to “let her be” and b) that she has acted in anticipation of his burial. A live human body benefits from human affection, a dead body from the decencies of friendly burial. Although Jesus promises that after his death he will come to them again, he wants them to know that his ordinary physical body will be taken from them. Their human care will always be needed by the poor. Perhaps Sydney Carter gets this incident right in his song:
The poor of the world are my body, he said,
to the end of the world it shall be;
the bread and the blankets you give to the poor
you will find you have given to me, he said
you will find you have given to me.
My body will hang on the cross of this world
tomorrow, he said, not today;
and Martha and Mary will find me again
and was all my sorrow away, he said,
and wash all my sorrow away.