After Apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Boek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.

What is unfathomable is the surviving woman’s response (the mother of the son and wife to the husband murdered and burned). What must she have thought and felt as she sat in the courtroom being burdened and re-traumatized by evidence? A member of the South African Truth & Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, ‘So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?’ That is the right question, isn’t it? What is justice; how can it be achieved; how does it look different from mere retribution and punishment? But the judge asked how justice should be done for this man, not for this surviving woman. What would this wife and mother say in the face of such murderous cruelty that further caused indignity to her husband’s and son’s remains?

‘I want three things’, the woman said confidently. ‘I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial. My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Boek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.’ This is truly a breathtaking request. We can finish her sentence starting with, ‘I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I…’ fill in the blank:

1. So I can get him to feel the crushing poverty I live with.

2. So I can have him feel the full void of my loss with no husband or son.

3. So I can have him feel every distrusting eye scrutinize him as the minority in our community.

But no; she finishes her request with ‘So that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.’  How much love does she still have?

‘Finally, I would like Mr. Van der Boek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Boek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.’[i]

Did not God, the Father do this very thing for us? While we crucified his Son, God reached out to us to love us, forgive us, and showed us kindness despite how we treated him. God’s desire is to make us His sons and daughters in order to love us.

This incredible act of forgiveness by this South African lady is actually an expression of extravagant love, a love from the heart of God who, when crucified, forgave from the cross the very ones who crucified him. In John 12 we turn to another expression of such love and devotion. Jesus will be crucified within the week. He was returning to Jerusalem to become the paschal lamb that would take away the sins of the world. Even though this action had not happened yet, Jesus’ self-giving extravagant love inspired devotion and a similar heart in the lives of others. One such person was Mary from Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Jesus arrived in Bethany, the village just two miles on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where an amazing expression of extravagant love and devotion became a prophetic picture of Jesus’ upcoming death.

In the parallel accounts of this story, we find that this dinner was actually hosted by Simon, the Leper.

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.[ii]

In John’s rendition of the same incident, we discover some other details including the principles in the story.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.

Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.

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.[iii]

The actions of both Martha and Mary are consistent with their prior actions with Jesus, as recorded in Luke 10:38-42 where Martha, the server, is gently rebuked for her anxiety over her service, while Mary, the attentive worshipper, is commended by Jesus.

The meal may well have been intended in part to celebrate the recent recovery of Lazarus from death, so Lazarus was treated as one of the guests of honor, alongside the Lord to whom he owed his new life.[iv]

How do we inspire extravagant love? How can this love be demonstrated through our lives to Christ and also to those around us? There are a number of things we need to understand of which I will focus on two.


There is a price to pay in term of what one must give up. There is a personal, emotional, often a financial, and social aspect of this kind of love. We will certainly be misunderstood by some, criticized by others, but ultimately influence and impact those who we lavish this kind of love upon, as well as those who witness this kind of love.

What made this meal memorable is the moment when Mary pours the perfume out and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. This was a startling and shocking moment that captured the attention of all who attended.

The outpouring of all this expensive perfume was extravagant enough, but for a woman to let down her hair and wipe a man’s feet with it would have been at least as extraordinary in the eyes of that company as it would be for us on a comparable occasion, and probably more so. The shock of what they had seen must have caused a brief embarrassed silence, which was broken by one voice in giving expression to the sentiments of many.[v]

What is interesting in the parallel accounts found in Matthew and Mark’s gospels is that the oil was said to be poured out on Jesus’ head, while John only mentions the feet. Is this a contradiction or is there something else in play? D. A. Carson argues that it was poured upon the entirety of Jesus’ body.

She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare me for burial.[vi]

D. A. Carson suggests that the emphasis is different for a reason.

Matthew and Mark have thematic reasons for referring in particular to Jesus’ head: they wish to show that he is being honoured, anointed as king. It would not have been inappropriate for John to make the same emphasis, but by mentioning the anointing on Jesus’ feet there is injected into the description a sense of the woman’s self-perceived unworthiness. She thus becomes a foil not only of the religious authorities who were actively plotting Jesus’ death, but of the disciples who, in the very next chapter, have to be taught to wash one another’s feet, and by Jesus himself (13:1ff.).[vii]

Mary’s behavior is in stark contrast to the hatred of those who desire to kill Jesus, and to the disciple’s pride in not willing to humble themselves and wash each other’s feet. Mary’s extravagant love is expressed in her humility and unabashed expression of devotion which shocks this company of diners. True worship comes to God with a deep sense of humility and gratitude, rather than with a self-confident attitude or defiance.

How do we approach God? Are we overwhelmed like Mary? Or are we similar to the disciples in the next chapter jostling for position and self-promotion? The real test is seeing how we treat others. Do we demonstrate deep love and concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Do we make all sorts of judgments regarding them?

Touching the feet of someone was regarded by Jews as a very degrading experience and was normally reserved for slaves and others to whom little honor was due. The fact that Mary was willing to do this act at a meal in the presence of others communicates volumes about her elevated regard for Jesus.[viii]

So, what prompted Mary to act in such a manner? It may have been her gratitude for what Jesus had done for her brother, Lazarus, raising him back to life. It may also be a deepening revelation as to the nature of Jesus.

Jewish women did not let down their hair in public. This is an expression of devotion that would have come across as extremely improper…, as indeed it would in most cultures. …The humility of her act prepares us to be all the more scandalized when Jesus himself washes his disciples’ feet in the next chapter.[ix]

What we may not understand is the cost to Mary in expressing this kind of devotion and worship to Jesus. Gerald Borchert suggests that this may have been her dowry toward a future marriage.

Since Mary’s gift was of such an economic significance, sociologically Mary had depleted her potential of gaining a husband. That move is not to be understood as merely some nice act of honoring the Lord but as a tremendous demonstration of commitment to him.[x]

In essence, what she was communicating by what she did was simply to entrust her future to the One who she was showing such love and devotion toward. Are we willing to give our lives wholeheartedly to Jesus that we have entrusted our future to him?


How did the people gathered at this dinner respond to Mary’s behavior? Some became indignant, critical, and censorious at what seemed to be an extravagant action in the pouring out of the expensive perfume. This expression was an act of deep devotion and worship of Jesus. Whenever we express this kind of love it will have a positive and life shaping influence upon the recipient, which brings glory and honor to God, but it can also produce a profound negative reaction. It can be misunderstood and seem very threatening. This action demonstrates a greater, Divine love flowing through the person. This is how the true nature of a disciple of Christ is revealed. What should be occurring in our lives is that as we mature, our love for God and others should be growing. Just before Jesus was crucified, He left this command and an identity marker for us as His followers.

‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’[xi]  

A. The criticism directed at Mary=s action.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected,

‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’[xii]

Though Judas objected to this display, others were sympathetic to his remarks. We also see the intensity of their harsh remarks toward Mary.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume?

It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly.[xiii]

Consider just the financial sacrifice. She gave a year’s wage in a moment. If we consider today what an average salary is and it being given in such a manner, many could argue that the monies being spent could have been done with greater practicality. When we do something in extravagant love it may surprise us who will criticize us. It may come from people closest to us. They may question the wisdom of our investment, moved by such love that we are willing to sacrifice for another. Though others criticized based on this extravagance, John reveals why Judas was so offended, which gives us a glimpse into the heart of greed that would lead to the betrayal of Jesus. Here we see the contrast between Mary’s costly devotion to Jesus and Judas’ greed which led to his betrayal of Jesus.

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.[xiv]

Gerald Borchert points out that John is revealing the character of the man who would betray Jesus.

The story in John, however, makes a slightly different point. It certainly picks up the burial symbolism (12:7), but it refocuses the picture from the misunderstanding of the disciples to Judas, who was not merely mistaken. In this story John makes it plain that Judas was not an unfortunate, misguided person. He was inherently an evil thief who had no concern for the poor (12:6). Thus John would never agree with some modern portrayals of Judas as a tragic hero who merely misunderstood Jesus. For John, Judas was a devil-man (diabolos; 6:70), a receiver of Satan (13:27), and the son of doom or destruction (17:12). For John, he was the unforgivable betrayer who stood with the enemies of Jesus.[xv]

Jesus had warned the multitudes on the sermon of the Mount the dangers of loving money.  There will come a point where loving money will cause a person to betray their faith.

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasurers on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

But store up for yourselves treasurers in heaven…

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.’[xvi]

B. Jesus’ defense of such love directed toward him.

Here we find the heart of Jesus in this expression of Mary.

‘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.’[xvii]

Jesus now interprets her action in light of what he knows is to come: his death and burial. Jesus sees this action as a prophetic act. Rodney Whitacre explains how the actions of others are all a part of God’s design, even though they do not understand the significance in the moment.

Whatever Mary’s intentions and reason for her action, Jesus sees it in reference to his coming death (v. 7). Jesus sees cryptic significance in another person’s actions instead of making his more usual cryptic explanation of his own activity. There is no reason to think Mary knew the full import of what she was doing, any more than Caiaphas knew what he was saying (11:49-51). The people around Jesus are being caught up in the climax of all of salvation history. They are acting for their own reasons, yet they are players in a drama that they do not understand, doing and saying things with significance beyond their imaginings. Mary in her devotion unconsciously provides for the honor of the dead. Judas in his selfishness unconsciously brings about the death itself.[xviii]

He continues by pointing out a practical reality and the proper priority.

The fact that Jesus is about to die (cf. 12:35-36) justifies Mary’s action. But on another level, the identity of Jesus also justifies this action. In the Synoptics even the burying of one’s father is put second to responding to Jesus and the call of the kingdom (Mt 8:22 par. Lk 9:60). So this anointing also makes sense given who Jesus is and the awesome events unfolding in salvation history.[xix]           

C. The crowds gather to see both Jesus and Lazarus, the man who was raised to life.

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.[xx]

It seems that Jesus’ earlier visit that brought life to Lazarus was followed immediately by withdrawal from the area. Now days before the passion and the crucifixion of Jesus, his arrival in Bethany, two miles from Jerusalem, is discovered and crowds come to see both Jesus and Lazarus. This immediately puts Jesus and Lazarus in danger.

D. The intention by the leadership to kill Jesus and Lazarus.

So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.[xxi]

This amazing miracle was threatening the status quo of the religious leadership and therefore they began to plan to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. Craig Keener explains the message that John is trying to convey to his first century readers that following Jesus can cost everything including a person’s earthly life. This was communicated in light of the tremendous persecution that the early church experienced.

‘The narrative (12:9-11) rings with irony: Jesus went to Judea, risking his life to give life to Lazarus; now Lazarus’s new life may cost him his life. The paradigm for disciples could not be clearer: those who would follow Jesus must be prepared to die (12:25, 27), for the world will hate them and wish to kill them (15:18; 16:2). But faith would not be decreased by such martyrdom – producing new life; the sign of Lazarus’ new life brought others to faith (12:11; cf. 11:45, 48).[xxii]

It may seem shocking to us to see extravagant love expressed and the often-vile response to those around us who witness such love. It is a love that comes from above and only those who have really experienced that kind of love can demonstrate it to others. The only means of really impacting the world around us is the demonstration of God’s love to others. It is a human thing to love the lovable, but it takes a Divine love to love the unlovable. That’s why we need to experience God’s love in order to love ourselves, then others, and finally our enemies. The Christian life is a journey of love maturing within our souls, until like the South African woman, the object of love can be the one who wounded us the most.

The love we are commanded to have for God and our neighbor is a state of the will, not of the affections (though if they ever also play their part, so much the better).[xxiii]

Let us pray that God will continue to inspire us on this journey of love so that others may know the author of love.

[i]‑my‑son‑a‑south‑african‑mothers‑response‑to‑the‑ man‑who‑murdered‑both‑her‑son‑and‑her‑husband/

[ii]    Mark 14:3, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.

[iii]    John 12:1-3.

[iv]    F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1984), 255.

[v]     Ibid, 256.

[vi]    Mark 14:8.

[vii]   D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 427.

[viii] Gerald Borchert, John 1B11 Vol. 25B, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 35.

[ix]    Rodney Whitacre, John, Vol. 4, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 1999), 300.

[x]     Gerald Borchert, John 1B11 Vol. 25B, 38.

[xi]    John 13:34-35.

[xii]   John 12:4-5.

[xiii] Mark 14:4-5.

[xiv]   John 12:6.

[xv]   Gerald Borchert, John 1B11 Vol. 25B, 36.

[xvi]   Matthew 6:19-21, 24.

[xvii] John 12:7-8.

[xviii] Rodney Whitacre, John, Vol. 4, 300-301.

[xix]   Ibid, 302.

[xx]   John 12:9.

[xxi]   John 12:10-11.

[xxii] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 86

[xxiii] C. S. Lewis, Letters of C. S. Lewis, 269; as quoted by Wayne Martindale & Jerry Root, Eds., The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, Il: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1990), 404.

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