The Sweet Smell of Love and the Stench of Greed (John 12:1-8)
I love this song, written by Gloria Gaither and Bill George, as sung by Steve Green:
One day a plain village woman
Driven by love for her Lord
Recklessly poured out a valuable essence
Disregarding the scorn
And once it was broken and spilled out
A fragrance filled all the room
Like a prisoner released from his shackles
Like a spirit set free from the tomb
Broken and spilled out
Just for love of you, Jesus
My most precious treasure
Lavished on thee
Broken and spilled out
And poured at your feet
In sweet abandon
Let me be spilled out
And used up for thee
Lord you were God’s precious treasure
His loved and His own perfect Son
Sent here to show me the love of the Father
Just for love it was done
And though You were perfect and holy
You gave up Yourself willingly
You spared no expense for my pardon
You were used up and wasted for me
Broken and spilled out
Just for love of me, Jesus
My most precious treasure
Lavished on me
Broken and spilled out
And poured at my feet
In sweet abandon
Let me be spilled out
And used up for me209
When I preached this text, I asked my friend Jon Hodges to play the tape of this song by Steve Green as the introduction of this message. Those of you who are reading this message will have to listen to this song on tape or CD. If you do, it should touch your heart as it does everyone who has experienced the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. In but a few words, this song captures the spirit of our text in John chapter 12.
The Jews have opposed Jesus for some time now. As early as John 5 John tells us that the Jewish leaders are intent on killing Jesus. An effort is made to arrest Him in chapter 7, and attempts to stone Him can be found in chapters 8 and 10 (twice in this chapter). After His healing of the man born blind (chapter 9) and His teaching on the Good Shepherd (chapter 10), Jesus has to leave Judea to let things cool down (10:40-42; 11:54). It is not yet time for His sacrificial death in Jerusalem. Word of Lazarus’ serious illness reaches Jesus, and it is obvious that His disciples are not eager to return to Judea. They urge Jesus to stay put, because the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem want Him dead. When Jesus finally arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead and buried four days already. This only makes the miracle of the raising of Lazarus more amazing, something like Elijah’s pouring water upon the sacrifice (1 Kings 18:33-35).
A good-sized group of Jews have come to Bethany from Jerusalem to mourn the death of Lazarus with his surviving sisters, Martha and Mary. These folks are at the grave of Lazarus when Jesus summons him from death and the grave. It is a most amazing thing, and it does not take long for word of this miracle to spread throughout Jerusalem and Judea. As the time for the Passover draws near, there is an air of excitement and anticipation, fueled greatly by out Lord’s raising of Lazarus:
55 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, and many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually. 56 Thus they were looking for Jesus, and saying to one another as they stood in the temple courts, “What do you think? That he won’t come to the feast?” 57 (Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report it, so that they could arrest him.) (John 11:55-57).
Will Jesus make an appearance in Jerusalem, the people wonder? Will He dare show His face when the Jewish leaders have declared Jesus a wanted man? We know, of course, that He most certainly will appear in Jerusalem. John 12 has many exciting things to report. This is truly the beginning of the end. As we begin chapter 12, we come to the final week of our Lord’s earthly ministry. The crucifixion is barely a week away. The meal celebrated here is one I am tempted to call “The Last (public) Supper.” While our Lord will later on partake of the Passover with His disciples, the meal described in our text is perhaps the last public meal our Lord ever attends. There is much for us to learn here, not just for information that will fill our heads, but for a soul-stirring account of a woman’s love for, and worship of, the Lord Jesus. We can learn much from her act of worship, so let us listen well, asking the Spirit of God to touch our callused hearts, giving us a renewed love and adoration for our Lord, a love like that of Mary.
A Dangerous Destination
1 Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany,210 where Lazarus lived, whom he had raised from the dead.
The miracle of the raising of Lazarus is fresh in the reader’s mind, as it is the focus of chapter 11. It is also very fresh in the minds of those who witnessed the raising of Lazarus in Bethany, and came to trust in Jesus as a result. It is painfully fresh in the minds of the unbelieving Jewish religious leaders, who look upon the raising of Lazarus as the last straw. At the direction of Caiaphas, the High Priest that year, the Sanhedrin is called together, and the members are now unified in their resolve to kill Jesus. If our Lord’s arrival at Bethany is an amazing thing in chapter 11, it is even more amazing in chapter 12. Then, even though Lazarus’ life hung in the balance, the disciples are not at all eager to return to Bethany, knowing the dangers awaiting them there. Now, after the raising of Lazarus, things become much more dangerous for Jesus, and for His followers. And yet John tells us in a matter-of-fact fashion that “Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived …” Our Lord’s arrival in chapter 11, followed by the raising of Lazarus, has a profound impact on the Jews in Jerusalem and its suburbs. Our Lord’s last arrival at Bethany is a turning point, not only for our Lord, but also for the nation Israel.
The Sweet Smell of Love
2 So they prepared a dinner for Jesus there. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was among those present at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took three quarters of a pound of perfumed oil made of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.)
This is not the only account of a woman anointing Jesus in the New Testament. In fact, every one of the Gospels has an “anointing” account,211 but it does not seem as though all of the Gospel accounts refer to the same event. Luke’s account of the “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus at the home of Simon the Pharisee does not seem to be the same as the anointing of which we are reading in John chapter 12. The two accounts in Matthew and Mark, however, do seem to refer to the same incident John describes in our text. Consider, for example, this account in Mark’s Gospel, as described in the New English Bible:
Now the festival of Passover and Unleavened Bread was only two days off; and the chief priests and the doctors of the law were trying to devise some cunning plan to seize him and put him to death. ‘It must not be during the festival,’ they said, ‘or we should have rioting among the people.’ Jesus was at Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. As he sat at table, a woman came in carrying a small bottle of very costly perfume, oil of pure nard. She broke it open and poured the oil over his head. Some of those present said to one another angrily, ‘Why this waste? The perfume might have been sold for thirty pounds and the money given to the poor’; and they turned upon her with fury. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone. Why must you make trouble for her? It is a fine thing she has done for me. You have the poor among you always, and you can help them whenever you like; but you will not always have me. She has done what lay in her power; she is … anointing my body for burial. I tell you this: wherever in all the world the Gospel is proclaimed, what she has done will be told as her memorial.’ Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray him to them. When they heard what he had come for, they were greatly pleased, and promised him money; and he began to look for a good opportunity to betray him (Mark 14:1-11, New English Bible).
Matthew’s account is very similar to that of Mark, but his comments about Judas are worth noting:
14 Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me to betray him to you?” So they set out thirty silver coins for him. 16 From that time on Judas looked for an opportunity to betray him (Matthew 26:14-16, The NET Bible).
There are some differences between the Synoptic accounts of the anointing of our Lord for His burial and that recorded in the Gospel of John, even as we should expect. The differences are obvious, and there are a number of ways to explain them.212 For example, the Synoptics speak of the dinner as taking place at “Simon the leper’s house.” We might assume from reading John’s account that the meal was held at the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, but John’s words do not state or require this at all. John tells us that “they” prepared a dinner for Jesus (verse 2), but he does not say who “they” are, nor where the dinner is held. It may well be that “Simon the leper” has a larger home and offers it for this occasion. It is not surprising that Martha “took charge” of serving the meal. It has been suggested that “Simon the leper” is actually the father of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary, which certainly makes sense. The only problem is that no Gospel writer tells us this. John does not bother to explain every apparent discrepancy, as is the case with the other Gospel writers. While reasonable solutions are available for each problem, I am not willing to set aside the focus of this passage to pursue them. If it were really important to know, John (or one of the other Gospel writers) would have told us.
The meal is being served. Jesus and His disciples, along with Lazarus and other men,213 are reclining at the table. They are not seated at a table, sitting on chairs, but rather are reclining at a table, as is the custom in these days. During this meal, Mary makes her way to where Jesus is eating. She brings with her a flask of very expensive pure nard,214 containing about 12 ounces of this very expensive liquid. It doesn’t take Judas long to “appraise” the value of this substance—more than 300 denarii. Since a denarius represents the daily wage for a laborer, this represents approximately a year’s salary. For illustrative purposes (in today’s values), let’s just say that this substance is worth $20,000. That’s a lot of money!
Had Mary sparingly sprinkled a little of this expensive perfume on our Lord, there may have been no reaction, but she breaks the container so that she can pour out its entire contents on Him.215 I think of this liquid nard as being in a container similar to my “Old Spice” shaving lotion. The bottle is designed so that the lotion can be used a little at a time. It has a long, narrow neck, with a small hole in the top, so that a few drops can be dispensed in the hands on each use. (Expensive perfume is metered out even more carefully, and often dispensed with a vaporizer, so that a little bit will go a long way. At the price of expensive perfumes, this is a great idea.)
But Mary has no intention of spreading out the use of her expensive nard, so she breaks the neck of the flask and proceeds to pour the entire contents on our Lord. In the light of the accounts in Matthew and Mark, it appears that she starts with His head, and lets the liquid run down on the rest of His body, ending up at His feet. I take it that she uses her loosened hair to wipe up the excess ointment, which would otherwise run onto the floor—a truly needless waste. And so it is that this woman pours out her love on the Savior, by sacrificing the most precious thing she owns. It is truly a beautiful act, and all are blessed by it as the sweet smell of this fragrance fills the house.
Judas Causes a Stink
4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfumed oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” 6 (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box he used to take what was put into it.)
Mary is not trying to attract attention, and it may be that she is hardly noticed until the smell of this fragrance drifts throughout the whole house. It is then that a most amazing (and distressing) thing occurs. The disciples of our Lord are angered by her actions, and they lash out at Mary for “needlessly wasting” this precious ointment on Jesus. One can hardly read the Gospel accounts of this incident without concluding that, while these men are rebuking Mary for her reckless waste of resources, their words are also intended as a rebuke to our Lord. First, if this is truly a “waste,” then Jesus must not be worth the value of the perfume. Second, it is our Lord who is being anointed. If it is wasteful and unnecessary, He should make her stop.
Before we go on, we might do well to put this whole matter of “extravagance” into its proper perspective. When King Ahasuerus was searching for a new queen to replace Vashti, the women who were chosen as candidates went through a rather extravagant preparation process:
Each young woman’s turn came to go in to King Ahasuerus after she had completed twelve months’ preparation, according to the regulations for the women, for thus were the days of their preparation apportioned: six months with oil of myrrh, and six months with perfumes and preparations for beautifying women (Esther 2:12, NKJV).
Furthermore, extravagance was expected and praised in a king:
1 Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon, she came to Jerusalem to test Solomon with hard questions, having a very great retinue, camels that bore spices, gold in abundance, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she spoke with him about all that was in her heart. … 9 And she gave the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold, spices in great abundance, and precious stones; there never were any spices such as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon. … 22 So King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. 23 And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart. 24 Each man brought his present: articles of silver and gold, garments, armor, spices, horses, and mules, at a set rate year by year (2 Chronicles 9:1, 9, 22-24, NKJV).
If, therefore, Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords, the gift which Mary lavishes upon our Lord is far from extravagant.
John tells us a very important detail, not revealed to us by either Matthew or Mark: the one who incites the disciples to anger is Judas. Now things start to make sense. John not only informs us that Judas is behind all this reaction, he also informs us as to why. Judas, John indicates, is a thief. Now here is a bit of information we find nowhere else in the New Testament; yet this one bit of information causes all of the other pieces to fall into place. A number of theories are offered as to why Judas would betray our Lord. Some say that he is (almost helpfully) trying to force our Lord’s hand, so that Jesus will get on with establishing the kingdom. I find this difficult to accept.
To me, the explanation is really quite simple. Judas was never a believer. He does not know the love of God, nor does he show it. In this sense, Judas is very different from the other eleven disciples. But in another way, Judas is really very much like the rest of the disciples, at least up to this point in time. The truth is that they do not understand what our Lord is about, either. Like Judas, they do not expect Jesus to die on the cross of Calvary. They do what they can to prevent it (e.g., Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about such things, and he slices off the servant of the High Priest’s ear with his sword.) Over and over again, we see the disciples preoccupied with their own selfish ambitions. They hope our Lord’s kingdom will enhance their status and power. They argue amongst themselves as to who is the greatest. No wonder Judas does not stick out like a proverbial sore thumb. In fact, Judas fits right in! No wonder they trust him with the money bag and are even inclined to follow his lead in attacking Mary for being wasteful.
Judas follows our Lord. He witnesses His power and hears His teaching. He is even given the power to perform miracles himself! (see Matthew 10:1ff.; Luke 9:1-2). Yet in spite of all this, he never was one of our Lord’s sheep (John 6:70-71; 13:18). This past week I was reading through the Gospel of Luke and pondering our Lord’s teaching on money. In chapter 16, we are told that the Pharisees loved money, and thus they scoffed at the teaching of Jesus about money (verse 14). I can almost see Judas, listening to what Jesus has to say about money and thinking to himself: “Wow. I don’t believe this! If this is where Jesus is going, I don’t really agree. What am I doing?”
Judas has become the “treasurer” and “bookkeeper” for our Lord and the group that accompanies Him. This group of followers is a larger group than just 13 men, as we see from Luke’s words:
1 Sometime afterward he went on through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Cuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their own resources (Luke 8:1-3).
I can well imagine how Judas may have reasoned. Much of the “support” of our Lord and His disciples comes from the women Luke identifies. Out of this common purse to which these women contribute, the poor are helped and the disciples purchase food and supplies. Judas keeps this purse. He alone knows exactly what is given, and what is spent. It probably begins innocently at first. Judas “borrows” a little money for some personal expense. Time goes on, and he does not pay it back. More time passes, and he begins to use additional funds, not paying it back, either. Eventually, he begins to think of the money he has spent on himself as his commission, as remuneration for his services. It isn’t all that much money, and nobody really knows or cares (or so he thinks). Over time, it gets easier and easier. Before long, he’s nothing more than a common thief, without even realizing it.
As the time of our Lord’s death draws near, all of the disciples become aware of the danger, and seem to have some sense that Jesus might die (e.g., the words of Thomas in John 11:16). Judas realizes that the kind of “kingdom” he envisions isn’t going to happen. There is not going to be a great kingdom, with a huge budget, from which he can continue to pilfer his “commission.” Then, at this celebration dinner, Judas observes the loving act of Mary, pouring out the contents of her broken vial. He realizes how precious the substance is and mentally calculates its value. If this nard were sold (instead of “squandered on Jesus”), it would have meant a very tidy commission for Judas. He is angry. In his mind, a part of what she is “wasting” on Jesus is his. She has no right! She must be stopped!
Judas presents his case in a way that appeals to the higher motivations of his peers, and which masks his own greed. The perfume is worth a year’s wages. It could be sold, and the money given to the poor. It should be sold and the money given to the poor. A number of his fellow-disciples agree. They look upon Mary with anger and lash out at her. I can almost see her break down in tears as these men shame her for her selfless act of worship.
The Master’s Praise and Rebuke
7 So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She has kept it for the day of my burial. 8 For you always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.”
I would paraphrase our Lord’s response this way: “That’s enough! Stop it! Leave Mary alone. She has done nothing wrong, and everything right. She’s kept this precious ointment for this very hour, to prepare my body for burial. You will have no end of opportunities to minister to the poor in the future, but this is her one and only chance to minister to me in this way, since the time of my death is at hand.” Translators have some problems with verse 7, but the sense of this passage is clear. I like R.V.G. Tasker’s handling of the text when he writes: “Jesus therefore is saying in effect, ‘Leave the woman alone; (she has not sold her perfume and given the money in charity) in order that she might be able to use it now with a view to My burial.’”216
It is amazing, but the accounts of Matthew and Mark inform us that at least some of the other disciples angrily lash out at Mary for her lavish expression of love. No one dares rebuke Jesus directly, but Jesus does not hesitate to come to Mary’s defense and to rebuke them. He insists that they immediately cease their attack against Mary. She has done nothing wrong. Indeed, she has done something very beneficial. Mary has been saving up this perfume, not so that it could be sold, but so it might be used to prepare His body for burial.
There are many things about this statement of our Lord that we do not fully understand. How much does Mary understand at this point in time? Does she know (or sense) that Jesus is soon to die? Or, does she not know, so that her preparation of His body for burial is only providential? Does she purposefully save up this ointment for His burial? Is she preparing His body now for burial, or is she saving some for the actual time of His death? We do not know, and it really does not matter. It does seem that Mary has a greater “sense” of what is about to happen—and the appropriate response to it—than do the Lord’s disciples.
As to the charge that this ointment could be better used, Jesus has something to say as well. Is it wasted on Him? Should this perfume be sold for a good deal of money, so that the proceeds might be given to the poor? Jesus does not minimize the importance of caring for the poor. What He calls to the attention of His disciples is that while there will be many opportunities to minister to the poor in the future, this is the only opportunity Mary will have to minister to Him in this way. His days left on this earth are very few. She will have no other opportunity to show her love to Him as she desires. And so Jesus argues that she has made the right choice. Mary is right; they are wrong.
14 Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me to betray him to you?” So they set out thirty silver coins for him. 16 From that time on Judas looked for an opportunity to betray him (Matthew 26:14-16).
I know this is not a part of our text, but it certainly helps us better understand Judas and his betrayal of our Lord. Judas, as we have been told, was never a believer. He could not agree with our Lord’s teaching on money, and neither could he desire the kind of kingdom our Lord is going to establish. Judas betrays his position of trust, misusing the funds placed in his hands. He has become nothing more than a common thief. And then, it seems, he actually begins to think of the funds in the money box as his own. He is not “touched” by Mary’s love for Jesus; he is infuriated by her “wasting” of this expensive perfumed oil. He voices his protest in a way that persuades some of the other disciples to join with him in attacking Mary for her act of selfless love.
Jesus’ response in Mary’s defense is a rebuke to His disciples, and particularly to Judas, who instigated their protest. John does not tell us about Judas’ meeting with the chief priests, but both Matthew and Mark do. Judas is still the entrepreneur par excellence. He seizes upon any opportunity to make money. Has Mary “cheated” him out of his commission? Has Jesus taken her side? Well, Judas is about finished with Jesus anyway. His “kingdom” is not Judas’ kind of kingdom. There will be no real money in it for Judas, and besides, Jesus is on a collision course with the Jewish religious leaders. His days are numbered; His kingdom doomed to fail. Such seems to be the thinking of Judas.
So Judas decides to “swap horses in mid-stream” as we say. Judas decides to sell Jesus out and to join forces with His enemies. While the chief priests and Pharisees declare Jesus to be a wanted man, and order anyone who knows His whereabouts to report it, there has been no mention of a “reward.” Judas seems to be the one to bring up the subject of money with the Jewish religious leaders. He knows how badly they want to arrest and kill Jesus. He knows they have been repeatedly frustrated in their efforts to accomplish this. He knows they need someone “on the inside,” and Judas is willing to be that person. And so he barters with them until a satisfactory price is agreed upon. I can almost hear him saying to these Jewish leaders, “What would it be worth to you if I could produce Jesus privately, and in a way that would not create a riot?” It is a tragic end, but a very logical one for a man who loves money, but not the Messiah. John has more to say about Judas in chapter 13.
I like what Tasker has to say about Mary here:
Mary of Bethany is in fact another of the timeless, representative figures so wonderfully portrayed in this Gospel. She is a type of the true Christian worshipper, even as the sinful woman in the very different anointing story in Luke vii. 36-50 is a type of the true Christian penitent.217
When you stop to think about it, Mary’s act of adoration and worship looks a lot like what we will be doing in heaven, for all eternity. There, we will cast the most precious things we have at His feet:
1 After these things I looked, and there was a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet said: “Come up here so that I can show you what must happen after these things.” 2 Immediately I was in the Spirit, and a throne was standing in heaven with someone seated on it! 3 And the one seated on it was like jasper and carnelian in appearance; and a rainbow looking like it was made of emerald encircled the throne. 4 In a circle around the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on those thrones were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white clothing, and had golden crowns on their heads. 5 From the throne came out lightning and roaring and thunder. Seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne 6 and in front of the throne was something like a sea of glass, like crystal. In the middle of the throne and around the throne were four living creatures full of eyes in front and in back. 7 The first living creature was like a lion, the second creature like an ox, the third creature had a face like a man’s, and the fourth creature looked like an eagle flying. 8 Each one of the four living creatures had six wings and was full of eyes all around and inside. They never rest day or night, saying:
“Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God All-Powerful,
Who was and who is, and who is to come!”
9 And whenever the living creatures give glory, honor, and thanks to the one who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, 10 the twenty-four elders throw themselves to the ground before the one who sits on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever, and they offer their crowns before his throne, saying: 11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, since you created all things, and because of your will they existed and were created!” (Revelation 4:1-11, underscoring mine.)
In the light of our expectation of worshipping Him for all eternity, we would do well to imitate Mary, and thus to practice our worship in the present. We obviously cannot worship in exactly the same way Mary does. We do not have Jesus present with us in His earthly body, as she does. We need not prepare His body for burial, as she does. Jesus argues that what Mary does is because there is little time left. I would suggest that we may not have much time left either, until He comes again. We should make good use of our time, even as Mary does in our text, and employ ourselves in doing that which pleases Him, since ministry as we know it presently will no longer be possible.
But how do we worship “Him” when He is no longer present among us in His earthly body? The Bible indicates many ways that we may worship Him. Allow me to mention one way Jesus has given us to worship Him, as though He were present:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.’ 41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels! 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you did not receive me as a guest, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not give you whatever you needed?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it for me’” (Matthew 25:31-45).
Let me take a moment to characterize Mary’s worship, if it is to serve as a pattern for our own worship. First, her worship is spontaneous, and not commanded. Mary’s worship is her own spontaneous response to our Lord, given that moment in time and her love for Him. The Old Testament law has many commandments related to worship, but what Mary does goes above and beyond them all. Love prompts what law can never produce. This is one of the things we strive hard to make possible in our church, by our “open worship” time. We do not have every part of our worship time planned out, but leave time for men to lead us in worship as they are led by His Spirit.
Second, Mary’s worship is selfless, sacrificial, and even extravagant. If “worship” is about our Lord’s “worth-ship,” as indeed it is, then nothing we can ever do will be worthy of the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is a woman whose worship reflects her grasp of the majesty and greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ. She gives the finest thing that she has, willingly, cheerfully, and eagerly. Her giving is no mere duty, begrudgingly carried out; this is her delight. Had she something of greater value to give, I have no doubt she would have given it to her Lord.
As you read these few verses, describing Mary’s worship of our Lord, is there not something deep within you that agrees with her, that wishes to worship the Lord as she does? How many of us have done something truly extravagant, worshipping our Lord?
I must issue a word of caution here, because many would challenge us to be extravagant by giving to their ministry, to their cause! Some, at least, are Judas-like, in that they claim to be giving the funds to the poor, while taking a fair share of it for themselves. I do encourage you to consider doing something that may seem extravagant. But I have no suggestion as to how this might be done, or to whom, or to what organization you should give. I simply encourage you to desire, more than ever, to be like Mary in the extravagance of your worship and adoration of our Lord. How many times I have “indulged” myself by spending “more than I should have” on myself. How seldom have I done likewise in my giving to those in need and to the Lord’s work.
Third, Mary worshipped her Lord extravagantly, by giving something that she had to give. Mary appears to have had this precious nard for some time. We don’t know how she obtained it, or when, and it doesn’t matter. But she did have it to use in this way. Paul makes it very clear that we are not required to give what we do not have (2 Corinthians 8:12). We are not encouraged to go into debt to worship our Lord. I fear that many of the hucksters, who would like us to give extravagantly to them, are those who would also urge us to give what we cannot afford. Mary is able to give this precious ointment. The issue is not whether she can afford it or not, but how it is used. If we do give extravagantly to God, let it be something we have to give. Mary seems to make a mental connection between our Lord, His imminent death, and her precious ointment. We may have something to give to Him that we would not have thought of before, but at a certain point in time it becomes apparent it would be the appropriate thing to do. When and if you choose to give extravagantly, do so out of what you have, not out of what you don’t have.
Fourth, I must reluctantly point out that Mary’s worship is criticized and even opposed by those who know and love the Savior. Why do others seek to impose their opinions and convictions regarding worship on us? It is one thing when the Bible directs us specifically in regard to worship, as it certainly does (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 11–14). But many times we seek to press others into our own mold when it comes to worship. Some would press us to worship with uplifted hands (which is biblical), while others would have us believe we cannot worship unless we lift our hands. Still others seem unable to worship with uplifted hands, or even when others lift their hands. Let us be very careful about hindering the worship of others, as the disciples are doing with Mary.
Fifth, I call to your attention that Mary’s worship is not something she does in a way which attracts attention to herself, but something privately done at our Lord’s feet. I am impressed that almost every time we find Mary in the Gospels, we find her at Jesus’ feet. She is learning from Jesus, at His feet, in Luke 10 (see verse 39). When Jesus comes to Bethany after Lazarus dies, Mary falls at His feet (John 11:32). Now, in chapter 12, she is once again at our Lord’s feet, anointing them with her precious oil. How the disciples push and shove to be beside our Lord, at His right hand or His left (see 13:1-11), but no one wants to be at His feet—except Mary, and perhaps a few other women. There is always room at Jesus’ feet, room to do humble, menial, yet needful things. And there is no place better suited for service and worship than there, at His feet.
Our Lord teaches that those things we do publicly, when done for public acclaim and approval, receive man’s approval, but not His. He also indicates that those things done privately, but done for His praise, are those things that please Him, and bring about His praise (Matthew 6). Mary’s worship is consistent with our Lord’s instruction about acts of worship.
Sixth, I cannot help but wonder if Mary’s sacrificial worship does not have an impact on the Apostle Paul. I wonder if Paul’s words here have any relationship to this act of worship by Mary:
14 But thanks be to God who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and who makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place. 15 For we are a sweet aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing— 16 to the latter an odor from death to death, but to the former a fragrance from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like so many others, hucksters who peddle the word of God for profit; but we are speaking in Christ before God as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).
7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are experiencing trouble on every side, but are not crushed; we are perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 we are persecuted, but not abandoned; we are knocked down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our body. 11 For we who are alive are constantly being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal body. 12 As a result, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you (2 Corinthians 4:7-12).
15 And as you Philippians know, at the beginning of my gospel ministry, when I left Macedonia, no one shared with me in this matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16 For even in Thessalonica on more than one occasion you sent something for my need. 17 It is not that I am seeking a gift. Rather, I seek the credit that abounds to your account. 18 For I have received all things, and I have plenty. I have all I need because I received from Epaphroditus your gifts, a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, very pleasing to God (Philippians 4:15-18).
Finally, Mary’s worship of our Lord in our text has something important to say to us about the ministry of women. This is a very touchy point, and much of this touchiness is driven by a culture big on self and on one’s rights. Many reject the New Testament teaching and practice regarding the role of women in public worship and ministry. Others seek to minimize or restrict the teaching of Scripture here. In the days of the New Testament, chauvinism was rampant. I do not wish to defend all that was done regarding women in those days. Our Lord made a point of breaking some of the cultural taboos regarding women (see John 4:27). Nevertheless, let me draw your attention to the fact that none of the truly biblical restrictions on the worship or service of Mary hinder her from knowing Jesus well or worshipping Him. Indeed, she does better at this than His disciples do, it seems! Mary seems to be more in tune with our Lord’s teaching than the men who follow Him. I do not think she would wish to protest her “role” as a woman who believes in Jesus Christ. In some ways, these “restrictions” may actually enhance her relationship with our Lord.
I am willing to go a step further in this regard. While I see certain restrictions placed on women so far as the public worship of the church is concerned (see 1 Corinthians 14:34-38), I find that none of these really hinders a woman’s ability to worship our Lord. This same principle applies to men. Let me illustrate. Paul instructs us that if someone is to speak in tongues in the church meeting, someone must be present who can interpret (1 Corinthians 14:27-28). If no interpreter is present, the one who feels inclined to speak in tongues is to remain silent. Women, as I understand Paul in 1 Corinthians, are not permitted to speak in tongues publicly, whether there is an interpreter present or not. But does this prevent a woman or a man from worshiping God, if they cannot speak in tongues publicly? Not at all! Paul says, “Let him speak to himself and to God” (1 Corinthians 14:28). The tongues-speaker is not prevented from worshipping God, even if he or she must keep silent. If our intent is truly to “worship God,” then we can do so inwardly and silently as well as outwardly and publicly. I do not know of one prohibition in the New Testament that hinders true worship. Here is something to ponder.
I am not at all shocked or surprised that Mary willingly sacrifices her most prized possession in her worship of the Lord. He is worthy of the best we can offer. In fact, the best we can offer is not worthy of Him. What causes me to wonder is how God could give His most precious possession to save unworthy creatures like us. He gave His own Son, the most precious gift of all, so that we might be saved. Our Lord gave His most precious gift—His priceless blood—so that He might forgive our sins and give us eternal life. That is the great wonder, which inspires worship like that of Mary. May it also inspire our worship as well. Have you received His gift, His precious gift the Lord Jesus Christ? To reject that gift—to reject the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary—is to spurn the most precious gift God has given to us.
209 “Broken and Spilled Out,” written by Gloria Gaither and Bill George. Copyright 1984 Gaither Music Co./Yellow House Music (ASCAP). As far as I know, this beautiful song is still available on tape and CD. It is possible that this song was written with regard to the anointing of Jesus by the “sinful woman” of Luke 7:36-48, which I believe to be a separate anointing. Nevertheless, the words of the song apply equally well to our text.
210 “Whether he came directly from Ephraim where the Fourth Gospel last located him (11:54) or whether he now came from Jericho (from the home of Zaccheus; cf. Luke 18:35—19:10), as seems possible, the Fourth Gospel does not say. If Jesus withdrew to Ephraim in the early part of February and remained there two or three weeks, there would be sufficient time for other journeys before Passover in April. Accordingly, there is certainly no conflict here between John and Luke.” William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, p. 171.
212 For a discussion about the apparent “contradiction” in the timing of this meal (the second day or the sixth day before the Passover), see William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, pp. 171-173.
213 Women would not be seated with the men. The women would be serving, or eating somewhere else, if present at all. I remember eating meals in Indian homes where the wife refused to be seated at the table for the entire meal. One woman told me that as long as her mother-in-law was alive, she never sat at the table!
214 “The essence of this ointment was derived from pure nard, which is an aromatic herb grown in the high pasture-land of the Himalayas, between Tibet and India” (Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 175, citing from M. S. and J. L. Miller, Encyclopedia of Bible Life, New York and London, 1944, pp. 204, 205).