The Fragrance of Love and Devotion
Grace United Methodist Church
March 21, 2010
John 12: 1-8 (NIV)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then 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.
4But 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.” 6He 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. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
9Meanwhile 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. 10So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.
Are there some Clue fans out there? Anyone who’s ever played the game, or perhaps watched the movie? I grew up playing Clue. I loved Clue because I was good at it. Well, either I was good at it, or my parents held back a little bit and “let me win.” But I don’t think that was the case. At any rate, those of you who have played Clue or watched the movie are familiar with the cast of characters; Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Mrs. White, and the others. And you surely know the personality traits of each character. To some extent, it is knowing these traits that makes Clue more interesting—a colorful cast of characters gathered for a party in a lavish mansion. And this is nearly precisely what we have in this account from John—a colorful cast of characters gathered in a home for a great dinner in Jesus’ honor. As we explore the interactions of the characters, we find a great lesson in extravagant love and true discipleship.
So, who are the players? Of course there is Jesus, who comes into Bethany where Lazarus lives. As you remember, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead earlier in his ministry. Like two old friends who fellowship over the lunch table when one is in town for a visit, Jesus joins his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, for dinner. While Martha prepares the meal, Lazarus keeps Jesus and the other company entertained. Then Mary enters, and in an unexpectedly extravagant act, she changes the whole course of the evening. As the sweet-smelling perfume permeates the party, Judas is angered, and he speaks out against Mary’s extravagance. I think it’s fair to say that each of these people loved Jesus, but it was expressed in different ways. The great question for us is how do we express our love of Jesus?
I think we would all like to claim that we love Jesus deeply and fully, but do we really love Jesus as Mary did? Or do we love Jesus as Martha did; in practical ways, expressing our devotion through the work of our hands, the everyday acts of servitude in our lives? Or are we more like Judas, seemingly diligent in our care of our appointed tasks? We might be quick to dismiss Judas, to sneer in his general direction. We know he is the traitor, and John has reminded us of this. And we are certainly shocked by the boldness of Judas’ question. Yet, when we look at Jesus’ ministry, we see that this is not a bad question. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas asks. Judas may have been a thief and traitor, he may have embezzled money from the common treasury, he may have had other motives besides the high moral road he seems to project, and he probably didn’t give a hoot about the poor. But isn’t he basically right? I mean, he was asking a question that stood at the heart of Jesus’ ministry; helping the poor. Couldn’t the pound of expensive perfume dumped on Jesus’ feet have been used for a better purpose? Why hadn’t Mary chosen a less expensive oil? Couldn’t the money have been used to buy food for a starving family or to improve the housing in Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ neighborhood? Mary’s extravagance was worth a year’s wages! Translate that to today’s economy and, conservatively, we’re talking about $30,000 of perfume poured onto Jesus’ feet.
And so we come to Mary, the center of this great drama. Why did Mary do such a thing, pouring that expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet? Did Jesus’ feet smell that bad? Jesus says “it was intended that she would save this perfume for the day of my burial.” Doesn’t Mary go a little overboard on funeral expenses? It’s like buying the most expensive casket possible only to have it buried in the ground. And that’s essentially what happens to this perfume. It’s wasted. A year’s salary could have helped a lot of needy people. That’s Judas’ point, even if he was a thief! And what about Mary, Martha and Lazarus? They lived in Bethany, which translated means, “house of the poor.” They couldn’t exactly afford to do this! Mary was giving Jesus everything she had; much more than she could afford!
Have you ever given everything you had in love? Your most prized-possession; have you ever given that up?
In his short story, The Gift of the Magi. O. Henry tells of a young couple, Della and Jim. Della and Jim were very poor, but they were very much in love. Each had one unique possession that was the pride and joy of their lives. Della’s hair was her glory. When she let it down it almost served as a robe. Jim had a gold watch which had come to him from his father and was his pride. It was the day before Christmas, and Della had exactly one dollar eighty-seven cents to buy Jim a present. Wanting to give Jim the best that she could, Della went out and sold her hair for 20 dollars. With the money, she bought a platinum fob for Jim’s precious watch. When Jim came home that night and saw Della’s shorn head, he stopped as if stupefied. It was not that he did not like it or love her any less; for she was lovelier than ever. Slowly he handed her his gift; it was a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her lovely hair—and he had sold his gold watch to buy them. Each had given the other all there was to give. They didn’t need to go to such lengths to give one another these gifts, but real love cannot think of any other way to give. When we give out of the depths of love and gratitude, we cannot help but be extravagant in our giving.
Such love is what we see being expressed by Mary as she kneels as Jesus’ feet. Of all the people milling about the house on that evening, Mary was the one who above all loved Jesus. Like Della and Jim, Mary took the most precious thing she possessed and spent it all on Jesus. But it was even more than that. Certainly, Mary’s gift was lavishly extravagant, but her action itself was even more representative of her great love for Jesus. You see, Mary defied cultural expectations; she defied the sneers of the people gathered for dinner with Jesus; Mary thought only of her gratitude to Jesus, her love for her Savior. You see in Palestine then, as is much the case now, no respectable woman would ever appear in public with her hair unbound. For a woman to have her hair down as Mary did, was roughly the equivalent of a woman at a modern-day dinner party hiking up a long skirt to the top of her thighs. It was just not done! The surest sign of an immoral woman was one seen in public with her hair down. But Mary never even thought of that. Mary loved Jesus so much that it was nothing to her what others thought. Mary loved Jesus so much that it mattered not the price of the perfume she poured generously over Jesus’ feet.
And what can you do when you receive such a gift but love the giver more; as surely Della and Jim loved each other more; as surely Jesus loved Mary even more. So in love and compassion, Jesus accepted Mary’s great gift. But what does it mean that Jesus accepted this lavish gift? Did Judas’ question really get at the heart of a problem in Mary’s action? Yet when Judas starts to nag, Jesus steps in and says, “Leave her alone.” And then he says something that sounds just a bit confusing. Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” What does Jesus mean by that? Is he saying that the poor can go fly a kite? Is he telling us it’s okay to keep all our money and spend it on ourselves? What does Jesus mean by these words? We might ask, “Well, if Jesus accepted a $30,000 foot washing, would he also drive a Ferrari? Would he vacation at the resorts of the French Riviera? Would he stay at the Hyatt Regency? Would he always choose Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream?” But to ask these questions is to miss the point. The record is clear that Jesus was a friend of the poor. The evidence is so overwhelming in the Gospels that we hardly need to mention this friendship.
If we were to go back to Chapter 11 of John we would be greeted by the same set of characters, only the situation was much different. Lazarus, who is here “reclining at the table with” Jesus and enjoying a great meal, had been dead not so long before. And Mary and Martha had been beside themselves with grief and anger. But then, even in the midst of his own grief, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Is it any wonder that Mary and Martha, who had been long-time friends of Jesus, now loved him more than ever? Is it any wonder that Martha served Jesus dinner and that Mary poured about $30,000 dollars worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet? Is it really any wonder they loved Jesus that much? Through Mary’s act, the stench of death that once lingered over this household has been replaced by the fragrance of love and devotion!
Mary’s extravagant love stands at the heart of this passage. Maybe Judas was right. Maybe Mary overdid it. Perhaps she got carried away. But we must remember this is a dinner where two grateful sisters give thanks to Jesus for bringing back to life a once-dead brother! How could Jesus have done anything except receive the gifts of these two grateful sisters who brought him presents from their once-broken hearts? For, in all honesty, the gifts were more for Mary and Martha’s benefit than for Jesus. Jesus didn’t need their gifts, but they needed to give them. Mary’s act reveals the love that is at the center of true discipleship because discipleship is defined by acts of love and one’s response to Jesus.
Mary and Martha had to express how much they loved Christ. They had to let Jesus know that they loved him with all that they had and all that they were! And we have this same need as well. If we don’t go through with it, we will miss out on life itself! We must first love Jesus before we can fully and truly love others, even ourselves! We must first love Jesus before we can fully love and serve the poor. As we look closely at this story, we can see that it’s really not about money at all. And perhaps this is why Judas just doesn’t seem to get it! At this dinner party, we learn about what it is to truly love and serve Christ.
There is a real connection between honoring and serving Jesus; between loving God and loving neighbor. This passage of Scripture is about gratitude and recognizing what Jesus has done in our lives! And it’s about giving back to him extravagantly as disciples, serving and loving the world around us! And real Christian discipleship, like Mary’s, will “fill” this community and this world with a certain fragrance. It’s the fragrance of love, of salvation, of devotion, transformation and gratitude for the one who has loved us so lavishly and in such a costly, costly way! A year’s wages can’t touch it! Jesus brought life into Mary’s world of death and she was so grateful! Has Jesus brought life into your world of death? On a Friday afternoon, so many years ago, Jesus offered his own costly and extravagant gift. May our gratitude in love match the lavishness of his great gift. Pray that we will not “underdo” it as we seek to honor him with our lives!
 William Barclay, The Daily Bible Study Series: The Gospel of John, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), 109-110.