At the very beginning of the Passion Week, Jesus enjoyed a private moment with his friends and disciples. Jesus returned to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem, and reclined at the table with Lazarus, recently raised from the dead. Getting ready to eat a meal together we have a man who just walked out of a grave and a man on his way there. But during this time, something both shocking and prophetic happened. Mary opened a bottle of extremely expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with it. Her act, which is an act of worship, as shocking and extravagant as it is, is something we need to learn to do.
There is a lot to learn about the act, the ointment and the reaction. The act is unusual, extravagant and even uncomfortable. Feet were usually washed by servants and not the lady of the house, and they were always washed with water, not perfume. Too add to the uniqueness of the moment, Mary lets her hair down in a display reserved for the intimacy of husband and wife and wipes his feet clean. With all that it is, Mary’s act is one of service, submission and ultimately, of worship.
Even the perfume tells us something. That type of perfume would have been rare in her world, as it (“spikenard”) comes from a plant that grows in the mountains in India. And Judas is good enough to tell us it is worth about “300 denari,” or what would have been an entire year’s wages for the average worker of the day. The perfume is rare, likely a family heirloom, and very expensive.
In this act of worship, Mary literally pours out the best of what she has on Jesus. In her act we see that there is nothing not worth “pouring out” on Jesus. The perfume became practically useless as it soaked into the ground, but it served the greater purpose of anointing Jesus’ feet as an act of worship for a Messiah on his way to the cross (12:7).
The act and the ointment tell us something. The complaint is probably even more instructive. At this moment of extravagant worship and service Judas breaks in with a complaint wrapped in pious practicality. The perfume was rare and expensive and now soaking into the dirt. Imagine the number of meals we could have purchased for the poor! But in retrospect, John makes sure we know that Judas was not being genuine – his was a corrupt heart that cared nothing for the poor, and would have liked the sound of 300 coins ringing in the money bag.
Because of the corruption of his heart, Judas mistook an extravagant yet appropriate act of worship for a waste. Without putting it into these exact words he responded to Mary by saying, “Jesus may be worth a lot, but not that much!” For Mary, there was nothing else she could have done with the perfume that was worth more than pouring it out on Jesus. For Judas, worshiping Jesus was a thing to be limited; there were things and objects in this world worth more than he was.
Here is where the story becomes hard for us: Mary is the example, Judas is me. I need to learn to worship Jesus the way Mary did – nothing in my life has greater value than when I pour it out on him. But more likely than not, my day-to-day decisions betray a different point of view. Have I learned to squeeze worship into the other “nice” things I do? Are there things in my life too valuable to me to pour them out on Jesus?
If Mary had decided to save the perfume for herself, this moment would never have come to us. But because she worshiped Jesus with it her act has served as an example for centuries of believers. If I keep my best for me and their normally “practical” purposes, nothing of eternal value may come of them. But if I pour them out in extravagant acts of worship, what can God make of them?