Description / Transcription
Our text this morning comes from John chapter 12. John chapter 12, as we enter into really the second half of John’s Gospel, and the second half is given over almost entirely to the last week of Jesus’ life. So here we are, before the triumphal entry, approaching that last week, as we turn a corner and our faces are sent like a flint to Jerusalem and to Calvary.
We read, beginning at verse 1: “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for Him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples (he who was about to betray Him), said, “Why was this ointment 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, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
If you look in your Bible, you notice the heading before chapter 12, in the ESV it says “Mary Anoints Jesus at Bethany,” and that’s certainly accurate. That is what happens here. But if you notice the anointing itself only takes one verse, that’s verse 3, whereas the interaction with Judas takes five verses. I’m not saying that we should take the limelight off of Mary and put it on Judas, but clearly we are meant to read this story as a comparison between Mary and her gift and Judas and his thieving treachery.
We’ve already seen several times in John’s Gospel that Jesus causes division. We saw that last week. So far we’ve seen it more on a mass scale, in groups, that some believe that some don’t. Now we see this belief and this unbelief literally personified with two living, breathing human beings. And both Mary and Judas are going to cast a long shadow forward, because Mary’s actions hint at Jesus’ death in the next week, while Judas’ action hints at his betrayal to come. And to there is a literary framing and also a thematic framing, as we are supposed to see this comparison, and in some sense choose for ourselves this day. Not whom we will serve, but on which side we fall—Mary or Judas.
Now, that’s, that’s not a difficult intellectual question. You don’t have to be around the church very long to know that going on the side of Judas is not usually the right place to be. There’s, there’s hardly anyone more infamous in the whole Bible. We know Mary is the right one.
I looked this week on Fellowship One, our membership list. We have 31 different Marys in this congregation. You know how many Judases? [laughter] Zero. Now we do have some very fine Judes and Judahs, and we are thankful for them. No Judases. That name has been spoiled. 31 Marys.
So this is not a difficult question. And yet, if we are honest, and if I’m honest about my own heart, I wonder if I would have sympathized more with Judas than with Mary. What do you think about your heart? It’s easy to see in hindsight what Mary did was magnificent, and what Judas was about to do was horrendous. But put yourself in that moment, and there are more reasons than you might think that you and I would be drawn to sympathize with Judas’ position and not with Mary.
Think about it. Mary’s actions were a breach of normal propriety. This is not something that one does normally. Now it says “reclining at table.” Now if you had a picture of say the last supper and they’re all at a nice long table there and they’re all sitting around just like we would be, sort of facing the camera so you could, you know, DA Vinci can paint that… That’s not how they would have sat. They would have been reclining, they would have been on some sort of dining couches, beds, basically mats, on the floor and there would be a common meal in the middle and you have to sort of have them leaning like this with their feet fanning out in a radius from the center of the meal.
And so Mary quite literally probably snuck around there as Jesus’ feet are fanned out and His face is this way, laying on the ground, and anoints Him. The other gospels tell us that she also anointed His head; there is no discrepancy there, to anoint His head and then to pour out the rest of this pound of ointment over His body, and His feet, and wipes it with her hair. This is not something that is normally done. And she was likely single. There is no mention of her having a husband here. If she did, then he’s gone. And in the ancient world, it would have been thought very uncouth, almost scandalous, for a woman to let her hair down, certainly for a married woman it was considered to be a sign of loose morals. Even for a single woman it was probably somewhat scandalous that she would let her hair down. It was almost certainly kept up in some way. And pour out that ointment on Jesus’ feet, coming behind Him, and then with her own hair… There is no way to make this normal.
Can’t say “well, what does it really say in the Greek?” It’s weird, that’s what it says in the Greek. [laughter]
She is breaking all sorts of societal norms. I just look around this morning, including myself in this, we are people who probably don’t go out of our way to break societal norms. And I were there, I would have probably got a very sort of nervous feeling in my stomach, “what is going on with Mary?”
So let’s not be too quick to think “oh, Mary, we’re so proud of you.” No, we would have thought this was strange. And besides that, her behavior seems downright reckless. She breaks this very expensive ointment, a pound, and you can go down there in the footnote, a Roman pound was 11-1/2 ounces, this is still a lot of ointment, a lot of perfume. Judas rightly remarks that it could have been sold for 300 denarii. Now, you remember, what is a denarius? A denarius was a day’s wage. So if you take out the Sabbath days, you’re not getting paid for that, and various other holy days, about 300 working days in a year, they would work six days a week, this is a year’s wages. Let’s just put a round number on it: $50,000 bottle of perfume. This is ridiculously over the top. A year’s salary. Imported from north India from the roots of the exotic nard plant; that’s why it was so costly. Surely we would have thought “this is over the top.”
There is a perfume, I just googled “most expensive perfumes,” there’s a perfume and I’m going to guess you’re not wearing it this morning, Clive Christian No. 1 Imperial Majesty perfume. Here’s what it says: “This is a sophisticated scent for women who want a perfume that is both weightless and enchanting.” Woooooo. [laughter] “The scent is of a light Tahitian vanilla with a hint of rosa centifolia that is reminiscent of the goddess of love and beauty Aphrodite.” I didn’t know that we knew what Aphrodite smelled like. [laughter] “At the heart of the perfume is ylang-ylang and will give women a sense of wearing a perfect diamond necklace around their neck.” This perfume sells for $12,721 per ounce.
Surely if you were wearing that, now you feel quite awkward about it. [laughter] You would not advertise that. “Here’s what, this is what I got for Mother’s Day, this perfume Clive Christian No. 1 Imperial Majesty perfume because I’m worth it.” $12,000 per ounce. It’s ridiculous.
Mark’s Gospel says “she broke the alabaster jar. Now how did the perfume get into it? There must have been some sort of opening or a cork or something. Well, she breaks it: Complete, reckless abandon. She’s not pouring it out, she is splattering it all over Him. This is no turning back.
Perhaps we would have been there and we would have thought, “well, okay, maybe a little, but I mean, a little dab’ll do ya, Mary. We don’t need this whole thing.” [laughter] I’m Dutch, and so it is hard for me not to notice how much things cost, and on occasions when I’m at a very fancy restaurant, and those are the occasions when someone else is, is paying for me, [laughter] I sort of get heavy breathing just thinking about this. Did you know the french fries are $34? [laughter] Are they dipped in gold? Is this okay? Can we do this?
Imagine a man going off to war, and he is going to the fiercest battle and he is almost surely going to die, and as a gift on his way to the battlefield where he will surely die, you say “I’d like to give you a $50,000 diamond-studded watch, because it’s your time.” Who among us would not say “Okay, time out. What a waste. He’s gonna die.”
Now, Mary does not understand really what’s coming with Jesus, but she may know that there are threats on His life, that’s been building throughout John’s Gospel. She may have some sense of what she’s doing, even though she does not understand fully what she is doing to prepare Him for His burial, but $50,000 in one evening?
Now, we don’t even know where the ointment came from. Was it a family heirloom that had been passed on in inheritance? Was it her only means of livelihood? Perhaps she had a deceased husband and he left behind this ointment and she could sell off little by little and this is how she lived. Or is she just a very rich woman? We don’t know. But we do know that people do not normally blow a year’s salary in five minutes.
So we would have been there thinking “this is quite a breach of propriety.” Absolutely reckless.
And, let’s be honest, Judas’ objection seems morally defensible.
Now we have in the parentheses that he was about to betray Him and that he really wasn’t interested in the poor, he was a thief. Now this is all hindsight as John writes the story. People would have been familiar, they would have heard of this Judas, and he’s alerting him “yes, that Judas,” but of course as the disciples are living this out in the moment, they don’t know what’s in Judas’ heart. They don’t know he’s going to be the most infamous person who has ever lived. They know that he carries the moneybag, the common purse, where donations would have gone. We read in Luke 8 that there were various women that supported Jesus in His itinerant ministry. How did they go from town to town, and give up their fishing business for a season? They had wealthy patrons who gave to them, and Judas was in charge of the common purse. And we read here that he like to skim a bit off the top. We likely would have chimed in with Judas.
If you read the parallel account, and I think they are the same account, I think Luke has a sinful woman earlier anointing Jesus’ feet, I think that’s a different account, but in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, in Bethany, in Holy week or leading up to Holy week, we have a parallel account, and there both in Matthew and Mark we read that it wasn’t Judas who said something; Mark says “some there were indignant,” Matthew says “the disciples were indignant.”
It’s easy to reconcile the three gospels, you imagine. Calvin says that Judas was probably the lead voice, the one making this outcry, this outrage, and then some of the other crowd and the disciples chimed in and said “yeah, right, well, Judas has got a point.”
And I have to imagine that many of us would have chimed in. It’s all too easy for us to go along with critical comments, critical statements, especially if there seems to be a bit of momentum.
And so when Judas says, out loud, maybe murmuring under his breath, “Why couldn’t this have been sold and given to the poor?” I think many of us would have turned and would have nudged and said “Yeah, wow. Did you know that was nard? A whole pound of it. 300 denarii. Are you kidding me? We could have, we could have done a lot of good with this.”
He seems to make a morally defensible point. On sheet utilitarian economics. Now we read here that Judas didn’t actually care about the poor. The Bible is full of injunctions to care for the poor, so this passage is in no way excusing an indifference to the poor. And at the same time, we’ve all probably seen how the poor can be a sort of, you know, spiritual 2 x 4 across your head: “You went to the movies? What about the poor? You went on vacation? What about the poor? You got new carpet? What about the poor?”
Now whether everyone chiming in is sincere or not here at Bethany, Judas certainly isn’t. He says, “Listen, the poor,” you know there’s a certain type of devotion that if you say “the poor” you sound very pious. Judas won’t be the last person to use “the poor” as a shield for all sorts of avarice or pride or positioning or propaganda. It’s always a conspicuous mark of piety to talk very loftily about “the poor.” Not dismissing our obligations there in Scripture, but understanding that Judas is not the first, nor the last, to use “the poor” as a rhetorical device for his own advantages. “Oh, Jesus, what about the poor?” Like we might say “Well, somebody think of the children.”
Well, Jesus was thinking about Himself and Judas was thinking about himself. One had a right to think about Himself, and the other did not.
Mary is thinking about Jesus. And there is no doubt that Mary is on, to use a popular phrase, the right side of history. The perfume, we are told, filled the house. What a scent it must have been. And there’s, there’s something going on here, more than just a descriptor of what the house smelled like. No, this is to symbolize a kind of metaphor for Mary’s action, for what she has done. The house was filled with the aroma of her devotion. In other words, the fragrance will extend far beyond this event.
You ever walk into a house or a room and someone has very strong perfume or cologne? If it’s a cheap scent, then you sort of open up the windows. If it’s nice, you think, “Oh, it’s pleasant to be here.” There was a scent to Mary’s devotion that was inescapable.
And at the same time, in a spiritual way, there was a scent to Judas’ treachery, which stank.
What do you smell like? Some of us spend a lot of time trying to smell good. Some of us, let’s call them teenagers, maybe don’t. [laughter] We don’t want to stink. We have all sorts of perfumes and potions and lotions and deodorants and colognes and all sorts of things because the olfactory sense is just about the strongest sense that we have. It brings back memory and all sorts of things. You smell your mother’s chocolate chip cookies and a wave of euphoria comes over you. We want to smell good. We spend lots of effort, lots of effort of aisles of scents and sprays.
What about your spiritual aroma? When you leave the room, is left behind you wafting a scent of godliness? Or is something different? What do you smell like?
You know, we live in the day of platform building, social media, business, networking. You have to build your platform. There’s a lot of ways to build your platform. You can just do and say crazy things and you get a following. Your intellect, your humor, your shock, your outrage, your photos… There’s all sorts of ways and there are books and there are seminars on how to build your platform.
But have you ever noticed as a Christian perhaps the people that have the biggest impact in your life are those whose platform, so called, has been built upon their piety and their earnest devotion. Well, yes, smart people, yes, authors, all of that. God uses all of that. But you know what really matters? When you meet that person who has such an aroma of Jesus, you think That’s someone I need to listen to, that’s someone I want to follow. That person is so steeped in the Bible, that person, as they would later say about the disciples, they’ve been with Jesus.
Mark’s Gospel Jesus will say “wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” She would be renowned for the rest of human history for the very act which brought her censure in that moment. Her reckless devotion to Christ.
And here we are 2000 years later, and we still know of her. You want to leave a legacy? Get to know Jesus. You want to leave a mark on the world? Have the aroma of Christ. You want to make a difference in the lives of your children? Show them your extravagant devotion to Jesus. We have so many parents making foolish decisions. They want their kids to have all the best things and they, they sincerely want them to be with the Lord, and they will give all of their, all sorts of money and time and effort and sacrifice to get into the best schools and the best clubs and the best test scores and the best soccer from 2 years old and traveling all around the world at 5…. You really want to make a difference in your children’s lives, and it’s not foolproof, we get it. Be a mom, be a dad with extravagant devotion to Jesus. And then whatever dumb things you do, whatever you gave them or didn’t give them, at least if their honest, they’ll be able to look back and say “I know that mom and dad loved me and loved Jesus.”
Here we are 2000 years later talking about this woman. And what was her platform? It was a waste, a waste of a year’s salary, literally at the feet of Jesus. Why? Why is see the example? Because, quite simply, she knew what Jesus was worth. She came prepared for the task. Now this is likely this is not at their house. In fact, the other gospels give the name of a different person whose house it’s at. It’s not at Lazarus’ house, or Mary or Martha. If it was at Lazarus’ house, we wouldn’t have had to mention that he was there reclining with Jesus, that would have been obvious. No, this is somewhere else, and so Mary has come prepared. She has had it in her mind to do this. She brings with her, do you think she brought it every so gingerly, knowing this is maybe her most, her most costly earthly possession, worth a year’s wages, this perfume, and she brings it there. “Tonight, tonight, I’m going to break this open.” Her actions communicated what she did not have the words or the opportunity to express.
If you look in your Bible at the ESV headings, you know right before this section “The Plot to Kill Jesus.” Right after this section, “The Plot to Kill Lazarus.” Sandwiched between “kill Jesus” and “kill Lazarus,” here is a woman who would rather serve than destroy.
Understand normal circumstances, Judas may have had a point. But these were not normal circumstances, and Jesus was not a normal man. And so Mary intuits “This may be my last time with Jesus. Now is the time to make my adoration known.” Whereas Judas intuits “This messianic mission, so called, is heading for failure and now may be the last time to get what I can.”
So Mary thinks “Will I have another opportunity to show how much I love Him?” and Judas thinks “Will I have another opportunity to get something from this Jesus?”
The comparison with Judas is tragic and intentional. Many of you will know the rest of your Bibles to know that Judas will betray Jesus for how much money? Thirty pieces of silver. We don’t know exactly what kind of silver it was. It was almost certainly not, you know, shards of silver, but the coins were made of silver, so it was some type of coin. And many scholars think that it was just another way of describing the denarius, which was the most common silver coin. And if that’s the case, you can do the math, 30, 300. Judas will sell out his Master and his Messiah for one-tenth the price of what Mary poured out in one evening.
We betray Jesus, and we never get a good return on that investment. Judas, we’re meant to see, made a terrible bargain. If it really was 30 pieces of silver, meaning the silver denarius, it’s a month’s wages. Not nothing, but hardly a princely sum.
And you think, though, how much less it takes for some of us to sell out Jesus. How often do we see people, even pastors, sell out Jesus for 30 minutes of sex? No one would make that bargain after a reasonable cost/benefit analysis, but sin makes us stupid. We sell him out for a good reputation at the office, for people that we don’t even like. We sell Him out for the approval of teenagers and classmates that we won’t see again. We sell Him out for a lot less than 30 pieces of silver.
Judas was thinking he could play the odds and maybe he could get something for nothing. Mary was interested in giving everything for someone. But she’s not thinking about decorum. She’s not thinking about frugality. She’s not thinking about utilitarian economics. She’s not thinking “How can I make this valuable spikenard last?” She is ready to give all of it away and pour it out on Jesus, because she alone, it seems at this point, knows what Jesus is worth.
We really don’t know what things are worth. I read an interesting book several years ago by William Poundstone called Priceless. It’s all about how things get their price, and the main thesis is that we really have no idea what anything is really worth. Of course, there is supply and demand, but even then, it’s about all the tricks of the trade at restaurants and car dealers and wherever else where people are trying to sell you something for a higher price. And it turns out that we are highly suggestible. Than anchoring affects how we view the worth of something. They tell the story in there that they would ask somebody the question “Is the annual temperature in San Francisco greater than or less than 500 degrees?” Now, it’s obviously less than. And then they would say “What do you think that that temperature is?” and they might say “50 degrees.” If you ask the question “Is the temperature in San Francisco greater or less than 5000 degrees?” well, they’d obviously say “less than,” and then when they say “What is they average temperature?” it goes up, their guess, just saying “Is it less than 5000?” pulls you up, and so people selling things do that all the time.
They tell in the book a Broadway producer explained that when they put orchestra and mezzanine seats very cheap, thinking that they weren’t the best seats in the house, you know what? No one would buy them. How did you get people to buy those mezzanine seats? You make them more expensive, because people say “Look how much! Those must be really good seats.” So he figures that you can sell them for $400 and you’ll sell more than you do for $150. People don’t know what things are worth.
Remember years ago when they had that famous lawsuit against McDonald’s for somebody who spilled some scalding hot coffee in their lap and I don’t know what the, the damages were, but it was astronomical. So a professor did a study and he presented to students differing amounts, and he presented this made-up case. He said that a woman had gotten a debilitating cancer by, by taking some prescriptions pills that she was on and she was in constant pain and suffering, and so they, they said “Well, how much do you think she should be awarded for this obvious injustice?” and they presented several different scenarios to different students. And in one, the plaintiff was asking for $100 in damages, and on average they awarded her $990. In another, she was demanding $20,000 and they gave her $36,000. In another she was demanding $5 million, and the jury awarded $440,000. And in another she was demanding a ludicrous $1 billion in damages, and the mock jury gave her $490,000.
The moral of the story is the more you ask for, the more you get. People had no idea what is exquisite suffering worth. If you say you want $100, it must not be worth much more than that. We don’t know how much things cost really. We don’t know what things are worth except we get accustomed to what the sticker says.
Do we know what Jesus is worth? Mary did. She understood what many of us don’t. That true worship is never a waste.
You ever think about it? Is there anything that seems so irrelevant as worship? Sometimes, it was a bit of a fad maybe 10 years ago, you would have churches saying “You know what we’re going to do is we’re gonna cancel our worship services once a week and we’re going to go out and we’re gonna make those service Sundays. Not about us, but about the community, and we’re going to cancel church and we’re going to go out. We’re going to serve in our communities those Sundays.” Well, kinda nice not to have a sermon to prepare that Sunday, I guess. And their hearts were probably in the right place.
But what a misguided notion about what we are doing here on Sunday morning, as if the gathering was ultimately for us. Of course we should help people. Of course we want to be salt and light in the community. But is it selfish that you would go to a worship service? Listen, friends, we are not here to be entertained. If you come here each Sunday hoping to be entertained, one, probably disappointed, two, you’re not coming for the right reasons. We’re not here to give musicians something to do. We’re not here to give preachers something to do. We’re not here to keep the kids out of trouble. We’re not here to raise money. We’re not here, I hope, out of mere habit. We’re not even here, ultimately, to evangelize. We are here because Jesus is worthy. And so we come and we sing and we preach and we listen and we pray.
Do you know what He’s worth?
The disciples saw the anointing, and they thought “That’s not strategic, that’s not smart, that’s not compassionate, that’s not modest, that’s not appropriate.” Jesus saw the very same thing and thought “This woman will never be forgotten.” How beautiful.
And of all the shocking things in this story, don’t miss the most shocking of all. Yes, the nard is shocking. Yes, the year’s wages on someone’s dirty feet is absolutely reckless, it seems. But the most shocking thing in this story is the way Jesus talks about Himself. He seems to think that He’s the number one priority in the world. He basically says “Leave her alone, she’s getting ready for my burial. You’ll always have poor people, you won’t always have me.” Who, who talks like that?
You would be right to want the elders to do a pretty caustic review of that’s how I was talking. Poor people? We’ve got a lot of poor people. There’s only one me. That doesn’t sound quite right.
Carson says in his commentary Jesus must be either very ill or unspeakably arrogant, or God.
There is a 12-seat restaurant in Spain that charges $2000 per person for a 20-course meal. So if you heard that the deacons, as just a sort of love offering, decided to take me and my family, there’s a lot of us, [laughter], so what’s that? 10 of us, yeah, even the baby we’re paying for, $20,000, and you said yeah, we just want a little love gift and we just, they took the DeYoung’s out to this restaurant, paid for all of them three nights in a row, and you were all up in arms and I just said “chill out, I’m worth it.” [laughter] No, I wouldn’t be worth it anymore. [laughter] I’d be looking for a new job. You’d be looking for new deacons. Because I’m not. That’s ridiculous. You don’t spend that kind of money.
But Jesus says what she’s doing makes a lot of sense to me. The problem was not there concern for the poor. Their problem was their valuation of the poor relative to Jesus. If they had known the moment they were in and the person in front of them, they would not have thought it wise to elevate the good of the poor above the adoration of Jesus. If they had understood the confession which Peter made, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” they would not have been embarrassed by such extravagance.
Too many of us have a respectable religion, a devotion to Christ that makes sense to the world. Does your devotion to Jesus make sense to non-Christians? It shouldn’t. Being a part of a community makes sense. Church may even make sense. It may be a good thing. Giving your kids morals makes sense. But radical, reckless adoration and extravagant devotion to Jesus does not make sense.
One commentator says the world has never had a problem with religion in moderation. It has no problem with too much wealth or power or sex or influence, but it has a problem with too much religion. You can be any kind of religious you want, as long as you are not overly religious. You can believe Jesus is your God, so long as you don’t believe He is the God. You can come home from school a little more serious about Christianity so long as this Jesus has not become your all-consuming passion in life.
And so I ask the question again: Who has rightly understood this rabbi’s worth? His disciples, or this unkempt, disheveled woman with no sense of propriety or proportion? Well, it’s her.
And it’s such an amazing juxtaposition of what is coming in the Gospel that this man who believes He is worth a $50,000 cologne bath is the same man who in just a few days is going to die abandoned, forsaken, and alone. The same Jesus. The Word made flesh. The Son of Man and the Son of God. This precious one went to the cross for very un-precious sinners.
You cannot love Jesus too much. You cannot follow Him too closely. You cannot adore Him too intensely. Every other man, woman, or child on the planet, dead or alive, will become an idol for you, but not this one. You cannot devote yourself too Him too fully and too completely.
What if you and I were remembered for nothing else in all of our lives except for our extravagant reckless devotion to Jesus? Would that be enough? Is that what you want?
Let’s pray. Our Father in heaven, it’s likely true that most of us in this room know a lot of right answers about Jesus, about who He is, about what He did. We know a lot of very important doctrines and we should, we must. But if we are honest, we may now know His worth like Mary did. There may be more of the cynical, calculating, don’t-rock-the-boat Judas in us than we like to admit. But on our best days, O Lord, in those Spirit-filled moments, it is our prayer over and over, that you would give us Jesus. That we would say goodbye to goods and kindred and you would give us Jesus. Whatever else may come, whatever else you have in store, whatever else the world may give us in prosperity or adversity, but that you would give us Jesus. May that be our prayer, now and forever, from our hearts. In His name we pray. Amen.