1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 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. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well,11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
If you think about it, Christians really don’t know what to do with lavish acts of uncomfortable devotion. Of course, we all believe in worship and we all believe in acts of devotion (whether or not we ourselves are faithful in either area). But by lavish acts of uncomfortable devotion I mean those acts of worship or service or sacrifice that violate or go beyond the unspoken boundaries and assumptions of a particular Christian community.
You know what I mean. Every church has a personality and that personality includes unspoken rules. Those rules don’t usually contradict our stated principles but they do nuance or qualify our principles. The unspoken rules are the rules that whisper to the offender (for they rarely voice themselves aloud), “We don’t do that here.” If pressed, the keepers of these rules would likely admit that they are not rules concerning sin, they are rules concerning what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
For instance, I’ve grown up and spent my life and vocation in largely white middle to upper-middle class North American congregations. The type of church I was raised in and the churches I have pastored have all had unspoken rules of etiquette. They weren’t necessarily bad. They just reflected the customs of the congregation. So, for instance, a lot of these kinds of churches are ok with the occasional “Amen!” Preachers in these churches will even ask for them. But there is also a sense of moderation, of “too much of a good thing is a bad thing.” Again, nobody says this, but, honestly, if somebody “Amened” every single statement in a church like this, people would begin to whisper.
The churches I’ve grown up in and worked in have a kind of tolerance for things like hand raising. In fact, most of us appreciate the freedom of the brother or sister next to us to raise their hands in praise and adoration. Now, in Baptist churches, as far as I can tell, hand raising is acceptable if it’s kept around 10% or less: if 10% or less of the assembled congregation raises their hands, that is ok. You get around 30% or more and people will start whispering charges of “Pentecostalism”!
I do hope you see that my tongue is planted firmly in my cheek as I say this…but only a little. The fact is, most of us believe people should worship the Lord, but we would prefer it be done within the acceptable parameters of “the rules.” This is why churches love new Christians while being simultaneously very uncomfortable with new Christians. New Christians, after all, usually only know that they really love Jesus. They come into the church with fire and devotion for the Savior who saved them. They haven’t been around long enough to learn the “do’s” and the “don’ts” of so-called “respectable” Christianity. So we nervously “Amen” the fiery devotion of new Christians while seemingly hoping that in time their acts of enthusiasm will temper and conform to the all-important “way things are” or the even-more-important “way we do things here.”
Let me give you an example. In his amazing book Crazy Love, Francis Chan tells of going on a mission trip to Africa. While there he became convicted over the poverty of that land and, in contrast, over his own great wealth. After returning home from Africa, he and his wife discussed the matter and decided that they would sell their house, buy a smaller house and give the money to the poor.
Now, this is the kind of thing we like, right? Who can argue with this? But, honestly, is it not the case that we prefer this kind of thing from a distance?
Chan discovered this was so. He says in his book that when he and his wife decided to sell their house and buy a smaller one, giving the money to the poor, the greatest opposition they faced came from within the church. It was Christians, not lost people, who told him that it was an extremist thing to do, that it was fanatical, that it was potentially unhealthy. “I quickly found,” writes Chan, “that the American church is a difficult place to fit in if you want to live out New Testament Christianity.”
This is a tragic indictment of the church’s inability to handle true, lavish devotion and worship. Of course, this kind of blindness and elevation of our unspoken rules did not begin with us. It goes back to the first century. In particular with see this dynamic in the life of Mary of Bethany as she displays an amazing act of radical devotion.
Let us consider this act and the reactions to it. It will be helpful to consider it from three different perspectives: Mary’s, Judas Iscariot’s and Jesus’.
I. Mary’s Perspective: Reckless, Lavish Devotion and Worship
In John 11 we witnessed Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It was a moving display of divine love and power that forever changed Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ little family. Of course, it literally changed Lazarus! So how do you say, “Thank you,” to something like that? How do you respond?
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.
They responded by having a dinner for Jesus. It was an act of kindness, to be sure, but undoubtedly this family wished that they could do more to show how thankful they really were. Certainly Mary felt this way, as she revealed in an act of worship and devotion that grabbed the attention of all in the room that evening and that has gripped the attention of all who have read the account of this act for the last two thousand years.
3 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.
Here we see a sincere display of reckless, lavish devotion and worship. It is an act that makes no sense if we define “sense” as a safe and respectable keeping of the rules. It was reckless in the sense that it was scandalously expensive and, in some reckonings, wasteful. It was lavish. It was, we might even say, extreme.
But it was more than these things. It was an act of devotion, an act of worship. Here is where this reckless, extreme act receives its authentication: it came from the sincere overflow of a heart that was touched by holy fire. It was a shocking display of gratitude in the face of an overwhelming display of grace.
When Mary poured this pound of ointment upon the feet of Jesus, she was worshiping. But there is likely more happening here. There is likely also an element of repentance. You will recall in John 11 that the strongest censure Jesus received after His delay to come to the deathbed of sick and dying Lazarus was from Mary:
30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
You may recall that Martha had said much the same with the exception that she offered also a positive note of faith acknowledging that Jesus could make things right even though her brother Lazarus had died in Jesus’ absence. But not Mary. Mary – silent, stoic, reflecting – had run to Jesus with no verbalization of faith, no acknowledgment that He could make things right. Instead, she had come and let the full extent of her heartbroken confusion loose in the tear-stained cry, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Of course, she soon came to see the shortsightedness of her disappointment as she witnessed the amazing miracle of the raising of her brother Lazarus from the dead.
It takes a lot for quiet people to express themselves. It likely takes even more when their expressions misfire and are shown to be unfortunately shortsighted and ultimately unnecessary.
How did Mary feel now? Had she tried to broach the subject of her own embarrassment with Jesus? Was she hoping to find some opportunity at dinner to apologize? Or was she sitting in the shadows, on the edges of the dinner party, her eyes averted from the eyes of her Lord? Did she rise, silently, and slip from the room? Did she then return, moving into the room with hushed reverence, almost ghost-like, the container of ointment balanced in her mildly-trembling hand?
Maybe this is how it played out. Either way, Mary comes and says with her actions what she struggled to say with her own words. In anointing Jesus, she was saying, in effect, “I now see, Jesus. I now see who You really are. I now understand Your power and Your love and Your amazing grace. I worship You Jesus. I worship You with all that I am in recognition of all that You are.” So Mary worships Jesus. It is lavish and reckless and extreme…and unbelievably beautiful.
This is how worship happens. It does not have to be manipulated or manufactured. It is not contrived or plastic. Worship is nothing more than the natural behavior of a heart set free from the shackles of itself by a divine grace and love and power that staggers and stupefies. Worship is the overflow of a heart that was blind but that has now come to see the truthfulness of the gospel and that now wishes to celebrate that same gospel in outward manifestations of praise and adoration.
What Mary does is shocking. What Mary does is natural. It may seem otherwise, but to a life that has seen the glory of God unveiled in the person and work of Jesus, it is the most natural thing in the world.
This is Mary’s perspective. Mary, however, is not alone in the room. She receives a reaction from one of the party members seated around the table. His name is Judas Iscariot.
II. Judas’ Perspective: An Earthly, Self-Righteous Critique
Just as Mary acted in accord with the true state of her heart, so Judas did the same.
4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”
Judas represents the earthly, self-righteous perspective on reckless, lavish acts of devotion and worship. From a certain vantage point, of course, his words make a kind of sense: “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”
Now, let us be painfully honest. There is a part of us that applauds the logic and frugality of Judas’ words, no? To be sure, the statement was factually correct. The ointment could have been sold for three hundred denarii and the moneycould have been given to the poor. In many churches, Judas’ words would not only have resulted in applause, they would also have resulted in a nomination for the Finance Committee.
As I say, this makes a kind of sense from an earthly perspective. But, then, we’ve already seen that Mary is not operating from an earthly perspective, is she? She has been caught up in the heavenlies in worship and adoration and her actions reflect a different set of values. Her actions reflect the values and the economy of the Kingdom of God. She has given all she has to the King, with no thought of the cost.
Mary is thinking of the Kingdom of God. Judas is thinking like the kingdoms of the world. But, of course, there’s more happening here too, is there not? Judas is not really being frugal. He is not really offering a mini-course in stewardship. In fact, he is being a self-righteous hypocrite.
6 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.
Verse 6 is extremely important for it reveals how Mary’s act of worship and devotion could be objected to so strongly by Judas. The reality was that Mary’s heart was redeemed and regenerated. Judas’ heart was lost and unregenerate. His lostness is revealed in his thievery and dishonesty. Verse 6 is simply a commentary on Judas’ spiritual condition.
Mary was saved. Judas was lost. This is why Mary saw worship in her act and Judas saw irresponsibility. This is also why some people understand acts of lavish worship and devotion and others hate it. The unredeemed heart cannot help but have an unredeemed perspective. The redeemed heart cannot help but have a redeemed perspective.
Here we have one act and, thus far, two perspectives, both being shaped by the condition of the place of their own origin: the human heart.
How you view worship will reveal a lot about your standing with God. The closer we draw to God the more beautiful worship appears. The further we drift from God the more frivolous and unnecessary it appears. Your heart will dictate your perspective.
The most important perspective has yet to be seen. Jesus, of course, is also in the room.
III. The Divine Perspective: Acceptance and Greater Revelation
We must value Jesus’ perspective for Jesus’ perspective is the divine perspective. Jesus’ perspective is God’s perspective, and Jesus’ perspective in this situation is illuminating indeed.
We begin in verse 7 with Jesus’ blunt rebuke of Judas’ earthly rejection of Mary’s reckless, lavish devotion and worship. Three words stand out: “Leave..her…alone…”
These are beautiful words. Jesus steps between the worshiping Mary and the rebuking Judas and backs Judas down: “Leave her alone…”
Let us remember these three words when we are tempted to allow the unspoken rules and assumptions of our church to squelch sincere and genuine devotion to Christ. I am not offering here a defense of any and every action. The fact that Mary’s devotion is disruptive to this dinner party does not validate disruption as a general principle. It does, however, caution us against viewing worship through earthly eyes, against judging everybody and everything that does not accord with the unspoken dictates of our own conception of decorum as faulty or necessarily wrong.
Jesus continues and reveals even more:
7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Judas was undoubtedly surprised by Jesus’ rebuke. Mary was undoubtedly also surprised by Jesus’ revelation of the true nature of her lavish, reckless worship and devotion.
“Leave her alone,” He says, “so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” This raises a fascinating question: did Mary know that she was anointing Jesus for His burial? Did Mary know the full import of her actions?
I think not. There is something beautiful in this fact too. The beauty lies in the fact that when we worship, we inevitably are doing more than realize. Furthermore, worship becomes the door through which Christ Jesus offers further revelation of Himself. Mary’s act uncovers greater divine truths than she and the others possessed before her act. Jesus springboards off of her devotion to reveal the reality of His coming passion, of His death and resurrection. The important point to realize here is that Mary would not have received this further truth had she not come to Christ in worship and praise and adoration.
Let us not misunderstand: worship does not manipulate God to do more. Rather, worship reveals that a heart has been sufficiently enlarged to receive more.
God always gives more of Himself to the open hands and open hearts of His people. Judas’ heart was small and hard and selfish and self-serving, so much so that the only thing his heart could receive was Jesus’ rebuke: “Leave her alone!”
But Mary’s heart…ah, Mary’s heart! Mary’s heart was expanding and enlarging. The events at the tomb of her brother Lazarus had broken the shackles of what she previously called reality. The presence of her recently-dead brother at this dinner party meant that anything was possible with Jesus. It also meant that God was here in this Christ, working and bringing into the limited human sphere of reality a shocking, divine counter-reality that redefined everything Mary thought she knew.
Yes, Mary’s heart was enlarging and expanding, and God graciously poured more of Himself into the new space.
Church, He will do the same with us. He will do the same if we come, like Mary, and offer lavish, reckless, sincere, faithful, holy worship to the Lord Jesus. God will give us more of Himself, more of Christ, if we will dare to bend hearts and knees and minds before His majestic person and pour the totality of our lives upon His feet.
Let us be like Mary: brave, blessedly undignified and scandalously devoted to her King Jesus and His glorious gospel.
Let us be like Mary.
Let us come like Mary and worship at the feet of Jesus.