Many of you are probably familiar with O. Henry’s love story called The Gift of the Magi. The story is about a young couple named Della and Jim who are very much in love with each other, but they are very poor. Each of them has one precious possession. Della has beautiful long hair. Jim has a gold watch that he received from his father. On the day before Christmas Della had exactly one dollar and eighty-seven cents with which to buy Jim a present. She wanted to express her love for him, so she sold her beautiful hair for twenty dollars. She used the money to buy a platinum fob for Jim’s watch.
When Jim came home that night and saw Della’s shaved head, he was speechless. He handed her a gift-a set of expensive tortoise-shell combs with jeweled edges for her hair. He sold his watch to buy them for her. Each had given the other the most precious gift he or she had to give. This is a story of love so deep and so extravagant that it does not hold back or count the cost.
The passage we heard from John’s Gospel is a story of a similar outpouring of extravagant love. Mary’s act reminds us that we are to give God our very best. It may be something simple and ordinary, but our efforts are our gift to Jesus. Do we have Mary’s sense of gratitude and love for Jesus? Do we really appreciate what He has done for us, what He has given us, and the promise of a glorious future because of Him?
Mary was humble and teachable She was the sister who sat at Jesus’ feet while her sister was preparing a meal. As she demonstrated, it is more important to be occupied with Christ than to be occupied for Him. Mary’s act broke two of the social norms of Galilean culture. It was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman. Also, a woman’s loose hair was seen as being sensual. Mary didn’t care, and neither did Jesus. Her act of love was more important than social norms. Similarly, she didn’t care how much her gift cost money-wise. She put money in its proper place-at Jesus’ feet.
At that time, one denarius was a day’s wage, so the spikenard oil was nearly an entire year’s earnings. Judas saw this as a waste; Mary intended it as worship. Judas was the keeper of the bag that the disciples put their money in-money that was supposed to help the poor. The disciples must have trusted Judas because they allowed him to handle their money. Judas must have considered himself to be poor because he “helped himself” to the money in the bag. Judas was a thief, but the disciples didn’t know it at the time. What Judas says about the use for the money sounds noble, but people sometimes use the most religious-sounding reasons to justify their most selfish actions. Judas proved that every man is tried according to his character. Trial brings out a person’s character. Every person will find a chance to do evil according to their character-if they are inclined to it.
Anointing was usually associated with kingship and was done on the head. There is no known association of anointing someone for burial on the feet, though the body itself was sometimes anointed after the person was already dead. Jesus associated the anointing with His burial. His remark was an affirmation of Mary. She was the first to understand that Jesus’s raising of her brother from the dead set in motion the final stages of Jesus’ martyrdom.
Jesus saw in Mary a heart of devotion and love for the things of God. She accepted His words when He spoke of His death and resurrection. She applied them to her life by humbling herself before God and desiring to serve only Him. She was a woman who was mighty in spirit. We can have this trait when we commit ourselves to Christ. God’s extravagant love spurs us to extravagant love in return. We should ask ourselves, “Because we have this incredible salvation, how can we show God how much we love Him? What can we do for His kingdom?”
True love, deep love, honest-to-goodness love can’t be explained. Love has its reasons, and those reasons can’t always be spelled out. We are capable of doing acts of kindness, but our intentions may reveal that “the truth is still not in us” and in the end our good actions are compromised.
Mary’s act is significant because it foreshadows the foot washing that Jesus does for His disciples shortly afterward. He will also ask His disciples to perform this kind of service for each other in John 13:1-20. Mary is portrayed as a true disciple whose actions exemplify the commitment to loving service that is central to John’s Gospel and Jesus’ mission.
Jesus’ statement about the constant presence of the poor does not mean that their plight should be ignored. On the contrary, Jesus was referring to Deuteronomy 15:11, which commands being open-handed with them. The phrase “Me you do not have always” was Jesus’ way of saying that He represented the impoverished, as Isaiah spoke of in Isaiah 53, not that He was replacing them as a more worthy recipient of the funds.
Jesus’ point about the poor is this: The disciples will be able to care for the poor for years to come, but Jesus’ time on earth is short. He was about to be crucified and Mary anointed Him as He approached His death. She wanted to identify with Him in the way that He had identified with her so long ago in her own struggles.
Jesus’s words are true today. We will always have the poor with us-the poor financially, the poor in health, the poor in spirit, the poor in hope. Throughout history, the poor have been objects of pity, to do fundraising, to get publicity, to deduct taxes. Modern corporations are good examples of Judas. It is not God’s will that people be poor. Jesus opposed poverty. For those who follow Jesus, service to the poor becomes empty when separated from worshiping God.
Most of us don’t have a gift as lavish and expensive as Mary’s that we can pour over Jesus in adoration. Some of us might be like Judas and think that such acts are beneath us and irresponsible. On Easter morning, some of us will have our hands firmly clamped around that treasure. What gifts might we give, purely out of our love for Jesus? They don’t have to be money. What do we hold precious that we might pour at Jesus’ feet? Some of us have hurts and hard feelings that we hold close to our chests. Could we lay them down at Jesus’ feet?
People who gather around a loved one’s body often wish they had done things differently. They regret their failure to tell the deceased of their love or their failure to apologize or their failure to help. I’m speaking from experience. My family recently gathered at my brother’s bedside as he was dying. The relationship he had with one of his sons was strained because of divorce, but that particular son sat by his father’s bedside and forgave him. In a similar way, Mary seized the moment. She made the grand gesture while Jesus was still alive to experience it.
Holy Week will be here in next week. It is one of the most dramatic and overwhelming weeks of the church year. We will see the tension between our expectations of a new King that will overthrow the Romans and the disappointment when we see Him crucified. This story about Mary’s love for Jesus and Judas’s anger about her wastefulness reminds us of this tension. Mary is able to worship Jesus sacrificially and wholeheartedly as the Lord of life who defeated death. Judas wants some benefit for himself.
There are two distinct odors in this passage. There is the odor of Judas and his criticism, and there is the sweet smell of Mary’s love. It is a love that represents Jesus’ commandment to love others as He loves us. Which of these two smells are you most closely connected with? Do you carry sewage in your heart because it isn’t open to Jesus? How much anger, envy or resentment do we carry around? Unless we open our hearts to Jesus, they will eventually stink.
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible: New King James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013; p.1462-1463)
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Part of Wordsearch 12 Bible software package.
- Fredrikson, R.L. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 27: John (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1985; pp. 196-197)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- David Vryhof, “An Extravagant Love.” Retrieved from www.ssje.org
- Greg Laurie, “The Judas Mentality.” Retrieved from harvest.org
- Peter Craig, “John 12:1-8.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Ray Pritchard, “How Much is Too Much?” Retrieved from www.keepbelieving.org
- Pastor Dave Risendal,” Generous, Sacrificial, Extravagant.” Retrieved from OneLittleWord.org
- The Rev. Dr. Blair Monie, “A Lingering Fragrance.” Retrieved from day1.org
- Richard Niell Donovan, “Exegesis for John 12:1-8.” Retrieved from sermonwriter.com
- Wayne Palmer, “Anointed for Burial.” Retrieved from email@example.com
- Eliseo Perez-Alvarez, “Commentary on John 12:1-8.” Retrieved from workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2749
- Karoline Lewis, “Simultaneous Smells.” Retrieved from workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4554
- Angela Reid, “John 12:1-8.” Retrieved from https://blogs.baylor.edu/truettpulpit/2016/02/27/john-121-8/
- Pastor Edward Markquart, “Expensive Oil for His Feet.” Retrieved from sermonsfromseattle.com/series_c_expensiveoilforhisfeet.htm
- “Mary, Judas, Jesus, the Poor, and Me…” Retrieved from http://dancingwiththeword.com/mary-judas-jesus-the-poor-and-me/