If you had one opportunity to show Jesus how much you loved him, what would you do? What might you say? What offering might you bring?
One of my favorite songs of all time is Mercy Me’s “I Can Only Imagine.” The song writer invites the listener to envision what it will be like when we first encounter Jesus face-to-face in eternity. We don’t have to wait for glory to free our imagination. Perhaps, you can do a little exercise now: Fill in the blank. I can only imagine that when I see Jesus I will _________.
(Read John 12:1-11)
As we just read, what might you have done if you were Mary Magdalene? Like Mary, what would you do if you had one chance, one shot at showing Jesus how much you loved him? Here, in this passage, Jesus is approaching the last week of his earthly ministry. As we’ve seen throughout the Gospel of John, John is giving us a wide-angle panoramic view of who Jesus is. Most importantly, John drills down to show us that Jesus is God. Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior of the world.
We come to a familiar story where Jesus is honored in the form of a dinner celebration. He’s at the home of Martha and Mary. We come to appreciate from previous passages that they were Jesus’ close friends. How does Mary demonstrate her love and devotion to Jesus?
When We Worship Jesus, We don’t Calculate the Cost
The story we are reading is so important to the gospel writers that it is also described by
Matthew and Mark. In this event, referred to by some as “The Anointing at Bethany,”[i] we see that Jesus’ public ministry has concluded. He’s spent three years pouring his heart out to his disciples and teaching the crowds about the kingdom of God. And we come to this momentous occasion where Jesus receives respect and honor from some of his closest disciples, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.
In this time, there was no dinner table as we know it. People didn’t sit in chairs. They didn’t sit on the floor. So, what did they do? They reclined at the table. Essentially, what that looks like is that they laid down on something like a sofa leaning on one arm while eating with the free hand.
In verse two, Lazarus was conversing at the table with Jesus as Martha is serving the food. If you remember from Luke 10:38-42, Jesus was also hanging out at Martha and Mary’s home. On that occasion, Martha was frantically preparing food for Jesus. Rather than keeping the meal simple,[ii] she came to the point of exhaustion preparing this meal. What was her sister Mary doing though? She was learning at Jesus’ feet. Jesus taught her the Word of God. At the end of Jesus’ public ministry, Martha is busy serving again. And her seemingly slacker sister Mary enters the room.
Verse three says, “Then 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.”
Back then, people didn’t invest their retirement savings in the stock market, a 501K, IRA account, TIAA-CREF, or any other interest account. They didn’t have Charles Schwab, Fidelity Investments, or E-Trade. What they had was nard. That sounds gross doesn’t it? You just picture this clump of fat. Well, that’s the image that comes to my mind, anyway.
For most people in the ancient world, they placed much value in fragrances, perfumes, and oils. Stores like Bath and Body Works or Alta Beauty would’ve been very popular back then as well. We can only guess that the reason why perfume was so valuable was because people didn’t take showers very often. Also, water supply for baths was hard to come by. They lived in the hot sticky desert and didn’t wash themselves frequently. That can be a “lethal” combination.
Nard was an extremely expensive commodity. What is nard? Nard or spikenard as they called it was an aromatic plant not grown locally in Israel. If you wanted some nard, you had to get it from Arabia, Iran, India, or elsewhere. It was imported. You know that imports are expensive.
So, we see that Mary brings in a pint of pure nard into the dining room. A pint is 16 fl. oz. If you go to any department store, you can’t buy a pint of perfume. For those who like to put a dabble of fragrance on their necks know that most come in bottles of 1.6 or 3.4 oz. Mary had her entire life savings in this bottle.
This bothered Judas in particular. Judas Iscariot was Jesus’ disciple who later betrays him. He knew about nice things because that’s all he cared about. All he cared about was money. And, in verse five, Judas tells us that what Mary has in her hands is worth an average worker’s entire yearly salary. The U.S. Department of Labor decided that the minimum wage in the U.S. would be $7.25. If you make minimum wage, your annual income will be approximately $14,000-15,000. We don’t know exactly how much this perfume would cost but it’s probably a lot more than $15,000.
Most perfumes and colognes cost about $40-100. But, on Forbes.com, I found out that the most expensive perfume in the world is called “Imperial Majesty, which costs $215,000 a bottle.” Here’s the description of this supposedly exquisite scent:
Imperial Majesty is a limited edition of a Clive Christian signature scent. Sold simply as No. 1, the fragrance is priced at $2,150 an ounce. But the reason Imperial Majesty costs so much is that Christian, a British designer-turned-perfumer, poured 16.9 ounces of No. 1 into a Baccarat crystal bottle, stuck a five-carat diamond into the 18-carat gold collar and unveiled it at Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York City this past holiday season.
To Mary, her nard is the equivalent of Imperial Majesty. This is her life fortune. She has only one opportunity to show Jesus how much she values him, how much she worships him, how much she loves him. So, what does she do? She pours the entire bottle on his feet and wipes it off with her hair. It seems strange doesn’t it? Why would someone in her right mind do such a thing?
To Mary, when she worshiped Jesus, she didn’t calculate the cost. It didn’t matter to her. What mattered most was worshiping Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior with everything that she had. She gave Jesus every drop of this expensive perfume for no other reason but to prove her love and worship to her “Imperial Majesty,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does this Bible lesson mean for us today? Does not calculating the cost of offering worship to Jesus mean we give our life savings to the church? No. Not necessarily. I don’t think there’s a direct correlation.
This passage is more descriptive than prescriptive. It describes Mary’s act of devotion without prescribing the same example for us. However, Mary’s example gives us the biblical principle that when it comes to worshiping Jesus, there must be a willingness in our hearts to abandon every earthly thing to follow him. If we truly love Jesus and desire to worship him with our lives, we won’t count what we may have to give up to worship and follow him. We’ll give of ourselves joyfully and freely just as Mary does here. When we worship Jesus, no gift is too precious.
What is the most valuable thing to you that you would have much difficulty giving up to worship Jesus and show how much you loved him? Just think about that for a moment. Do we calculate the cost of following Jesus? Would we withhold our careers? Our homes? Our cars? Our retirement savings? Our tithes and offerings? Our TVs? Our children? Our time? Our convenience?
To Judas Iscariot, what Mary did for Jesus was a complete waste of resources. What does Judas say? Verse five reads, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas sounds noble and charitable. He sounds like a guy with good intentions, even a philanthropist. But was he really?
When We Worship Jesus, We don’t Expect Something in Return
In any human relationship or friendship, we innately desire a give-and-take experience. That’s the only natural human response. If we only give, we feel cheated. Yet, if we only take, I would hope that we would feel guilty to the person who is always giving us something.
Judas was probably one of those guys who only received from others. He didn’t give to others. John calls Judas a thief, meaning he would help himself to the offering. He would secretly withhold money and use it for himself. He was selfish and self-interested. He didn’t really care about the poor. His private motive was to snatch the funds from selling Mary’s perfume and use it for his own devices.
I once heard a story about a little girl who was given two dollars by her father. He told her that she could do anything she wanted with one and that the other was to be given to God on Sunday at church. The girl nodded in agreement and asked if she could go to the candy store. With visions of all that she could buy with her dollar, she happily skipped toward the store, holding tightly to the two dollars in her hand. As she was skipping along, she tripped and fell and the wind blew one of the dollars into a storm drain at the curb. Picking herself up, the little girl looked at the dollar still in her hand and then at the storm drain and said, “Well, God, there goes your dollar.” We often live by the following principle: Me first God, you second, third or fourth.
Many Christians have forgotten that Christianity is paradoxical. To the world, Jesus’ teachings don’t make sense. Jesus calls us to an other-worldly and profoundly upside-down life. For instance, Jesus says things like: The last shall be first and the first shall be last. Those who have little on earth will be rich in heaven and those who have much on earth will have little in heaven. Jesus uses uneducated fishermen to become disciples who bring the gospel to the world. Much of Christianity doesn’t make worldly sense.
The same principle holds true here. When we worship Jesus, we don’t expect something in return. There’s a Latin phrase, quid pro quo. It means “this for that.” God, I’ll give you $5 if you’ll give me back $10. God, I’ll give you fifteen minutes for my daily devotional but I want to do as I please for the rest of the day.
This type of mentality permeates the church at large. It’s seen in what others have called the prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, or the name it and claim it gospel. We want to be fed but we don’t want to fast.
This is not the attitude of a generous giver that Jesus had in mind for his disciples. We give to Jesus and others because we love him and them. As it says in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” We come to church because we want to worship him. We share our tithes and offerings because we want to be a blessing to expand God’s kingdom. We give our time and resources to those in need because Jesus says it’s better to give than to receive (Acts 20:35 and other places).
John sets up a clear contrast. Judas got it wrong, but Mary got it right. Mary’s heart is a true disciple’s heart. She gave to Jesus without expecting anything in return. I wonder what would happen in our church if we possessed more of Mary’s heart. When we worship Jesus, we don’t count the cost. When we worship Jesus, we also don’t expect anything in return.
When We Worship Jesus, We don’t Hold Anything Back
How did Jesus respond to Mary’s extravagant example? Jesus defends her against Judas’ insincere question. He is stern: “Leave her alone.” And then he says something peculiar, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
Mary most likely was saving this perfume for Jesus’ burial and not at this dinner party. It was common practice to use perfume in the embalming process to help with the odor of bodily decay. But, here in this story, it was a powerful gesture to honor Jesus while he was still living. Mary worships Jesus without holding anything back. She is in many ways reckless in her worship. She doesn’t care about what others think of her. The only opinion that matters to her is what Jesus thinks of her. And clearly Jesus is pleased with her worship and sacrifice.
Then, in verse eight, Jesus says something even more bizarre. He says, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Does that mean Jesus doesn’t care about the poor? Absolutely not. Jesus cared greatly for the poor. He frequently mentioned and ministered to those with physical needs.
So, what is he saying then? He’s stating that giving to the poor will never end. But, you won’t have many opportunities left to worship me. In fact, for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, Palm Sunday is tomorrow and the final week of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry.
Since Jesus isn’t here physically anymore, what does that mean for us today? Do we have to do extravagant things for Jesus to be pleased with us? I don’t think so. We can’t make a direct correlation between what Mary did and what we are to do.
In Europe, one-way Christians tried to please God was to build him extravagant buildings. If you travel to many parts of Europe, the cathedrals built for God are magnificent. Think of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or Notre-Dame de Paris. They are usually ornate and laden with gold and precious stones.
Is that what Jesus wants from us? I don’t think so. So, what is our eau de toilette? How are we going to show Jesus how much we love him on this Palm Sunday?
I think what he’s asking us to do is surrender our lives to him completely. Jesus wants our lives, every part of our lives. He wants to be the Lord of everything. Every part of our life should be worship to God. When we worship Jesus, we shouldn’t hold anything back. We should give him our best.
When my brothers and I went to church growing up, my dad would go to the bank and go to the teller to get brand new one-dollar bills for us to give as offering to the Lord. I used to think that it was silly. Why does the condition of the dollar bills matter? But, as I’ve grown up, I appreciate my dad’s example. Jesus wants us to give him our best in everything. It may or may not matter to Jesus. I’m sure not many of us are going to ask Jesus whether he appreciated the crinkle-free money we put in the offering basket. However, when we worship Jesus, no gift is too precious. Nothing is wasted when we offer our best to him.
I want to challenge us today concerning our attitudes especially about worship. Are we giving God our best worship every Sunday? Are we truly living a Christ-like life? Can you imagine a church where everyone worshiped God without holding anything back? It would change the world around us.
Years ago, a book that caught my eye at Barnes and Noble was called One Month to Live by Pastor Kerry Shook. He serves as senior pastor of Woodlands Church near Houston, Texas. He asks readers to consider some profound questions such as: What if you only had one month to live? How would you make each day meaningful? How would you relate to others differently? What would you do to make the rest of your life really count?
Truth is, we often avoid thinking about our mortality. Shook emphasizes that if we spent the rest of our lives living as if we only had one month to live, it would dramatically transform every part of our lives. It would help us reprioritize. We would focus on what’s most important to God and advancing the Great Commission and the Great Commandments.
Today, our focus is on worshiping Jesus. Mary gives us an extravagant example. But how can we worship Jesus with more reverence, passion, and joy? Let’s start with praise. Can you imagine a church where everyone sang their hearts out to God? We can express through song how much we love him. We can sing passionately from the depths of our hearts. That is our offering of praise to him. Can we do that as a church? Can we sing to the Lord with all our hearts, souls, mind, and strength?
Can we serve this congregation using the unique gifts that God has given each person whether it’s cleaning, teaching, cooking, welcoming, inviting, gathering, leading, or encouraging?
This is not to induce guilt but what about coming to church on time? I know that people don’t like hearing about this, but it’s something that we must discuss as a local church body. I want to challenge us to give God our best in all parts of worship even in our timeliness. I want to challenge us as a church to come 15 minutes early and quiet our hearts to worship God. When we’re always late it can mean subconsciously that we don’t value God enough to set this time apart for him. Let’s start coming to church earlier and showing Jesus that we truly value him.
Finally, how do we spend our time? Can we make God the highest priority of our lives? Can we spend time with him? Can we read the Word throughout the week? Can we spend time in prayer? Can we truly worship Jesus daily? Can we serve sacrificially the people whom God sends our way? Can we build relationships with people in our neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and more?
There’s a poem by Theodore W. Brennan called “Those Wasted Years” that I’d like to share with you:
I looked upon a farm one day, that once I used to own;
The barn had fallen to the ground, the fields were overgrown.
The house in which my children grew, where we had lived for years ... I turned to see it broken down, and brushed aside the tears.
I looked upon my soul one day to find it too had grown,
With thorns and nettles everywhere, the seeds neglect had sown. The years had passed while I had cared for things of lesser worth. The things of heaven I let go while minding things of earth.
To Christ I turned with bitter tears and cried, “O Lord, forgive!” I have not much time left for Thee, not many years to live.
The wasted years forever gone, the days I can’t recall.
If I could live those days again, I’d make Him Lord of all.[iii]
A slew of questions may be circulating your brain: Is this necessary? Do I really have to give something to Jesus? Isn’t that promoting moralism or simply behavior modification? Isn’t grace and forgiveness free? Yes, salvation is a free gift. And those who experience Christ’s mercy and forgiveness cannot help but give our entire lives to him.
So, what’s your eau de toilette? Is Jesus your “Lord of all”? How will you demonstrate how much you love him? Would you give everything to have Jesus or would you trade Jesus to have everything in the world?
John 12:1-11 communicates a profound message. If we truly understood who Jesus is and what he’s done for us, we would give everything to worship him. We would have different values and priorities. We would spend our time and money differently. We would love God and people more intentionally. When we worship Jesus, there is no gift too precious. He’s worth more than we could ever give in response to him.
Can we start offering Jesus our best worship? Can we spend time with him during the week? Can we allow him to have control over every area of our lives? Can we relinquish every earthly thing and prioritize the kingdom of God?
The truth is: We only get one life to live. Unlike cats who have nine lives, we only get one. We only have one life to make a difference in this world. Let’s make it count for Christ.
[i] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 357.
[ii] An illusion to Haddon W. Robinson’s sermon, “Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There,” February 14, 1991, Preached at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary Chapel.
[iii] Theodore W. Brennan, “Those Wasted Years,” public domain.
Matthew D. Kim is Professor of Practical Theology and the Hubert H. and Gladys S. Raborn Chair of Pastoral Leadership at Truett Seminary, Baylor University.