“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” (John 12:3).
In a scene of generous hospitality and intimate fellowship, Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have gathered in the afterglow of Lazarus’ return to life (John 12:1-11). Lazarus is reclining at the table with Jesus. Martha, ever the active servant, is serving food. Artists depicting this scene reach instinctively for the warmest possible palette of colors and pain themselves to depict facial expressions of an almost unimaginable degree of warm-hearted tenderness.
Then Mary offers her gesture of devotion to Jesus, lavishing a full pint of exquisite perfume over Jesus’ feet and upending conventions of decorum by unfurling her hair to wipe them. Just a few days before, Jesus, Mary, and Martha were confronted by the stench of Lazarus’ decaying body. Now, with Lazarus, they are basking in the aroma of luxurious perfume.
Following three years of ministry in which observers responded to Jesus in such oppositional and awkward ways, what a remarkable picture of true devotion this is—Mary’s unashamed, humble, extravagant gesture. Nothing here resembles a grudging obeisance to a distant deity or an agreeable, but half-hearted engagement in typical religious protocols. This is whole-hearted adoration of a loving Lord.
Just a few verses into the story, we can already sense God’s call to each of us to follow Mary’s lead, to become disciples of utter of devotion to Jesus. Korean songwriter Chung Kwan Park invites worshipers to identify with Mary's adoration by singing: “to my precious Lord I bring my flask of fragrant oil; kneeling down, I kiss his feet, anoint them with the oil.” Try singing that on your knees, imagining what kind of love would lead you to readily part with a year’s wages as a fitting response to the Lord of life. Even the act of imagining it stretches our vision.
And then the scene turns noticeably chilly. Judas’s response sounds reasonable at first, a perfect blend of concern for both social justice and fiscal prudence. Wouldn’t it be better to take the full year’s wage that purchased the perfume and give it to the poor? But John quickly tells us that Judas’s words do not ring true. Judas is a pilfering group treasurer who cared only for his own gain. Jesus rebukes him, “Leave her alone,” sending artists to reach for stone-cold grays to depict the judgmental, hypocritical disciple.
The contrast could not be more pronounced: Mary is generous; Judas is greedy. Mary is humble; Judas is arrogant. Mary is selfless; Judas is self-centered. Judas stands aloof; Mary kneels in humble adoration. Together, they serve as vivid contrasting illustrations of Jesus’ own teaching: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).
Jesus’ rebuke of Judas comes to us as a further invitation to true discipleship—to turn away from all that is greedy, self-centered, and cold-hearted. To repent for all the times we have cloaked our own inner greed in statements of exterior piety. To resist any temptation to look down our noses at acts of worship that appear to our own haughty selves as eccentric, peculiar, over the top.
Many sermons on this episode stop right here, stressing the call to utter devotion of Jesus, challenging its arrogant opposition. And yet, this misses an essential dimension of this text—and of the gospel. For Mary’s lavish gift is not just any perfume. It is perfume meant for Jesus’ burial. Jesus tells us so (John 12:7).
So imminent is Jesus’ death that he blesses Mary’s gesture as perfectly acceptable in the context of an expected pattern of service to the poor, as if to say “You will rightly be loving and serving the poor at all times, but this is truly my death week” (v. 8). As the Gospel of John repeatedly shows us, Jesus knew he was going to die.
Here we learn that Mary may well sense this, too. She has purchased a burial ointment fit for a king. She pours it out as a prescient way of announcing “the hour has come.” In contrast to so many depictions of Jesus’ followers as haplessly clueless and then terribly disillusioned by Jesus’ death, Mary here offers knowing devotion. She accepts the unnerving truth that her Lord will work his wonders in an unfathomably countercultural, even scandalous way.
For those of us who follow Jesus, it is tempting to be attracted by a vision of the Christian life that is filled with warm hospitality and even extravagant worship, but that has no real room in it for a suffering and dying Lord or for the dying-to-ourselves way of life into which Jesus calls us.
The temptation will come to us on Palm Sunday to reach for happy major-key praise songs to sing while carrying palm branches instead of sturdy minor-key odes which announce, “Ride on, Ride on in majesty; in lowly pomp ride on to die.”
The temptation will come to skip from Palm Sunday to Easter, with little attention to the pathos and severe injustice of Jesus’ suffering and death.
The temptation will come, again and again, to serve a Lord who is quite different in our imagination than the one depicted in John’s gospel—to treat Jesus’ passion and death as a momentary exception in the story of divine glory, rather than as the supreme example of it.
True, we are not called to lavish burial perfume at the feet of a Savior on his way to the cross and tomb. We worship a risen Jesus. But the extravagant, humble way of devotion set before us is still profoundly shaped by the simple fact that the divine plan of salvation arrived at Easter only after Jesus’ passion, death, and burial. We worship a Lord whose power is made perfect in weakness, whose glory shines especially brightly as he washes his disciples’ feet and offers himself on the cross. This is Lord who calls to us this Lent, “Come, follow me.”
John D. Witvliet directs the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and teaches at Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
This article is part of Journey to the Cross, CT’s 2019 Lent/Easter devotional, which is available for digital download here.