When Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper and as they were at the table, a woman approached Jesus with a vial of very costly perfume. The vial was made of alabaster, which is a soft stone that was often used for sculpture and, as in this case, to make household vessels. The perfume that it contained was very valuable, probably worth about three hundred denarii. This amount may not mean anything to you or me, but one denarius was what a man was often paid for one day’s work. This made this container of perfume worth almost a year’s salary.
At the Feet of Jesus
The woman, it turns out, was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Lazarus was the man whom Jesus had brought back to life some time earlier. Just before Jesus had done that, Mary had fallen at the feet of Jesus and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).
At the time, Mary probably thought, “It is too late now.” Indeed, at that point, Lazarus had already been entombed four days. Despite this, Jesus called Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. With the call of the voice of Jesus, the one who had been dead appeared at the opening – alive!
On yet another occasion, Mary was again found again sitting at the feet of Jesus. At this time, despite the work around the house that her sister Martha thought important, Mary saw the greater need at that moment to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teachings (Luke 10:39).
Now here again, not many days before the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary was once again found at the feet of Jesus. She knelt down and broke the spout on the vial of perfume. Presumably, the vial had a spout with a stopper of some kind. It must have had one where someone had put in the perfume at the beginning.
But Mary did not pull out the cork. She did not merely open the vial. She broke the spout. This act of breaking the vial was one of commitment. It was not the same as removing a cap so that she could pour out a portion of the contents. Whatever Mary intended to do with the perfume, she meant to use all of it.
Mary lifted the vial over Jesus and began to pour it onto his head. This may not seem like a pleasant thing to you. Actually, it does not strike me as particularly pleasant. We have all seen the coach of a football team getting doused with the Gatorade cooler after they won the Superbowl. The players do this in celebration of course, but I sometimes find myself wondering if the victory is worth all of the sticky mess. I have always been a little finicky that way.
However, what Mary did was not the same as that. She did not do this in a celebratory fashion. This was done worshipfully. It was a great act of devotion. And she did not douse Jesus as if she had a cooler of Gatorade, but poured the perfume slowly over his head, allowing it to run down to his feet. Then, once again, Mary was at the feet of Jesus, wiping his feet with her hair.
More than it is true in our time and in our culture, the person who tended the feet of the guest in Jesus’ day would be the servant of the house. In those days of dusty roads and sandaled feet, the washing of the feet was task that was both relieving to the one receiving it, and necessary. Do you remember that this was something that Jesus also demonstrated at the Last Supper when he washed the feet of the disciples? He was making the point that in the Kingdom of God, the master is not one who expects to be served by others, but rather one who serves.
A Wasteful Use of the Perfume?
This was what Mary was also doing, and she was doing it in an extravagant way. As I mentioned earlier, the perfume that she used to anoint Jesus was worth almost a year’s wages. This particular fact did not set well with some of the disciples, most of all with Judas.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Judas complained (John 12:5).
These are high-sounding words from Judas, but the writer John tells us that his motivation in saying this was not that he was necessarily concerned for the poor. It was because he was a thief. Judas was the one who carried around the money box for the disciples, and he apparently used to pilfer some of the money for himself.
But the other disciples agreed with Judas, at least about the part about using the money to feed the poor. They also thought that the money for the perfume could have been put to better use. I find myself asking the question, if I had been in that group, would I have been among those who would have said that the money indeed could have been given to the poor people? Why simply pour out a year’s worth of salary? It seems impractical and even wasteful.
If had been there and had voiced these same concerns, Jesus would have answered me as he did the disciples, “Leave her alone, that she may have this remembrance for the day of my burial. For you always will have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8)
What about the Poor?
One notion that I would like to dispel right away is one that some might have in response to the statement of Jesus. That is, that this statement seems like a general disregard for the poor people of this world.
In making the statement that he did, Jesus is not saying, “Don’t worry about the poor! Lavish gifts on me and don’t bother yourself with the poor people!” We should not read that into the statement of Jesus
First of all, even a cursory glance at the life of Jesus shows us that the poor people were among his first concerns. It was a main interest in the ministry of Jesus to feed the hungry and to heal those who were sick and who had no other alternatives.
Secondly, a dismissal of the poor should not be implied in this short answer of Jesus. This statement about the poor was an allusion to an Old Testament declaration by God. The more complete understanding of this statement is found there: “For the poor will never cease to be in the land. Therefore, open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).
The fact that there will always be poor people, instead of being a reason to dismiss them from our concerns, should instead be the very reason that we continue to try and help them. Helping the poor is the constant and ongoing concern for the people of God.
Jesus also said on another occasion, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” (Luke 12:13).
In Reply to the Objections
The concern for the poor was apparent all throughout the ministry and life of Jesus. What Mary did by anointing his feet in no way contradicted this emphasis of Jesus. Rather, it was a pure and simple act of pure devotion. The act went beyond what any of those present understood. I am sure that even Mary did not understand the full impact of her actions.
Jesus answered the objections of the disciples, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to me. For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have me. For when she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (Matthew 26:10-12).
The Economy of Worship
When one acts out of a pure and full love, the economy of the matter plays a small role. This is a difficult concept for us in the frugal Midwest to understand. In my own experience, growing up on a farm, we were always taught that we needed to be careful with our money. I still think that thriftiness is a virtue, as all of you no doubt would agree.
I would say that the disciples were also thrifty people. All of them intended on using the money for the perfume to help poor people (that is, with the exception of Judas). The disciples were, just as we also usually are, thinking in terms of money. What could they do with the money? We are trained to think in those terms. It is the way that the world operates. We think in terms of how to make the best use of available funds.
I do not say that this is a bad thing, but when it comes to our worship to God, we must learn to separate ourselves from thinking in these terms. Mary poured out the contents of the vial upon Jesus. There was no calculation as to what would be a proper amount. She did not wonder how much would be an acceptable amount. She broke the vial so that she could pour it all out in worship.
There is something about pure and true worship that is uncalculating. I want to stress the word, uncalculating. This is not the same as being generous. Being uncalculating is not the same as saying that if your worship is true, it means that you are generous. Generosity implies calculation. It means that the one giving has done some mental mathematics to calculate a good amount.
The disciples should have learned something from Mary. Mary’s act of pouring out the entire contents of the vial demonstrated her desire to give all that she had to Christ. A calculating person would not do this. They would not break the vial. They would open the vial so that they could dispense whatever they thought necessary.
But how much would be necessary? An ounce? Two ounces? How much should Mary used for the anointing of Jesus that would appear sufficient? What would make her seem generous to others?
Do you see how this calculating takes away from the concept of worship? It is almost like figuring out the amount of the tip at a restaurant. When it comes to worshiping God, is it not better to simply pour the entire contents of the vial? Giving everything demonstrates total commitment.
Ten Percent? Twenty?
Despite my mention of a tip at a restaurant, when I speak of worship, I am not speaking of giving money. That is what we think about right away. But this act of worship has much less to do with money than we would ever think. When we began to think in those terms, we began to be calculating in our actions. That is what the disciples were doing. They were calculating what could be done with the money.
They missed the fact that the perfume represented more than having a monetary value. It was an act of worship, given with totality. That is how we are to worship. We do not mete out our worship in amounts that we think would be considered respectable. That is not worship.
Worship is giving ourselves in entirety. Worship is holding nothing back from the Lord. Worship is breaking the vial of our lives so that we can be poured out upon Jesus. When I speak of uncalculated worship, I am not talking about the offering plate. Indeed, I am not talking about money at all. We need to get it into our heads that true worship has absolutely nothing to do with money. The economics of currency is the system of this world. The kingdom of God operates on a different system.
The Currency of the Kingdom of God
What is that system? We have some indications of this, for it was not only Mary who knew how to pour out everything without holding anything back. God has also done this for us. Paul tells us that “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). God does no calculating in the giving of his love for us. He pours it out on us.
And God’s grace? “The grace of our Lord was more than abundant (it is poured out), with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus.” (1 Timothy 1:14)
Our own salvation is “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).
The love of God, the grace of God, the mercy of God – these are the currencies of the kingdom of heaven. The currency of heaven comes in the form of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. There is no consideration of money. We need to get that currency out of our thinking. We will see that in the final analysis, money has absolutely nothing to do with worship. If we want to know the truth, God does not actually want your money as an indication of our worship. He wants you!
There is also no calculation on the part of God in the giving of the currencies of heaven. You may have noticed that in the verses that I just quoted speaking of God’s love, his mercy and his grace, when God gives these things to us, he does not just give us what is passable. God did not get his ledger book out to see the minimum that he could do and yet get the job done. There is no calculation in God’s gifts. His love is “poured out,” his grace is “more than abundant,” our own salvation based on his mercy and given through the Holy Spirit is “poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our savior!”
What Is to be Our Response?
What should our response to this great pouring out of the currencies of God? Here is what the Apostle Paul said of his life: “I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Philippians 2:17).
Even as he was soon to die, Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy, “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (2 Timothy 4:6).
How is your own life of worship? Are you calculating? Do you say to yourself, “This much of my life is given to God, and this much I am keeping for myself.”
You may consider, as you are doing your very careful calculations, that you are being very generous. You have opened the lid of your resources and given a very large portion of your life.
What! You have opened the lid? You have opened it only?? Why not break the vial that contains your resources and pour it out? In the economy of heaven, you will find that you can never out-give God.
“…Test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows.” (Malachi 3:10)