A number of years ago as a Christmas present, I bought my wife a small bottle of perfume called Opium. At that time it cost about Eighty dollars. Today it is not really made anymore. There is a spray that somewhat replicates the perfume, and it cost about the same price as the original from the 1980’s. Now if you are like me you may wonder about the wisdom of making such a purchase. Would not the purchase of something else get a person more for their money than such a small bottle of perfume?
Such may have been Judas Iscariot’s thinking as Mary came in and poured out that costly Nard upon the feet of Jesus. Aside from the fact that the Gospel of John paints Judas as more of a thief than a disciple, and that he would betray Jesus, perhaps he did have a point. The nard was expensive.
Nard was a very exotic item from the Himalayas, and out of India through Persia. In history Horace offered to send Virgil a whole barrel of his best wine in exchange for a vial of nard. At one time it was considered the perfume of the lost Garden of Eden, and in literature, nard came to refer to any perfume, as long as it was exquisite.
In Jesus time people would use such ointments as an investment. It was a way of saving money. A bottle or flask was easy to transport, and easy to store or hide. When a person needed extra money, the ointment could always be easily sold in the marketplace. Perhaps the ointment Mary used represented her life’s savings. According to Judas word, the ointment could have been sold for three hundred Denarii. That is the equivalent of about a year’s wage for the average worker in Jesus’ time. The average wage today is about $56,000/year. The cost of Mary’s gift makes my gift of perfume to my wife look small.
This is what Mary gave as she came and anointed Jesus’ feet, and this was the reason for Judas’s objection. Could not Mary have given an offering that would have been much more significant than something as short lived as a bath in perfume which would fill the room with its smell for a while, and yet seemingly not meet any need in a lasting way?
Dare we say it? Judas may have had a point. Now we always tend to suspect that he was motivated out of greed and self-interest, but what would you do with an extra year’s wages if someone just gave you a check amounting to as much? What could you do for others or your community around you?
Often when someone gives money to a church as a memorial gift, do we not search for something that we believe will be a lasting gift on which to spend the money, and quite commonly churches will put a plaque commemorating this window, or that cross to the person. Could not Mary have found some better way to commemorate Jesus’ presence and person than seemingly wasting such a valuable gift? A gift with so much potential?
Why give so extravagantly…?
Reconsidering my gift of perfume to My wife even though the price of perfumes or cosmetics can be ridiculous, I knew My wife liked the perfume, and I wanted to get her something special, and usually one small bottle of perfume can out last two larger bottles of cologne, but mostly I just wanted to buy it for her. It was not really the cost that was significant to the gift, but the thought and feeling behind the gift. Sometimes we want the gift to express our love for another.
There was more to the gift than just the gift itself. If we remember, this Mary was Martha and Lazarus’ sister. She was the one who sat at the feet of Jesus as he taught at their home. She was the one whom Jesus called for as he came to the tomb of Lazarus, and upon seeing her grief was moved to tears himself. She was the one whose brother Lazarus was raised back to life. She loved Jesus and had learned much directly from him about faith, love, and religion.
Also, the story in our scriptures is placed just six days before the Passover. That is just 7 days before Jesus was crucified. Jesus had been telling his disciples that he would be handed over and crucified and three days rise again. The disciples did not understand, but could it be that Mary also heard these words and feared for what Jesus was saying. Obviously by this point Jesus was being fairly open about this prophecy. He clearly uses Mary’s generous act of love as a sign of his impending death, when he says that Mary had kept the nard for the day of his burial, and again when he warns that he would not always be with them. The pouring out of this exotic and lavish gift was Mary’s response to her love for Jesus and I think quite likely her concern for the words he spoke.
As she poured out her gift, and dried Jesus’ feet with her hair, the aroma lifted up, and filled the room. As Mary sat there with her hair smelling of the perfume, perfume covering the feet of Jesus, perfume spilt upon the floor all the people stared. Mary what have you done and why? Mary gave out of love. Mary gave not only because of who Jesus was, and what Jesus had done for Lazarus, but Mary was also giving in a prophetic way as well for what Jesus was about to do. She gave a gift of thanksgiving for the way to God that was being made through the person of Jesus Christ. The gift had a meaning to itself and the cost, even a year’s wage, was insignificant to that meaning.
Now consider Judas Iscariot’s response by comparison. As he must have said to Mary, “Why are you wasting this valuable perfume, by doing such a thing as pouring it upon the feet of Jesus? Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred Denarii and given to the poor?” You know that is a sad comment on the state of Judas’ spiritual life. Somehow the meaning of the event and the significance of Jesus coming to Jerusalem was totally missed by Judas. Judas was someone who should have known and cared about Jesus more than Mary, but it seems that Mary had a heart that was closer to that of a true disciple than Judas.
More importantly I believe this event leads us to ask the question, “Where God is concern can there be any other type of true giving, than the type that extravagantly lavishes our time, talents, and possessions at the feet of Jesus? The faith of Mary has pointed the way for us. What are the gifts that we pour forth at the Savior’s feet –and the smell of such works that should cling to us? Do we respond with a certain necessary irrationality of love for the Lord within our life, or do we remain cold and calculating –counting the material cost and weighing what is in it for us? Do we like Mary out of our love for Christ participate in the way of his death, and find the power that transforms and saves life, or like Judas do we recoil from such a thing?
To be Jesus’ disciple we need to respond in a manner of extravagant giving. Our actions, our thinking, and our lives need to be motivated out of a sincerely heart felt love for the Lord. God has called us to pour forth our lives and gifts and talents before his feet in a luxurious and worshipful fashion. We should exemplify an irrationality of love that should cling to us and fill our world like perfume poured out upon us.
Once while serving two small churches in Southern West Virginia I met Jim Nance. Jim was the founder and director of the McDowell Missions in McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell County is probably one of the more impoverished places to live in our nation. I was once told that there was one church a Methodist minister could be sent to that up into the 1970’s the parsonage had only an outhouse. Jim used to tell the story of how when he first arrived people would ask him how long he was going to stay, and he pointed to his house up on a rugged West Virginia Hill and said, “See that house? Well, I bought it, I didn’t rent it.” Now I can tell you that there are a lot of good people in McDowell County and in Southern WV, but most people would probably not move there; however, Jim did. WHY? Because he was motivated by his faith and love for God to make that his home and place of ministry. Jim was not sent, but he worked to get there. Jim passed away in 2019. His obituary states that he was an All-Ohio high school athlete and excelled as an engineer, metallurgist, manager and supervisor at General Motors Foundry in Defiance, Ohio. Then he took an early retirement to serve in the United Methodist Church in missionary work in McDowell County. That to me is Love’s reasoning. A lavish love and life being poured out for others.
That is extravagant giving.
Our scripture text is a challenge for us to live out that type of life –the type of life that Mary did, the way others have. With a lavish love for the Lord that makes the worldly stop and look and wonder and even object to what is going on. When we pour out our lives and gifts before Jesus in such a lavish fashion, then we shall know the power of God that shapes and transforms lives. Amen.