Extravagant Worship or Excessive Waste?
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 12:1–12:11
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred dernarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name O. Henry, was a master of short stories at the turn of the 20th-century. Perhaps his most popular work was entitled The Gift of the Magi. It is about a poor young couple named Jim and Della and how they deal with the challenge of buying Christmas gifts for one another when they have very little money. Each has one had a prized possession. Hers was her long flowing hair that when let down served almost as a robe for her body. His was a pocket watch over which he was very proud.
A day before Christmas, with less than two dollars in hand and desperate to find a gift for Jim, Della went to a nearby hairdresser where she had her long tresses cut off and sold them for $20. Taking the money, she purchased a platinum chain for his watch. Satisfied that she had found the perfect gift, she waited anxiously for her husband to arrive home from work. When he did, he stopped short at the sight of his wife, who was anxious and self-conscious of her new appearance. He listened quietly as she explained that she had sold her hair in order to buy his present—a platinum chain for his pocket watch.
Jim then handed Della her present—an assortment of expensive combs with jeweled edges for her beautiful hair—purchased with money (you guessed it) obtained through the sale of his prized watch.
Although the couple was now left with gifts that neither could possibly use, they realized how willing they were willing to go to show their devotion for one another, and how deep and priceless was their love.
When is the last time that you paused to consider the fact that worship is an act of love? Do you realize that the extent of your love for the Lord is the true measure of your worship of Him? Our Lord Jesus identified the greatest of the commandments to be “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Please don’t miss the comprehensiveness of Jesus’ words: “All your heart...all your soul...all your mind.”
You are, of course, aware that there are those who consider the investment you are making spend in gathering with other Christians and worshiping God to be an excessive waste of time. After all, life is short and has so many other things to offer. Why be a “religious fanatic,” when you can attend a service once or twice a year and get “caught up”? Or why even bother to go at all?
Sentiments of that sort are either verbalized or silently thought about committed Christians all the time. And it seems that the greater one’s devotion of service and worship to the Lord, the stronger the negative reaction from the critics. We should not be discouraged, however, and we certainly must not be dissuaded. This morning Jesus has a word for us about worship. It comes from the scene being played in the passage we have just read.
It’s a familiar story that is also recorded by both Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) with some variations. There is also a similar but different event found in Luke’s Gospel Luke’s Gospel (7:36-39). In each of these passages, the example of “costly worship” is left for us to consider. At the risk of sounding dogmatic—and I don’t apologize for that—these texts serve to remind us that worship that costs us nothing is worth nothing.
As the 12th chapter of John opens, Jesus has entered the final week of his earthly life. Following a brief respite away from the crowds gathering to observe the Passover in Jerusalem, He and His disciples are now making their way back in that direction. Along the way they stop in Bethany, where just a short time earlier Jesus had raised the dead and entombed body of his friend Lazarus. It was the seventh and final of the miraculous “signs” mentioned by John which pointed to Jesus as the Christ—the promised Messiah—and the Son of God. And while the hearts of some who witnessed that momentous event were made ready to receive Him, others—namely the religious authorities and those who blindly followed them—were crystallized to the point of plotting His death.
We are in the “period of crisis” of our Lord’s ministry. One can only imagine the mounting tension of those days for His disciples, not to mention the intense emotions welling up within Jesus Himself. He was well aware of the fate that awaited Him. Luke (9:51) tells us that “When his days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” So set was His devotion to His Heavenly Father’s foreordained will for Him to be the final Passover Lamb and bear the sins of God’s people that no force on earth or in hell could stop Him.
It seems to have been an unexpected follower who best understood the impending significance of those days. It is Mary of Bethany who becomes the central figure in the scene described for us in this section. We see her verses 1 through 3, when she comes to Jesus with...
A display of extravagant worship (12:1-3).
As we learned earlier, Bethany was the village in which Mary lived, along with her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus (cf. John 11:1). We were told that “Jesus loved” this family very much (cf. John 11:5). Because both Matthew (26:6) and Mark (14:3) inform us that Bethany was also the home of a man named “Simon the leper,” it has been assumed that he may have been the father, or perhaps the brother, of these three. Based alone of the biblical evidence, we cannot know that to have been the case, although some commentators have taken that supposition and fashioned a rather elaborate storyline that has little-to-no biblical support.
What we do know from the parallel accounts is that the “dinner” John mentions in verse 2 was “in the house of Simon the leper.” This would have likely been the main meal of the day, served toward evening. It appears to have been something out of the ordinary, because we are told that “they gave a dinner for him there”...a dinner in His honor, if you will. Although a private gathering, no fewer than fifteen men—Jesus, His twelve disciples, Lazarus, and Simon—would have “reclined” at table that evening. The role of the women would have been to serve the meal. In verse 2 Martha is pictured in that role, but as we might suspect Mary’s thoughts are elsewhere.
Verse 3 reads, “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.” To appreciate the significance of Mary’s action, one must understand the cost of the perfume that was poured out on Jesus that night. “Nard” was an aromatic herb imported from the Himalayas in northern India. To retain the purity of its scent, the bottles or flasks were hermetically sealed. This particular container was said to contain “a pound,”—probably a Roman “libra” of twelve ounces—of the liquid frangrance. That may seem like a rather large bottle of perfume by today’s standards, but its purpose was not likely for personal adornment but rather for the anointing of the dead. Both Mark and John tell us that the value of the ointment that Mary poured over Jesus was valued at “three hundred denarii,” or a year’s wages for a rural laborer. Where this family would have obtained such an expensive item is a matter of conjecture, but quite likely it would have been their most treasured possession.
Putting Matthew and Mark’s record of events together, we are told that “she broke the flask and poured it over his head” (cf. Mark 14:3). But John’s account says that she anoimted Jesus’ feet. How do we explain this difference? Among others, John Calvin has pointed out that anointing was nearly always of the head and that anointing the feet would have been considered “extravagant.” All three of the Gospel writers “agree that Mary did not anoint (Jesus) sparingly but poured a large quantity of ointment on Him. John’s reference to His feet is equivalent to his saying that Christ’s whole body was anointed down to His feet.” The emphasis seems to be upon the pouring out of Mary’s most treasured possession for her Lord. In other words, Mary gave all that she had, and she gave it at the proper time.
John had told us earlier that “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair” (cf. John 11:2), and he repeats that statement here in verse 3. It was considered “unbecoming” for a woman to loosen her hair in public, but Mary cast all social protocol aside and unashamedly used her hair as a towel to wipe the excess from the drippings of the perfume from Jesus’ feet. Her worship of Him was selfless—indeed self-sacrificing—and should serve as an example to us that to the degree we save things for ourselves, to that degree the work of the Lord suffers.
John adds at the end of verse 3 that “The house was filled with the fragrance (“οσμη”) of the perfume.” Not only does this statement suggest that Mary likely emptied the entire contents of the bottle upon Jesus, but it call to mind Philippians 4:18. There, Paul expresses his gratitude to the saints in Philippi for the generous gifts of support they had sent to him, calling them “a fragrant (same word) offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” No gift that is given selflessly and sacrificially ever goes unnoticed or unrewarded by the Lord. With regard to Mary’s gift, both Matthew (26:13) and Mark (14:9) quotes Jesus as saying, “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” What a blessed testimony to have!
Before we leave this emotional scene, let me point out that the three siblings we have been considering demonstrate three critical aspects of the Christian life. Not all of us are equipped and called by God to fulfill the same roles in the same way within the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-27), and we should not expect that of one another. Martha modeled the work of the Lord, Mary exemplified the worship of the Lord, and Lazarus—as we have seen and will see again—demonstrated the witness for the Lord. Let me be clear in saying that every believer should and must be growing in all three of these aspects—work, worship, and witness—but we must not be laden with guilt or feel discouraged if someone seems to outdo us in one of the areas of the other. Every local church needs servants like Martha, worshipers like Mary, and witnesses of God’s grace like Lazarus.
But Mary’s display of extravagant worship was not looked upon favorably by all. Sometimes taking a bold stand for Jesus will evoke negative reactions, even from those we think should understand. In sharp contrast the Mary’s act, we find...
A disgust over excessive waste (12:4-8)
...being expressed in verses 4 through 8.
Although John singles out Judas as the chief complainant, the other Gospel writers implicate the other disciples as well. Matthew (26:8) writes, “And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” And Mark (14:5) adds that “they scolded her.” What Mary meant as “worship,” the others saw as “waste.”
Perhaps Judas was the instigator of the opposition...that certainly seems to have been the case. This is the second time that John has mentioned him. You may recall that at the end of chapter 6, John revealed that it was Judas who would “betray” Jesus, and he repeats that statement here in verse 4. But our Lord was not unaware of Judas’ deception. Even when He chose him as a disciple, He knew that Judas was in partnership with the devil.
Judas’ false concern for the poor is explained in verse 6: “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Like others who profess to follow Jesus, but whose lives indicate otherwise, Judas lived a “double life.” His personal greed merely masqueraded as altruism. In short, he was a hypocrite.
The pens of writers have run dry through the centuries in attempting to explain this man. At the time, of course, Judas would not have considered a “thief” (“κλεπτηs”). He must have been well thought of by the others, because he had been designated by them as the treasurer of the group. Our word “kleptomaniac” is derived from the Greek term for “thief.” It means “one who steals by compulsion.” Judas couldn’t help himself! Pilfering small sums a little at a time prevented him from being exposed, but as inevitably happens with us all when we live duplicitous lives, his sin would find him out (cf. Numbers 32:23).
Though not “letting on” to him, Jesus was not in the least bit fooled by Judas’ insincere words regarding the poor. “Leave her alone,” He demands of the entire group as they criticized Mary, “so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” At that moment, it would seem that only Jesus and Mary understood the full significance of her act. She had “kept” the perfume—her prized possession—for a special and rare occasion. There would never be a time more special than the present. Now was the moment of opportunity for her to break open the vial and pour it out freely and abundantly for her Lord. It mattered not that others might consider her “wasteful” or even a “fool.” If necessary, she was willing to forever and without embarrassment be known as a “fool for Christ’s sake” (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:10).
Matthew and Mark emphasize Jesus’ words of commendation for Mary more completely than John does. Listen again to how Matthew records them: “‘Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring out this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her’” (Matthew 26:10-13).
Jesus is neither somehow endorsing poverty or disparaging the poor. Rather he is stating a matter of fact. The comment about “always (having) the poor with you” is actually lifted from Deuteronomy 15:11, where the Lord revealed that “There will never cease to be poor in the land,” and we should give generously to those in need.
Throughout John’s Gospel, we have heard both Jesus and John in his editorial capacity refer to the “time” or the “hour” that awaited Jesus’ passion. Until now, that “time” had not yet come...but now it was imminently near. Events had been set in motion that would bring about a climax to God’s grand and glorious plan for redeeming His people through the sacrificial death and bodily resurrection of His Son. Mary both sensed and seized the opportunity to worship her Lord through her own act of humble sacrifice.
Scripture repeatedly reminds us that “today” is this day of opportunity to forsake sin and self and to serve the Lord (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:2, Hebrews 3:13, etc.). A familiar quote both asks and reminds us, “Who knows if we shall pass this way again?” Who knows if we will have another opportunity like this one?
“Leave her alone,” Jesus says of Mary. “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Hers was not a disgusting and excessive waste, but rather a devoted and extravagant act of worship. Matthew (26:14-16) informs us that it was soon after this rebuke that Judas entered into conspiracy with the chief priests, having agreed to hand over Jesus for the price of a slave. Mary’s act of devotion merely precipitated Judas’ act of disgust.
It would take a while longer before the disciples would be able to fully grasped the meaning of Mary’s after-dinner gesture, just as it takes time for us to process the unsurpassed worth of the Lord Jesus and the logic of investing all that we have for His glory. Growth in our understanding takes time, but with information comes accountability. What is it that you and I may be holding onto that He is prompting us to sacrifice for His greater glory?
That is the question that faces us all. Be careful not to just blow it off, because how we respond reveals where our most prized possession lies. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Matthew 6:21). So, in verses 9 through 11, we find...
A division over extreme worth (12:9-11).
As we have seen many times before in John’s Gospel, Jesus brings division wherever He goes and whenever His name is raised. Where you align yourself with regard to Jesus Christ is the most important determination of your life. Here is the closing verses of this passage we emphatically notice that again.
The crowd in Jerusalem had been building for several days in preparation for the Passover Feast. Hearing that Jesus was in nearby Bethany, the anticipation—if not the expectation—of seeing Him was extremely high. His act of raising Lazarus from the dead was the talk of the town, prompting many to hike the two miles to the other side of the Mount of Olives to catch a glimpse of the two men.
Verse 9 would at first glance seem to indicate that “the Jews” who are mentioned were little more than curiosity-seekers. But when verse 11 is added to the equation, we see that “many” of them were “believing in Jesus.” Repeatedly throughout John’s Gospel, we see that “belief in Jesus” is the stated purpose of our Lord’s mission. Every word that He spoke and every work He performed provided evidence that He had been sent from God as the One who would call out from the world a people for the sake of His name.
No matter what one thought of Jesus, it was impossible to ignore Him. At that time, “many” were believing in Him, while others stood in violent opposition to Him. Those two reactions were at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Then there was the great majority who found themselves somewhere in the middle...a precarious position in which they would be unable to remain. Eventually such ones must decide...either “for Jesus” or “against” Him. In the end, there is no other option. If Jesus is not “Lord,” then He is something else...something less. And that simply will not do.
Time and again we have pointed out that the religious leaders should have known better. But unlike Mary, they were so consumed by their own interests that they were unable to see the fulfillment of God’s prophetic Word, which they themselves interpreted and taught. They shunned what was of true worth, and they cast themselves against it. So blinded by their own ambition, they eventually saw nothing but hatred for Jesus. If they could not shut Him up with threats, they would silence Him by condemning Him to die. Regrettably, others would be dragged along in their vitriolic ploy.
But how could they proceed with putting Jesus to death when He had just recently done something so remarkable as restoring life to a man who had been dead four days? Lazarus represented “the evidence” of Jesus’ miraculous power, and as long as he remained people would continue flocking to Jesus. “So,” we read in verse 10, “the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well.”
These “chief priests” were made up primarily of Sadducees, who in contrast with the Pharisees denied the resurrection of the dead and most things supernatural (cf. Acts 23:8). For them, Leon Morris writes, “Lazarus was a double embarrassment. Not only did he cause men to go over to the side of Christ, but he was a standing condemnation of their doctrine. They denied that there would be a resurrection and here was a man who had lived through death.”
Rather than calling “time out” and reevaluating their religious and political opinions, they chose not only to deny the “evidence” being clearly presented before them, but to destroy it altogether.
The fallen world has been characterized by just such a philosophy since man’s first sin. Paul refers to it as “suppress(ing) the truth” in Romans 1(:18). Like a Whac-A-Mole game, whenever God introduces truth, fallen man in his sinful nature seeks to “whack” it down. John had written earlier, “People loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Unknowingly, man is trapped and unable to extricate himself. Like a spreading cancer, sin consumes him more and more until he is no longer able to even discern truth from error.
The murderous plot of which we read in verse 10 is not exclusive to these chief priests. It describes the universal human condition. Jeremiah (17:9) describes it as “The heart (being) deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” To put it another way, in our innermost selves beats the heart of a “John 12:10 chief priest.” In essence, we are not noticeably different than they. Oh, we may look “well and good” to one another, but God “search(es) the heart and test(s) the mind, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds” (cf. Jeremiah 17:10).
Elsewhere this same John tells us that “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). It has been that way since Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve yielded to Satan’s temptation and took their first bites of the forbidden fruit. The consequences of their action have been passed along to every one of their descendents to this present day. And that includes you and me. Furthermore, there is nothing inherent that we can do about it. It is absolutely imperative that we recognize and understand this fundamental truth. In the final analysis, we all need a Savior. And our only hope lies in the One whom our naturally depraved hearts seek to silence and destroy.
In 1 John 3:8 we read that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” In a very real sense, that one phrase summarizes the entire storyline of the Bible from beginning to end. Immediately after the fall, God pronounced a judgment curse upon the Tempter. He said that there would be ongoing enmity between his offspring and the offspring of Eve (cf. Genesis 3:15).
It has been said that “The Old Testament is a series of footnotes to Genesis 3:15.” Every era of that story points to the coming of Christ. When He at last stepped onto the stage of human history, conflict with Satan reached a crisis point. The Serpent himself now faced the Seed of the woman. For three years our Lord Jesus battled the powers of darkness, beginning with His public introduction as the Messiah and His forty-day victory over Satan in the wilderness. But the “death blow” that He would deal to the mortal enemy of both God and man awaited the Cross.
For three and a half years, Jesus withstood the relentless daily assaults of Satan and his minions. When He at last voluntarily laid down His life, His death was for the purpose of redeeming us from the penalty of our sin. Through His obedience and sacrifice, He defeated the Evil One and regained the dominion that Adam had forfeited. Today this Jesus is building His Church—His collective body of “called out ones” from the world—and He is doing so in enemy-occupied territory. But, as He assured those who aligned themselves with Him, not even “the gates of hell shall...prevail against it” (cf. Matthew 16:18).
In light of this progression unfolding of God’s story, there came a day when Jesus asked the Pharisees a very direct question: “What do you think about the Christ?” (Matthew 22:42). More specifically as it relates to our text this morning, we might ask, what is Jesus worth to you? How you begin to answer that question is reflected in the manner in which you approach a service like this. Do you gather with others to collectively render praise and adoration to the One who is worthy of your worship, or do you come out of a sense of duty or obligation...and possibly even with some feelings of resentment?
What is Jesus worth to you? When you see sin in all of its deplorable ugliness and you turn from it to embrace the Christ who is truly beautiful, He will be more precious to you than anything else. Your worship of Him will be extravagant, like Mary’s. Indeed no “cost” will ever be too great.
It was David, the man “after God’s own heart” (cf. 1 Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), who understood this well, and has left for us this testimony: “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24). True worship is costly. It involves self-sacrifice. And to the degree that we are not willing to sacrifice for the Lord, it is not true worship.