“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 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. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”” (John 12:1-8 ESV)
John continues drawing distinct contrasts between people and in this passage he draws a contrast between one who truly adored and worshipped Jesus, and one who simply pretended. Our goal is to use this passage to evaluate our own worship to determine if it is real or fake.
We don’t know how much time has elapsed between the events of Lazarus resurrection and this event, but it could not have been too long since the dinner seems to be, at least partially, in honor of that event. It is just a few days before the Passover and John is preparing us for the events that will occur in the next few days. This act of lavish worship is one of the few events recorded in three of the four gospels (Matt. 26, Mark 14, John 12).
Our English term, worship, comes from two old English words, weorth (having worth/value or being worthy) and scipe (possessing a quality). So, worship means to possess the quality of being of high worth or of utmost value. To worship is to attest to the fact that the person is worth or worthy of the honor, glory, adoration or praise that is offered up towards them. Worship is so much more than music. It involves music, giving, praise, prayer, work, education, craftsmanship, and so much more. In this story, worship involves an act of monetary sacrifice and service. Let’s take a look…
Kindness or Kind of Arrogant?
We’re going to approach this story a bit backwards. Bear with me and it will all make sense in the end why I chose to do so. First, let me suggest that while the story and the key events it relates are not generally seen as acts of worship, I believe they are. You could say it is just a simple dinner party thrown in honor of Jesus, after all. Simon is hoping to express his gratitude to Jesus for restoring his health and his life. A leper loses more than just his health and physical extremities from the disease. He also loses his family and his life in general. Because leprosy was transmitted so easily and spread by touch without any knowledge of how to prevent his family and friends from contracting the disease, a leper would have to abandon his family and home and live on the fringes of life while eliminating all physical contact with them. So naturally, when Jesus turns the entire situation on its head and restores Simon’s health and, really, his entire life then Simon is going to honor Jesus every chance he gets.
It appears that Simon, Lazarus and the sisters were either very good friends or, perhaps, related in some way because they seemed to work together in planning and hosting this celebration dinner. It is at Simon’s home and Martha is serving, Lazarus has a seat at the table, and Mary is presenting a gift of honor upon Jesus. So far, so good.
Then Judas interrupts and asks an awkward question regarding Mary’s gift. At first glance, Judas makes a valid point and poses a question that might leave some of us wondering at Jesus’ answer. Judas wants to know why Jesus didn’t rebuke Mary and suggest the gift be sold and the proceeds used to feed the poor. A noble cause and a valid question, right? Well, sort of… while the cause is certainly a noble one and is at the very heart of the very charge that Jesus lays at the disciples’ feet (see Matt. 25:31-46), it is not offered up from a pure heart. John inserts an editorial comment to enlighten his readers, Judas had ulterior motives.
It seems that Judas, who handled the group’s finances, had been helping himself to the petty cash fund whenever he needed a little extra money. There are, at least, two individuals who knew about this… John and Jesus. I suspect more knew, but Jesus may have allayed their concerns and quietly allowed the situation to continue. We can only speculate as to Judas’ motives for stealing, but John assures us they played into his decision to question the use of Mary’s gift.
He sounds noble in his plea, “wouldn’t it have been better to sell this gift and use the proceeds to feed the poor? Isn’t that a better use of this ‘expensive’ gift?” It is so easy for us to take a true act of worship and turn it into something selfish. In reality, we do it often. Sometimes we criticize the song choices or style of the music. We seek entertainment the pleases our senses, meets our needs, or fulfills our desires instead of losing ourselves in a selfless act of honor.
Notice Jesus’ response to Judas claim, “you will always have an opportunity to serve the poor but you won’t always have me.” He doesn’t downplay the need to feed the poor, but he emphasizes a time, a place and a need to worship. We can and must meet our obligations to feed, clothe and minister to those in need but we must never neglect our responsibility to worship our God. I believe Judas’ plea reflects our culture’s expectations for the church. A social needs gospel only. One that neglects worship and holiness. Now, let’s take a look at true worship, sacrificial worship, extravagant worship.
An extravagant act of worship…
As mentioned, John makes note of the extravagant gift of the jar of spikenard or nard. Nard is an amber colored essential oil that comes from a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, India and China. Due to this, it is expensive and used only for special occasions or purposes. Judas notes that it was worth about a year’s wages for a common laborer, or about $25,000 today. It is unknown whether this was a gift that Mary inherited or whether they purchased the nard specifically for this occasion. But regardless, there is little doubt that the gift is extravagant.
John says that Martha is serving and Lazarus is reclining at the table with Jesus, so Mary brings the nard and begins anointing Jesus’ feet. This seems to indicate that the gift is from the entire family, and possibly also Simon. Mary is the one who delivered it on their behalf. Extravagant love produces extravagant demonstrations or gifts of love and Mary’s expression of love is from a heart full of gratitude.
In light of the reasons for the celebration dinner – the healing of Simon and the resurrection of Lazarus, the anointing of Jesus by Mary appears to be not only an expression of gratitude but also their affirmation of His deity.
So, how would you respond to a similar situation or what would you do if God came for dinner? Would you pull out all the stops? Would the good China and silverware come out of the cabinet or would you opt for paper plates and plastic forks? Would you serve peanut butter sandwiches or ribeye steaks? You and I both know the answer to that question. There’s no way you’d cut corners on a dinner that important. You’d never serve God peanut butter sandwiches on paper plates, not even if it included strawberry jam.
But, what WOULD you offer him? You see, that’s where Simon, Mary, Martha and Lazarus find themselves. I have no doubt that if you realized that God himself had sat down across from you at last night’s dinner you would have offered Him the absolute best you had available and without the slightest hesitation. That’s what Mary did. She took the what she most treasured and offered it up to God as an expression of her love and she received in return the true desire of her heart. The unconditional and absolute love of God. That’s what you get when you offer up yourself, your very heart, to God in true worship. What does God really ask of us? To love God with ALL of our heart, soul, mind and strength (worship) and then to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mt. 22:36-40).
That’s why we struggle with this thing we call worship. We approach it more like Judas than Mary. We want to know what we can get out of worship. If we give him $5, will he give us $50 in return? As we talked about earlier, Judas wasn’t really interested in feeding the poor but was more interested in getting his hands on the cash. Have we relegated our relationship with Jesus to one of personal benefits or extravagant love?
When we abandon our search for material benefits from worship and begin offering up extravagant gifts of praise, adoration and love then we will truly begin to enjoy the real benefits of worship… the unconditional and absolute love of God.