I want to invite your attention today to the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John. We want to look at Mary's costly sacrifice, a message that is one of the most familiar and equally ignored lessons of all the New Testament, one that there are more asterisks and exceptions put by in our lives than any other requirement of Scripture, one that in the Western culture in which we live, we will use in every application except the obvious application that is given…that of a costly sacrifice.
"Six days before the Passover," John puts it, Jesus arrives in Bethany, less than two miles from Jerusalem. Since we were last with Jesus, He had, in John, raised Lazarus from the dead, but then had left, and He has gone back into the region of Galilee. He has come down the eastern side of the Jordan River, ministered in Perea, crossed over the Jordan into Jericho. His face was set toward Jerusalem. His intentions from Galilee and the journey across was His own death, His own costly sacrifice, His own life for your life, for my life, for the lives of those He encountered all along the way.
He sets His face toward Jerusalem, ascends the 3,500 feet it takes in that 17-mile journey from Jericho to Jerusalem, stopping off at Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, perhaps one whom He had cured of leprosy in previous times. But now arriving in Bethany, He is invited into this home, and they're going to throw a dinner for Him. They're going to have a meal for Him. It's at the conclusion of Sabbath, and He is enjoying that end of Sabbath meal there with all the friends who are gathered.
Martha is there in the home. She is doing what Martha does. She is being the hostess. She is serving. Mary is there as well. Mary is going to do what Mary does. She is going to worship. She is going to be at the feet of Jesus. Lazarus is there. Lazarus is going to do what he hadn't done in a while. He was going to breathe! He appears to almost be an honored guest as well as Jesus, sitting there with Jesus at the table.
Now again this table is not like a table that we would be used to, but more like a coffee table for us. With very short legs, you would sit down…or the table would have short legs. Some of you might have short legs too. But whatever length your legs were, you would sit down on your hip, and you would extend your feet out behind you, typically leaning on your left elbow. And everyone would do that around the table. That was reclining at the table.
When it speaks of one of the disciples being in the bosom of Jesus, it's the idea that they're leaning on the table, and this one who is just to the right of Christ being close to Him. That is the one who is being indicated. This different kind of seating, seating on the floor here, but one thing it allows is that your feet are exposed. They're behind you, and that will become important when we see the action of Mary here in just a moment.
Martha is serving them; otherwise, Martha probably has no invitation to be at this table. It's going to be a table of men. It's just the culture. Mary has no invitation to be at the table. It's going to be a table of men. That's the culture. But Mary enters the room. It's been a while, if we understand our chronology, since Mary has seen Jesus since her brother was raised from the dead. She has always been a worshiper of Jesus. I've told you before that every time we find Mary she is at His feet. She is listening to Him. She is learning from Him.
And here she is going to be at His feet again, but this time she walks into the room carrying a clay bottle…a box, a bottle. In it a pound, a Roman pound, of very costly perfume. A Roman pound is about 11 to 12 ounces of our English weight, so about three-quarters of a pound of this nard. Now nard was a plant that grew in the mountains of India, and they would take the roots of this plant because the roots and the spikes that grew from this plant were very aromatic, and hence the term spikenard that you may have in your translations.
This nard was so valuable, so aromatic, that it was often bought with the intention of an investment. Much as people will buy gold today, they would buy bottles of this nard. Now it wasn't in a bottle that had a screw on top that could be easily opened and closed. Generally, it was waxed over, and the way you would open the bottle was to lop off the top of it. And you would only do that on a very special occasion because there is not a very good way to reseal this bottle, and so you would tend to use it all in one sitting.
But this wasn't any ordinary perfume. We find in the text today that Judas says it was worth 300 denarii. That is a day's wage, a denarius. Three hundred denarii is a year's wage because they didn't get paid for the Sabbath. They didn't get paid for holy days. There were 300 working days in a Jewish year, and the common laborer's salary or pay for a day was a denarius. So 300 is a year's salary.
So we're talking about a bottle, a flask, a box, a container of perfume that was worth a year's salary. Quite an investment. Quite a prized possession. We're not even sure how Mary comes into possession of this. Was it an inheritance, or does it just further indicate that they were really quite a wealthy family? Either way, this is valuable stuff. This is thousands and thousands of dollars, easily the most valuable item they had there in their home.
And she has brought it with her. If Simon lives in a different home, she has brought it to the home of Simon the leper. Or if Simon owns the home that they are living in…some think that Simon was the father of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary…either way, Mary has brought this container. And she brings it into the room. Now that in and of itself is a little bit socially awkward because she is not coming to serve the food.
But she comes to the feet of Jesus sticking out, and she bows down, lops off the end of that alabaster container. And at the moment, that expensive nard cologne begins to permeate the room. She takes it and she pours $10,000…$20,000 worth of oil on the floor where Jesus' feet are. She does this out of her sense of love and devotion.
But there is one more step. She pulls the pin out of her hair, and she lets the tresses of her hair fall down. Now that is only something a prostitute would do. But you see, she is going to do a servant's chore here. She is anointing the feet of Jesus, which anointing someone's feet, washing someone's feet, that was a sign in itself of servanthood. Jesus will denote that just a chapter later in John when He washes the feet of the disciples. And He says, "As I have done this to you, you should also do to one another."
But normally there is a towel involved. Even when a servant would anoint someone's feet or wash someone's feet, he would use a towel to wipe them off. But Mary steps lower than that. She uses the glory of a woman, her own hair, and uses her glory, and gives her glory to Jesus, and wipes His feet with her own hair. There is an intimacy. There is a nakedness. There is an I-don't-care-what-people-think-when-I-worship attitude when Mary lets her hair down in this public setting and wipes her Savior's feet. Without saying a word, she gathers up the empty alabaster box and prepares to leave.
The Bible tells us in the other accounts that not just Judas is upset about this, that the other disciples were as well and perhaps others who were in the room. You know what they saw? They saw the oil. They saw the waste. They saw $10,000…$20,000 being poured out on the ground. They saw it thrown out. They saw an investment.
Judas saw a year's income, a year's income, being wasted and destroyed. And so he cries out in his hypocritical fashion, and he says, "What a waste! We could have sold that bottle, and we could have given that money to the poor." He doesn't see the extravagant worship. He simply sees the extravagant waste. He doesn't see the One to whom the worship is intended. He doesn't see the devotion of the worshiper. He just sees the action, and he sees the materials involved in the action, and he sees it as wasteful.
Join with me in John 12 as we look at this short account. It says, "Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
"But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, who would betray Him, said, 'Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?' This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, 'Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.'"
This expensive nard oil that is used is what Judas' objection. And his objection was actually just a smoke screen to cover his own selfishness, to cover his own greed. John is very careful to point out that Judas says this not because he cared for the poor but because he was a thief. The only place in the New Testament where Judas is actually called a thief is right here. Apparently, he was the treasurer of the group. He carried the money for the group, and got into the practice of pilfering from the money. The other disciples would give to Jesus and His disciples to maintain their itinerant teaching ministry, and as the money grew, apparently Judas began to siphon off some for himself.
It was just all part of his nature. It shouldn't surprise us. Here is a man who will sell another individual for 30 pieces of silver. Money is his object. Money is his ultimate determining goal. Money is his god. He may say that he believes in Jesus as Messiah. He may say he believes in Yahweh. But what drives him, what motivates him, what excites him, what frustrates him is money. That is the measurement. That is the determining factor for Judas Iscariot. He simply shows a smoke screen to cover up this idea of caring for the poor. No, that is not his interest, but it just sounds good.
I'll tell you, it's common in church life to discover that those who are most apt to criticize are often those who are doing nothing themselves. That is the way that works. Those who never go to church are the ones who criticize church. Those who never read the Bible are the ones who want to point out the supposed inconsistencies they've heard about the Bible. Those who never help are the ones who are the first to criticize when plans fail. That is the way the non-involved personally selfish respond in any culture.
And so it was with Judas. He wasn't a caregiver. He wasn't a generous person. He didn't see the worship in Jesus. He was just driven by the money. And oh how we have to be careful to beware of finding fault in anybody in areas where you yourself are deficient in that area. And so it was with Judas.
Jesus will have none of it. In one of His only rebukes to Judas, He says, "Leave her alone. Leave her alone." He said that to Martha earlier at another time when she was saying, "Why don't You tell Mary to get up and come help me in the kitchen." And He says, "Mary has chosen the better part." And now here is Mary again worshiping, not just listening, but worshiping in a different fashion, and it's Judas who complains about her.
Now if you're Mary, you have a choice. You can really begin to get some problems with your ego because the times that you are trying to worship your Lord, you get criticized publically every time! But what you have to decide…what Mary has to decide…is, "What is the cost of my worship? What is the cost of my sacrifice? Am I willing to worship freely my Lord and Savior? Am I willing to give Him everything I can give Him, give Him all of myself even if people have something to say about it? Will I worship Him with all my heart, and soul, and mind, and strength even if in so doing people look at me and say, 'You're a radical. You're getting beyond your bounds. You're stepping out ahead of the social order.'?"
Mary made that decision. She decided that she would just simply worship the Lord. If it meant going into a room full of men eating to worship Him, she wanted to be near her Lord. And she was willing to give whatever she could give. Hers wasn't, "What is the least I have that I can bring in order to pay a tribute?" She wasn't there to pay tribute. She wasn't there to pay a tithe. She was there to give the most expensive thing she had, the most valuable thing she owned.
Mary got it! Mary got what no one else in the room got. She understood, probably in those times when she sat quietly at the feet of Jesus, listening to Him teach. She certainly now in seeing the resurrection of Lazarus her brother, she seems to understand what no one else sees. She sees the value of Christ. She sees the value of her personal relationship with Him. She sees that He is One who answers her prayer, One who goes beyond answering her prayer. And there is nothing she is not willing to give to Him. And she even goes so far as to actually give it.
We talk about this, we "Amen" this, we praise her in this, and then we make sure we don't do this. We do all but give. You say, "Well, preacher, I love the Lord. I'm here. It's Sunday morning, and here I am." Yeah you're here, but you don't have to go to work today. If you're not here, you're at home. It didn't cost you anything to just come. "Well, I worked all day Saturday on the church." Yeah but you were off that Saturday. It didn't really cost you anything to give.
Sometimes we get so proud of what we do for God, and at the same time what we do for God is no sacrifice at all! The question of Mary, the example she sets, the reason Jesus in a rare fashion interrupts Judas is because He sees in her devotion an act of genuine sacrifice. And what is on Jesus mind? What is on His mind? Why is His face set toward Jerusalem? Because He is about to give His life for Judas and for Mary, for Peter and for Martha, for you and for me. And He sees her giving all that she has as still even less than He is going to do.
He says, "Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial." You know I get by that that perhaps she understands what Jesus is about to endure, and she is the only one who does. She is anointing His feet. You know anointing a body, that was something they had done with Lazarus. That is something they do with every dead body. One of the uses of nard was to anoint the bodies of dead people. Because it was so aromatic, it would help delay the onset of the smell of human decay. They would put the spices on them, and sometimes they would pour the perfumes on there as well. And nard was something that was used lavishly. Because it was so expensive to use it, it was a lavish thing to do at a funeral.
Jesus is still alive, but perhaps in anticipation of His coming death, she goes ahead and anoints His feet. And He says, "She has kept this for My burial. She is worshiping Me. She gets it, guys. Leave her alone."
What a great timing on the song that Otty sang for us. Toward the end of it, she says, "You don't know the cost of my alabaster box." I think sometimes when we see someone pouring themselves out in worship, from the outside we won't to judge and say, "That's too much. That's too much. You're just drawing attention to yourself." But we don't know the cost behind that praise. We don't know the value that went into what they're giving back to the Lord.
Sometimes we'll say that someone has…you know, "You're overdoing it." But they don't understand what the Lord has done for them. They don't understand this person's attempt to surrender all for Jesus because Jesus has given all to them. A few people do! Jesus understands.
And then verse 8, He makes the interesting statement. Again in response to Judas' hypocrisy, He says, "For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always." I think here is the lesson of sacrificial giving right here in this verse. Now it's not a verse to use as an excuse for being stingy with poor people. It's not saying, "Well Jesus said we shouldn't give anything." No, it's not saying that at all.
The fact is the practice was, Deuteronomy even expected that you would give alms to the poor, that you would help the poor. The reality was and still is that in every generation there are needs. There are always needs, and we're to always meet those needs to the capacity with which we can meet them. Okay? It's not an excuse that, "Well since people are going to be poor tomorrow, it wouldn't do me any good to help the ones who are poor today." No, that is a terrible logic! We are to help. We are to help those. But there only comes a few times when we can worship Christ in an extravagant way.
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