Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.
Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
John 12:1-8 (NLT)
I like it when things make sense. I like that 2+2=4 and that a hot stove burns. I do not like when that stove burns me, but I do like that I can generally count on the stove being hot. If I was honest with myself, sometimes I am like Judas in this story. Judas sees Mary enter the room with a jar of *very* expensive perfumed oil and I am sure he has already done the calculations in his head. It must have been obvious that it was an expensive jar. Probably, similar to today if somebody walked in a room with a Tiffany Blue colored box. Practically everyone would instantly know that what is inside is unique and valuable. Judas, being the financially observant character that he is, knows the value of this jar. I also wonder if he preemptively started calculating what could be purchased with the perfume since Mary was obviously going to be offering it to Jesus. Giving the proceeds to the poor is obviously an option, maybe buying bread and wine for the upcoming Passover meal, or maybe (as John seems to suggest) Judas wanted to line his own pockets with the money. Whatever his plans, Judas saw the offering of this perfume as merely transactional. Giving something to get something else, a one for one transaction. A rational and normal assumption.
But, Mary goes and does the unthinkable in Judas’ mind.
She breaks the jar open, pours the valuable perfume on Jesus’ feet and on the ground. She spreads the perfume around Jesus feet with her hair causing the aroma to fill and permeate the house. From what we can tell, she uses all of it. The ancient world did not have convenient ways to store and reseal things. More than likely, once Mary broke whatever seal this jar had…there was no way of closing it. Everyone can smell it, the act is obvious and unmistakable. Anyone who walked in the room at that moment would know exactly what happened. I am sure there were more people in that room thinking what Judas ultimately said.
What a waste.
Mary did not know what she had.
Mary should have…
Mary could have…
This does not make sense.
Jesus words affirming Mary’s act were probably equally perplexing to everyone at this party. He says, “She did this in preparation for my burial.” I do not know about you, but mentioning death, especially your own, is not the best way to diffuse an already awkward situation. If people around the table were already confused by Mary’s actions, they were probably downright baffled by Jesus’ explanation. Judas was obviously not pleased. Then, barely one chapter later, Judas skips out of the Last Supper and goes out into the night to betray Jesus.
Here’s the thing though. The acts of the faithful rarely make sense. Sure, giving money to the poor and feeding the hungry are generally acts everyone can support. But, anointing Jesus with an expensive jar of perfume in expectation and honor of his death and burial? That blows people’s minds. Worshiping a crucified person, rejected by everyone around him does not make sense. Proclaiming that someone resurrected from the dead does not make sense. Being martyred by guiding your killers sword to your neck does not make sense. Living atop a pillar for 37 years does not make sense. Joining the poor in Rome to beg near the doors of churches does not make sense.
But in the eyes of the world, the Church is one of the biggest nonsensical things that ever existed. The acts of the Church and her faithful confound and challenge the world at every turn. Calling into question everything the world holds dear. Giving up something for Lent does not make sense to many people outside the church. But, that is the power of Lent. For the faithful to be able to stand up and proclaim that this world has no power over them. The desires, temptations, powers and values of the world are not important in light of the crucifixion and sacrifice of Christ. Lent challenges us to take what the world tells us is valuable, break it and offer it at the feet of Jesus. This seemingly nonsensical act announces to the world, as the perfume spread in the house, that the true focus in our life is Jesus. A beaten, crucified, bloodied and buried Messiah that looks defeated to the world but triumphant to the Church.
But thank God! He has made us his captives and continues to lead us along in Christ’s triumphal procession. Now he uses us to spread the knowledge of Christ everywhere, like a sweet perfume. Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume.
2 Corinthians 2:14-16