John D. Witvliet: How Mary’s Perfume Points Us Toward the Cross

“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).

In a scene of generous hospitality and intimate fellowship, Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have gathered in the afterglow of Lazarus’ return to life (John 12:1-11). Lazarus is reclining at the table with Jesus. Martha, ever the active servant, is serving food. Artists depicting this scene reach instinctively for the warmest possible palette of colors and pain themselves to depict facial expressions of an almost unimaginable degree of warm-hearted tenderness.

Then Mary offers her gesture of devotion to Jesus, lavishing a full pint of exquisite perfume over Jesus’ feet and upending conventions of decorum by unfurling her hair to wipe them. Just a few days before, Jesus, Mary, and Martha were confronted by the stench of Lazarus’ decaying body. Now, with Lazarus, they are basking in the aroma of luxurious perfume.

Following three years of ministry in which observers responded to Jesus in such oppositional and awkward ways, what a remarkable picture of true devotion this is—Mary’s unashamed, humble, extravagant gesture. Nothing here resembles a grudging obeisance to a distant deity or an agreeable, but half-hearted engagement in typical religious protocols. This is whole-hearted adoration of a loving Lord.

Just a few verses into the story, we can already sense God’s call to each of us to follow Mary’s lead, to become disciples of utter of devotion to Jesus. Korean songwriter Chung Kwan Park invites worshipers to identify with Mary’s adoration by singing: “to my precious Lord I bring my flask of fragrant oil; kneeling down, I kiss his feet, anoint them with the oil.” Try singing that on your knees, imagining what kind of love would lead you to readily part with a year’s wages as a fitting response to the Lord of life. Even the act of imagining it stretches our vision.

And then the scene turns noticeably chilly. Judas’s response sounds reasonable at first, a perfect blend of concern for both social justice and fiscal prudence. Wouldn’t it be better to take the full year’s wage that purchased the perfume and give it to the poor? But John quickly tells us that Judas’s words do not ring true. Judas is a pilfering group treasurer who cared only for his own gain. Jesus rebukes him, “Leave her alone,” sending artists to reach for stone-cold grays to depict the judgmental, hypocritical disciple.

The contrast could not be more pronounced: Mary is generous; Judas is greedy. Mary is humble; Judas is arrogant. Mary is selfless; Judas is self-centered. Judas stands aloof; Mary kneels in humble adoration. Together, they serve as vivid contrasting illustrations of Jesus’ own teaching: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21).

Jesus’ rebuke of Judas comes to us as a further invitation to true discipleship—to turn away from all that is greedy, self-centered, and cold-hearted. To repent for all the times we have cloaked our own inner greed in statements of exterior piety. To resist any temptation to look down our noses at acts of worship that appear to our own haughty selves as eccentric, peculiar, over the top.

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Source: Christianity Today