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John

Perfume

John 12:1-8

It is the nature of John’s Gospel that it fills in some of the gaps and things left unsaid in the synoptic Gospels. Matthew and Mark also describe this incident; but John’s account is much more personal – it names names.

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then 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.

4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.£6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

9Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

It should be noted that some see some discrepancies in the various accounts. We must, of course, allow for the fact that exact quotation is not common in ancient writing – no tape recorders. But it is instructive to examine some of the differences between the Gospels:

  • Matthew and Mark make it that “the disciples” object to this. John is specific; it was Judas. Being Jesus’ best friend, he may have felt the betrayal more keenly.
  • Nor do they identify Mary. It is possible that this is because Mary was still alive when Matthew and Mark wrote, and either humility or danger to Mary from such writing prevented it. It’s also possible that Matthew and Mark, writing to Jewish audiences in a Jewish culture, felt it more proper to leave out the name of a mere woman. John, writing in a Greek culture, may have felt otherwise.
  • The next event in John’s Gospel is the Triumphal Entry. In Matthew and Mark, the next episode is Judas going to the priests to betray Jesus. Thus it is than many see such envy in Judas.
  • Matthew places the meal in the house of one “Simon the Leper.” Such a man (undoubtedly healed by Jesus, or he could not attend his own banquet) would be a gracious host. It is likely that this is somewhat similar to a church pot luck supper; all the women would take a hand in serving.
  • Matthew records for us (Mark too) Jesus saying which honors Mary to this day: “Let her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me.” As we shall see, this might be the theme of the passage.

The Character of Judas

Of all the people in the New Testament, none is such an enigma as the man named Judas Iscariot. How a man could spend three years in the company of the Holy One and then betray him seems well beyond our minds. We can catch but a glimpse of “why” in this passage; but there are lessons nonetheless.

His treatment

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Judas is this: that Christ, the omniscient, treated him like the other disciples. There is no record that Christ treated him the worse for what he was going to do. Despite the fact that Jesus must have known, he treats Judas like all the others, as far as we know. There is wisdom in this. It tells us that the church ought to treat sinners as we do Christians – for all Christians are sinners too. Our Lord’s forbearance to Judas should be an example to us all.

Mary and Judas

Indeed, it is an interesting comparison, Mary and Judas. Dare we speculate a little and see if we can peer into Judas’ heart?

  • Judas brings up what he considers a better use for the money. Jesus does not rebuke his hypocrisy (they are, after all, in public) but rather commends Mary. Can you see what envy that would have provoked in Judas? That a mere woman could be so highly praised, especially after his pious suggestion of giving to the poor – it is a bitter thing to take. Bitterness is the breeding ground of envy.
  • It’s clear that the love of money is in Judas’ heart. But see how indifferent to this is Mary! It seems that she had plenty of it (the perfume is quite expensive) but that it did not rule over her. Nor did it tempt her. Judas is a man owned by money.
  • But most of all there is this: Mary is not afraid to give Jesus everything she has or is. Judas has only measured devotion.
The treatment of sinners

Our Lord gives us an example here. In the case of the worst of sinners, the one who betrayed the innocent Lamb of God, we see how Jesus treats him – or rather, does not treat him:

  • He does not audit the books. He does not go looking into Judas’ affairs, for he knows that all of his disciples are sinners. That being said, the specific sins need no particular explanation. Similarly, does the church do well to investigate new members to make sure their sins are only of the acceptable sort?
  • He does not rebuke him in public. He could denounce Judas to the other disciples, but he rather would wait. It is an early form of church discipline – which starts with the one on one contact in private.
  • He does not condemn him for what he is about to do. Rather, even to the last minute in the garden, he treats him as a friend in the hope of conquering his pride and securing his repentance.

Mary

If there is one essential difference between the two, it is this: Mary’s worship of God knows no limits. She has discovered the joy of abandonment. Judas is trying to be proportionate; no proportions can satisfy infinity.

Sacrificial Worship

So that you might understand her actions better, you must know something about the culture of the time. In our time women regularly parade themselves in clothes that a hundred years ago would have shamed a prostitute. The idea of a “male only” gathering is now restricted to bachelor parties and such. Then, it was unthinkable that a mere woman would participate in the important things of life – such as this dinner given in honor of Jesus. Cooking and cleaning should suffice for them.

So we can see that it would surprise the guests that Mary would actually participate publicly. More than that, she would shock the guests by letting her hair down in front of a man who was not her husband. It would be viewed as a gesture of complete abandonment.

Martha, her sister, is being reasonable about things. She’s serving the meal. But from her last rebuke she has learned that she should not hinder Mary when Jesus is around. There is something in Mary that Martha just can’t reach.

Look again at the Scripture. Do you see the phrase, “pure nard?” The word for pure in that phrase is pistici. It is the word from which Greek gets its word for faith. Mary has that extraordinary purity of faith which yields a soul devoted to Jesus Christ. The Father seeks such worshipers, for they worship him in spirit and in truth.

Devotional Giving

There are three tests of true devotional giving – such as Mary shows here.

  • From the world’s viewpoint, the sacrifice is a waste, a prodigal sacrifice. We can recall the thousands of tons of gold that David acquired so that his son Solomon could line the walls of the temple with it.
  • From the giver’s point of view, it must be extremely costly. We recall the widow’s two small coins in the offering. Not very valuable from the monetary point of view, but all she had. She could have offered one of them – but she gave them both. She trusted God for everything else.
  • Indeed, devotional giving always carries with it the possibility that the giver could have given less – and the world would still have approved. Devotional giving is the opposite of conventional giving. Devotional giving says, “If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t help.”

Lessons for the Church

This passage is often used as a fine example of devotion to Christ – but we seldom hear just what the speaker would have us do. Here are a few lessons which we might take home:

How should the church treat sinners?

We need to remember that we are all sinners – Christians are the ones who have turned around and are following the Lord, but we’re sinners still. We should therefore take lesson from Jesus and treat the lost thus:

  • We should not concern ourselves with finding out what their sins should be. We know they are sinners, and therefore lost. We should not judge them, but introduce them to the Savior. As Paul said, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?”[1]
  • We rebuke to repair – to bring the sinner back to God, not to proclaim our own righteousness. So it is that we rebuke in private, lest the temptation to pride overwhelm the tender mercy of the Lord.
  • Indeed, we are ambassadors of reconciliation, not condemnation. Our attitude should always start with the fact that we too are sinners.
First things first

One of the surest ways to kill a church is to put the works in this world about the worship. We pay very little attention to the importance of worship, but important it is. John remembers in this instance how the aroma of the perfume filled the room. It is a picture of what we should be doing. The worship life of a saint comes before the life of service. The first commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Only then is the command to love your neighbor as yourself given. First things first.

How do we do this?

  • In prayer – the sweet time of bringing our entire life to the Lord.
  • In praise – in the joy of music, the adoration of the tongue, we set ourselves in proper relationship to God.
  • In devotion – spending time thinking about the greatness of God; reading the thoughts of those who know him better; time spent getting to know the greatness of the Lord.
  • In reverence for his name – so that ;you keep it holy.
Sacrificial living

Once you have established sacrificial worship, you will then find yourself inevitably practicing sacrificial living.

  • The poor are always with us; therefore, the question of how we treated them is also always with us. May it please God to find us with a ready answer; one that says, “I cared for them as I would care for you.”
  • This is not a matter of giving from your excess; rather, giving from what is important to you. “I will not offer a sacrifice that costs me nothing.”[2]
  • When you complain of the loss and pain, remember to look to the Cross – remembering what your Lord gave for you. There is the standard of your giving; there your Lord gave his all that you might be released from bondage. Consider the example – then go and do likewise.

[1] 1 Corinthians 5:12-13

[2] 1 Chronicles 21:24; said by King David

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