Summary: Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ feet is an act of fully devoted discipleship, of worship and service, and of witness that we should follow.
“A Fragrant Offering”
John 12: 1 – 11
Introduction: Our Sense of Smell
1. Smells from a kitchen fill the house and people want to taste what is making the odor: homemade bread, a good homemade stew or soup, or even bacon frying in a pan and coffee brewing.
2. Our sense of taste is greatly influenced by our sense of smell.
3. Many of our earliest memories of childhood are triggered by smells.
Background and Context
1. Our story has connections with the tradition of OT sacrifices. Lev. 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2 are passages that provide some examples of sacrifices that are described as having a “pleasing odor to the Lord.” True worship is like a pleasing fragrance wafting up to the heavens.
2. Our story takes place in the Gospel of John just after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the miracle that precipitated the plot to kill him. More than that, it takes place in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus six days before the Passover festival.
3. Our story also has many connections with the Jesus’ hour:
a. Mary’s act anticipates Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet.
b. Mary’s act elicits Jesus’ comment about his burial – his death.
c. Mary’s act provokes Judas’ response of disdain and lets us know that he will be the one to betray Jesus when Jesus’ hour arrives.
d. Death surrounds and permeates this story: Jesus’ raising of a dead Lazarus, being anointed for his own burial, the anticipation of Jesus’ own death through mention of Judas’ betrayal. By returning to Bethany six days before – during the very week of Passover – Jesus is willingly moving toward the cross. Death is all over the place here.
Mary – A Fully Devoted Disciple
1. Mary’s Act as One of Discipleship
a. Mary’s act here anticipates Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. Mary’s wiping of Jesus’ feet uses the same verb that appears when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet; thus we are pointed toward Jesus’ foot washing at the farewell meal. What Jesus does for his disciples and then asks his disciples to do for one another Mary does here for Jesus. Mary fulfills Jesus’ love commandment before he even teaches it to his disciples. She also embraces Jesus’ departure at this hour before he has taught his disciples its true meaning. In the story of the raising of Lazarus, she comes when Jesus calls her (11:28, 29) showing that she is one of his own who know his voice (10:4); and when she anoints him she shows what it means to be one of his own. Mary “gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself at his hour.”
b. Mary also illustrates the cost of discipleship. She used a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard – it would have cost a year’s wages for an average labourer. She serves Jesus at great cost to herself. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship to illustrate the point that following Jesus is a costly enterprise: “It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”
c. Mary gives a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. “If in the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is fully revealed, then in Mary’s anointing of Jesus, faithful discipleship is fully revealed.” “Discipleship is defined by acts of love and one’s response to Jesus.” And it is a woman who is the first to embody the love that is commanded of all Jesus’ disciples. “Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship.”
d. Mary was, as Jesus’ disciple, an imitator of God. In Ephesians 5:2 Paul tells us to “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” The word fragrant here is the same one used of the perfume’s odor. Both literally and figuratively Mary gave a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
2. Mary’s Act as One of Worship
a. Anointing Jesus’ feet is an act of worship, one in which Mary gives of herself extravagantly. She gives all she has in worship. Not only was the perfume expensive, but there was a lot of it! A flask of perfume normally would hold an ounce – Mary uses 12 ounces! She goes out of her way to worship Jesus.
b. Worship includes more than singing songs and saying prayers on Sunday morning; it includes more than our own private devotions; the fullness of worship includes service to others. Christ did this – he gave himself as a fragrant offering and sacrifice – and he did so for us. For devout Jews worship and service were virtually the same thing: serving others, giving oneself up to love others, is the same as worshipping God.