Consider the value of the perfume that Mary had in her possession in John 12.
It was worth three hundred denarii. A denarii was a day’s wage for the average worker in the first century. Three hundred denarii is one year’s salary. Let me put this in contemporary terms so you can feel the force of it.
At the time of this writing, the average annual income in America is approximately fifty thousand dollars. So the value of that flask of perfume was the equivalent of fifty thousand dollars.
Mary probably received the perfume as a family heirloom. It represented her savings, her future, her security. It could have been sold in case of a financial crisis.
With that thought in mind, I’d like to make three observations about Mary’s extravagant act:
(1) Mary recognized the supreme worth of the Lord Jesus.
Mary took that which was most precious to her, and she gave it to her Lord. Not just some of it. But all of it. She poured the entire contents of the flask … one Roman pound of undiluted nard … upon Jesus. A Roman pound is close to twelve ounces.
I’m impressed that Mary saved this precious perfume for Christ. Even when her own brother died, she didn’t use it for his burial. Instead, she kept it as a treasured gift for her Lord.
The shadow of the cross hovered over the banquet. By instinctive love and intuitive foresight, Mary knew that Jesus wasn’t going to be with the family much longer. Thus her act was in perfect season.
It was an elegant picture of extravagant worship, extravagant loyalty, extravagant love, and extravagant devotion. And it was precious in the Lord’s sight.
Jesus prized Mary’s love and faith in a special way. He gave her act a deathless fame that would spread everywhere the gospel was preached. Her good work won His warmest praise, being rewarded with a renown that was beyond the legacy of kings. And in the face of abrasive criticism, Jesus defended and commended Mary with words of matchless beauty and tenderness.
Recall what Paul said in Philippians 3:8:
I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.
In Bethany, Jesus Christ is valued for His exceeding worth. In Bethany, there is nothing too costly to lay at His feet. In Bethany, all things are counted as loss for the excellent knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord.
But even more, the way that Mary anointed Jesus was scandalous. It was shameful for a woman to unbind her hair in public with men present. It denoted loose morals and was guaranteed to raise pious eyebrows.
Mary of Bethany’s anointing shouldn’t be confused with a previous anointing by a “sinful woman” in Luke 7. There are too many discrepancies to view it as the same event, including the location, the people involved, the way the anointing was done, and the time at which the event took place.
In addition, there is no evidence to suggest that Mary of Bethany was a sinful woman. Quite the contrary.
Perhaps Mary heard of the woman who had anointed Jesus in the past and was inspired by the idea. This is quite possible. (The post-apostolic Christians believed the sinful woman was Mary Magdalene, though this cannot be proven or disproven.)
Regardless of whether Mary heard about the previous anointing or not, she was taking a profound risk by unbinding her hair in public. A risk that demonstrated that she didn’t care what others thought about her worship.
At bottom, Mary’s stunning act wasn’t motivated by the things that often govern spiritual service today, such as guilt, duty, obligation, the desire to impress others, the thrill of being appreciated, and the need to satisfy restlessness.
No, she performed this shameless gesture for an Audience of One. Her eyes had been opened to see the supreme value of Jesus Christ. And the Lord defended and commended her for it.
(2) Mary shattered the flask.
The shattering of the alabaster flask signifies excessive use wherein nothing was saved. Once opened, the flask could not be resealed.
John wanted his readers to know that when the flask was broken, the house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Herein lies a great spiritual principle:
When the vessel is broken, the fragrance of Christ pours forth.
This brings us back to the matter of brokenness that we discussed in chapter 1. The alabaster cruse was beautiful and expensive. But it had to be broken in order for the sweet perfume to be released and the scent enjoyed.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
Brokenness is a mark of the spiritual history of the Lord’s choicest servants. Our lives can only become fragrant with the Lord’s life when we’ve experienced the inner depths of brokenness. When something has been broken within us, something of God—who dwells in our spirits—is released, and the scent cannot be missed.
Charles Spurgeon rightly said that the jewels of the Christian are his or her afflictions. When people allow the Lord to break them and when they waste themselves upon Christ, those who come near them can sense the fragrance of His life.
There is nothing more precious on the face of this earth than a gathering of believers in whom the Lord feels at home. Whenever that takes place, there is an issuing forth of the aroma of Christ’s presence that can be detected by those who visit. It is the aroma of lives fully yielded to Jesus, poured out and wasted upon Him.
In the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 45, we are told that the Lord’s garments smelled of myrrh and aloes. Before Jesus was buried, Nicodemus placed myrrh and aloes on His body. And he used the same amount that was used for royal burials—a hundred pounds worth. By this act, Nicodemus testified that he believed Jesus to be a king.
Now think with me. In addition to the perfume that Mary poured upon Him, the Lord’s body was covered with a hundred pounds of fragrant spices. So when He rose from the dead a few days later, He was fragrant. And His fragrance could be smelled from afar.
Point: the resurrected Christ has a scent. He emits the everlasting fragrance of resurrection.
Now we cannot physically smell Christ today, but our spiritual senses can detect the fragrance of His presence among us.
The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The sense of smell is the most delicate of all the human senses. By it, we receive impressions beyond our sight and hearing. Fragrance cannot be hidden. It’s pervasive. When released, the fragrant influence of Jesus Christ cannot be hidden.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.
As A. B. Simpson once put it, “Preaching without spiritual aroma is like a rose without fragrance. We can only get the perfume by getting more of Christ.”
(3) Mary was criticized by Judas.
This story contains the only sermon that Judas ever preached. Listen to his three-word protest.
“Why this waste?”
When Judas saw Mary’s worshipful act, he exploded with criticism, saying, “Why are you being so wasteful? You could have helped the poor with this small fortune!”
But Mary stepped out in faith. Her act of extravagant love was shameless, selfless, and risked both embarrassment and the sneers and jeers of harsh criticism.
But love compelled her.
However, her act was rudely interrupted by a mean-spirited complaint. Her token of exquisite devotion exposed her own heart and the heart of Judas as well as the other disciples who agreed with him.
Judas sought to cloak the real motive behind his complaint with pious rhetoric. It was a case of cold-heartedness judging warm-heartedness under the guise of being spiritual.
Unfortunately, Judas is not alone in engaging in this behavior.
There are few things that are as close to God’s heart as helping the dispossessed and oppressed. Read your Old Testament. It’s spilling over with God’s concern for their plight.
Jesus Himself was a poor man all His life. The poor were His representatives, not His rivals.
But as important as caring for the poor is, Jesus Christ Himself is even more important. He is more valuable than any ministry, no matter how good or noble.
It is possible to worship the god of “ministry” in place of Christ.
Interestingly, the Lord’s death, which Mary highlighted by her anointing, would eventually solve the problem of poverty forever.
The contrast between Mary and Judas is dramatic. In Mary, we see the light of love. In Judas, we see the darkness of sin. Mary anointed Jesus for burial; Judas prepared Him for betrayal. Mary loved Christ in preparation for His death; Judas helped bring about His death.
I’m comforted to know that Jesus is an advocate to all who give Him the place of preeminence. He rises to the defense of every Mary.
While Mary was misunderstood and denigrated, she never justified, defended, or explained herself. Though she only speaks once in the Gospels, the legacy of her life speaks volumes by her actions.
For these reasons, Mary came closer to Jesus’ inner heart than anyone else.
And her loving act is one case among several where a woman got it right while the men got it wrong.
Every disciple of Christ has much to learn from Mary.
by Frank Viola Author