I know the perfume my sweetheart wears. I can be a thousand miles away, but when I smell that fragrance I think of her. My mind is flooded with wonderful memories and pleasant thoughts. In the words of Rudyard Kipling: “Smells are surer than sounds or sights to make your heartstrings crack.”
Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. Our text says the fragrance filled the room. I dare say those gathered in that room associated forever its powerful scent with that wonderful scene. Henceforth, whenever they smelled that memorable fragrance they reminisced about Mary, and her devotion to Jesus in those last days before His death.
It was a few days before Jesus’ death. He was in Bethany, just east of Jerusalem. There was a dinner in the home of Simon. Guests included Mary, Martha, Lazarus and, of course, Jesus. While they were eating, Mary entered the room, broke open a bottle of expensive perfume and anointed the feet of Jesus.
Judas criticized Mary for wasting the perfume. “Why was not this ointment sold,” he asked, “and the money given to the poor?” Jesus defended her. “She has anointed me for my burial. The poor you always have with you.”
Matthew then records these words: “Truly, I say to you, whenever this gospel is preached to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Mary knew Jesus was close to death. Was it a woman’s intuition? Was it the leadership of the Holy Spirit? Perhaps Mary had listened as Jesus spoke to His followers of His coming death. Perhaps she accepted it while others ignored it. Mary knew she had but a few days left to express her love.
Before someone dies there is that last opportunity to give a gift, to write a letter, to forgive a wrong, to speak of love, to recall the past. Such opportunities must be seized or regret settles in for a long stay.
A friend called me some years ago. His spouse was suffering symptoms of a deadly disease. The words spoken to me were these: “Pastor, I have learned again how precious each day is. We do things now that we used to do when we were newlyweds, when everybody thinks you’re crazy.”
Yes, they thought Mary was crazy that day. They told her so. But she recognized the opportunity and acted. It was a question of timing, when all the factors were just right — a few days before His death, a dinner in the house of a friend, the devotion of her own soul, a flask of choice perfume. The time was right!
How important timing is! Consider the launch of a space shuttle, when all variables must be precisely right. Or an eclipse of the sun, or the conception of a baby. In these common things, and in the things of God, timing is everything.
Does not Scripture say, “Seek the Lord while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near”? A warning is repeated often in the Bible: “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.” Why?
Tomorrow the opportunity may be gone. His will may not seem so clear. His voice may grow dim. Your desire to please Him may be lost in the cares of the world. Your resources and talents may be dissipated in the various and sundry pursuits of life. Mary seized her opportunity. She broke the flask and emptied its liquid upon the feet of Jesus.
It was expensive perfume. I am no connoisseur of perfume but I have leaned how to get the attention of those who sell it. For this sermon, I did a little “research” at the cosmetics counter at a large department store. I asked the clerk this question: “What is the most expensive perfume you sell?” Within sixty seconds three salespersons clustered around me. They brought out the new fragrance from Chanel that sells for $350 a bottle. They thought they were on the verge of a rare sale, when in fact they were simply assisting a poor preacher in the preparation of his sermon! I mumbled something about looking around, slipped away and bought Hershey’s chocolates for $2.39 a pound! They were well received by my sweetheart!
Perfume for $350 a bottle is expensive! But the perfume Mary poured upon the feet of Jesus was worth more than that. The flask of ointment was valued at a year’s wages.
Suppose your boss gave you a bonus equal to a year’s wages. What would you do with it? Pay some bills? Give some away? Buy a new car? Invest in stocks and bonds? Would you pour it out at the feet of Jesus? Would you invest it all in the kingdom of God? You are beginning to understand the extravagance of Mary’s deed. No wonder Jesus said it would be talked about for centuries!
Mary gave what she had, all she had, the best she had. People who do that always inspire us to do better. Albert Schweitzer left his native Germany with three doctors’ degrees — in medicine, philosophy and theology. He went to the interior of Africa. Why would such a talented man pour out such great amounts of life’s most precious things in the darkness of Africa? Paul said it for all, “The love of Christ compels me.”
Jesus responded to Mary’s deed with the words, “She has done a good thing.” It is indeed a good thing, the best thing, to “give of your best to the Master.” What is your best? What valuable talent, or gift, or possession sits even today on the shelf of your life? Will you pour it out for the Master?
Victor Adebimpe is a psychiatrist. Adebimpe has been a wonderful friend and spiritual guide to me. He is a native of Nigeria. It was there he became a believer, and it was there the Baptist missionaries at the hospital in Ogbomosho modeled for him a life of skill, service and dedication to Christ. He later became the director of psychiatric services at St. John’s Hospital. He spent most of his time with poor, psychotic patients, surely the least of the least in our society. Here was a man who has precious gifts, and he was pouring them out at the feet of Jesus. Jesus said, “When you do it to one of the least of these you have done it unto me.”
I know that you are saying to yourself: “It is not worth it.” Or “I cannot afford it.” Or “I have so little.”
These questions signal a great spiritual battle. It is the struggle to love the Lord your God; to seek first His kingdom; to trust His care; to honor His call upon your life. Every word of Jesus recorded in Scripture speaks to this contest for the soul. “I beseech you therefore by the mercies of God that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto Him, which is your reasonable service.”
What can you give the Master? A year’s wages? A brilliant life? Or, like the little drummer boy of whom we sing at Christmas, a simple roll of the drum? If it is your best, if it is your all, if it is an act of love, present it to the Lord. Do not say, “It is nothing.” Take your alabaster flask of gifts and pour it at the feet of Jesus.
C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay on church music. He discussed the relative worth of the gifts we present Jesus. He concluded with these words: “For all of our gifts, whether of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless gifts of a child which the father values, but values only for the intent.”
Some people, of course, will demean your gift. Mary poured out her ointment and Judas was quick to criticize. “Why wasn’t this sold and the money given to the poor?” Just like a man, isn’t it, to criticize the way a woman spends money? Just like an unbeliever, isn’t it, to question the extravagance of our love for Christ?
This very dialogue was read by many several years ago in the columns of The Pittsburgh Press. Pittsburgh’s First Presbyterian Church, the paper reported, was installing an organ. It was to be a massive, beautiful, expensive instrument, with few rivals in the country and none in the county. The cost was estimated to be in excess of $600,000.
An indignant reader wrote the paper to ask publicly if this was not a waste. Why was not this money, he wrote, used to feed the poor? In response, Bruce Thielemann, the pastor, wrote a wonderful defense. He used several powerful and effective reasons, all of which were true.
There is another defense I would like to add. Is there a greater use of our money than in the worship of God? With millions spent on roads, and missiles, and football games and corporate headquarters, why not spend $600,000 to the glory of God? Is the love and adoration of God such a small thing? Should we not be willing to break our financial flask and pour out our resources to build an organ, to feed the poor, to preach the gospel?
Jesus would say, “You have done a great thing!” It is a good thing because it is an act of love from one whose heart has been touched by the grace of God. Mary loved the Lord. Breaking the flask, pouring the oil, anointing the Lord’s feet can only be done by those who, like Mary, know the salvation of God.
This story reveals the essence of the converted heart. Awakened, quickened, cleansed, filled, rejoicing, every day. The Word says, “Each person should give what she has decided in her heart, not reluctantly, or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
It was Judas who was reluctant. It was Judas who had no cheer in such giving. It was Judas who could not understand the deed he witnessed. And the reason is simple: Judas carried with him an unconverted heart. He was a disciple of Jesus, yes. But Judas was an unconverted man. Paul later described this condition as “having a form of religion but denying the power thereof.”
There are many like Judas in the church. They are in the company of religious people, but feel no inward drive to worship, to serve, to pour out their best at the feet of Jesus. They have just enough religion, someone has said, to be uncomfortable in a bar but not enough to be comfortable in a prayer meeting. Like Judas, they commend Jesus for His wise teaching but criticize Mary for her act of devotion.
The unconverted soul is a dangerous thing, especially when sitting in a church pew or standing behind the pulpit. Judas, and all his kin, have an outward conformity, but within the soul is stilted, barren, selfish, critical, unconverted. Such people know not the grace and love of God. They take no delight in the things of God. They find no joy when another disciple breaks a flask and pours out precious things unto Christ.
Thank God for Mary! Aren’t you glad she took the opportunity, gave her best, anointed the feet of the Master? Suppose she had hesitated, debated, halted. Suppose she feared the smirks of the crowd, or the criticism of the skeptical? Suppose she had said, “Oh, this is silliness. It is but a passing mood.”
In February 1989, The New York Times reported a discovery near the Dead Sea in Israel — a flask of ointment, dating to the times of Jesus. It was found wrapped in palm leaves and buried in a pit three feet deep inside a cave. The flask was full of a very rare and valuable ointment. Who owned the flask? When and why was it buried?
I know one person who owned a flask of ointment. But she did not wrap it in palm leaves and hide it in a cave. Aren’t you glad that Mary broke the flask, poured the perfume, and filled the room with the fragrance of her love?
Does not the memory of it even yet draw you to Christ? Does not her example move you to devote yourself to the Lord? Is there something precious, something personal, something important that you can lay at the feet of Jesus?
What does the song say?
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.”