History remembers the outliers, the extremes—the extremely good and—more vividly—the extremely bad. Case in point: Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Caligula. He ruled as Caesar over the Roman Empire for only 1,400 days—a 4-year span drenched in extreme pleasure and extreme bloodshed. Through unparalleled debauchery and butchery, he in death obtained the immortality he sought in life.
 A contemporary of Caligula’s was a simple woman of Bethany in Judea named Mary. Her siblings included a sister, Martha, and a brother, Lazarus. Seven years before Caligula was appointed Caesar, Mary did something so extreme that Jesus said it would mark her forever in history’s memory (compare John 12:1-8 with Matthew 26:6-13 and Mark 14:3-9).

The incident took place on a Saturday evening in the home of Simon the leper, a man whom I assume Jesus formerly had healed. The following day would be Palm Sunday, when Jesus would ride into Jerusalem to be greeted with shouts of hosanna; but this was the evening before, during a dinner party in His honor at which Lazarus was a seated guest and Martha, as usual, served.

Mary slipped quietly into the room and went to work. In her hand she held an alabaster flask of expensive perfume, about 12 ounces. She broke open the seal and commenced to pouring it on Jesus so it ran from the top of His head to the bottom of His feet and dripped from His toes onto the floor below. The odor filled the house.

Why did she do it? John insinuates a couple of reasons. First, Mary was profoundly grateful for how Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11) so she was able to enjoy that evening’s meal with him. Notice that after telling us in verse 2 that Lazarus sat at the table, John 12:3 says Mary “therefore” (ESV) anointed Jesus’ feet. She hadn’t gotten over the miracle of her brother’s resurrection.

Second, Mary may have possessed unusual insight into what was about to happen next. Jesus indicated (v. 7) she had been keeping that perfume in anticipation of His upcoming burial, which was, unbeknownst to anyone else there, less than a week away. If I understand Him correctly, Jesus was saying Mary’s understanding of His mission was deeper than that of the Twelve.

Extreme worship, the kind of worship offered by Mary here, is generated by profound gratitude and keen insight. It requires thoughtful reflection upon what the Lord has done for us and disciplined meditation upon His Word—the same kind of meditation Mary evidenced when Jesus visited in her home on an earlier occasion (Luke 10:38-42).

What kind of reaction did Mary’s extreme worship elicit? A negative one. Indignant, the disciples led by Judas, questioned the wisdom of the act. In his commentary on John’s Gospel, Jack Stallings uses words such as “garishly excessive, in poor taste, undignified and wasteful” to describe how they perceived her act. They balked at the foolishness of it all, pouring out what amounted to a year’s wages when that money could have fed the poor. Then, to make matters worse, she let down her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet—an act that, from the disciples’ point of view, Stallings describes as “objectionable, unbecoming, even vulgar, embarrassing everyone in the room.”

Extreme worship, the kind of worship offered by Mary, is generally misjudged and rarely appreciated in the moment. That’s OK. Jesus understands. He understands what motivates people’s criticisms (v. 6). He understands our hearts’ motives. He’s able to keep everything in perspective.
Today when people criticize believers for pouring so much time, effort and money into celebrating events such as Easter when that money could be given to charity, Jesus understands. The poor will be there tomorrow. That’s not to dismiss their needs today, but it’s to say He must remain our highest priority always. Now, that’s extreme; and that’s what will make any life memorable.

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