April 3rd, 2022 homily on John 12:1-8 by Pastor Galen
Waste Not, Want Not
In my family when I was growing up, one of the most egregious and horrific things someone could do was to waste electricity or heat. When we left the room, the lights had to be turned off. If we left our house for any length of time, my dad would always turn the heat down. And we never, ever left the doors open, even for just a little bit, if the heat was on. In fact, when we were getting to leave the house, our whole family would crowd into the vestibule of our house on cold winter days until everyone was ready to leave, so that we could step out of the house together, without allowing any of the precious heat to escape.
And of course we were never allowed to waste food. If we didn’t want our food or were too full to eat it, we were always supposed to save it for later, or offer it to someone else.
Now, my parents were not like those parents who force their children to sit at the table until they eat all of their vegetables. My dad used a much more effective tactic to get us to eat all of our food: he used reverse psychology. If we didn’t like something, he would say something to the effect of, “Great! Now there’s more for me!” And then he would proceed to eat it, smacking his lips and loudly exclaiming about how wonderful the food was, and how much we were missing out by not eating it – to the point where we wished we had indeed eaten it or tried it ourselves.
But the point that was instilled in us was that we were to never waste electricity, or heat, or food, or gas. Because all of those things cost money.
Very Expensive Perfume
And so I have to admit that when I hear the story of Mary pouring out her expensive perfume on Jesus’s feet, my initial inclination is to side with Judas on this one – all I can think about is how much money that perfume cost, and how it sort of seems like all of that money was wasted.
Judas points out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. And he’s right. The perfume that Mary dumped out was worth 300 denarii, which was a whole year’s wages! Think about how much money you or your parents make in a year. And now imagine someone just pouring that amount of money down the drain. How would you feel?
To Judas, watching Mary pour out all of that very precious and expensive perfume, was just too much to bear.
…But You Will Not Always Have Me
But although Judas uses the argument that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, John tells us that it wasn’t that Judas actually cared about the poor. Rather, it seems that what he really cared about was money. As proof of this, John tells us that Judas, who was the one in charge of all of the finances for Jesus and his disciples, had actually been stealing from the money box!
So Judas doesn’t actually care about the poor – but rather he is using this as a “strawman” argument, to downplay Mary’s incredible act of generosity and devotion, and to persuade others to see her in a negative light.
But Jesus points out that worship and caring for the poor are not mutually exclusive acts. Judas had set up a false dichotomy. He make it seem like Mary could only either worship Jesus or serve the poor.
But Jesus, who himself set aside time throughout his life for both prayer and serving and caring for those in need, points out that the disciples would always have the poor with them, and they could always serve the poor, whenever they wanted. In fact, Jesus is assuming that being a follower of him will mean living in community with and caring for those who are in need! But here, in this instance, he defends Mary’s act of worship and devotion, saying “leave her alone,” and he says that through her incredible sacrificial act of worship she has prepared his body for the day of his burial.
I imagine that one of the conversations around the table that day as Jesus ate with his disciples was the fact that the religious leaders were at that moment plotting to kill Jesus. In fact, just a few verses earlier, in John 11:54, John tells us that Jesus couldn’t even walk openly, and that he and his disciples were essentially in hiding, because the chief priests and scribes and elders were looking to capture him.
And so here, Jesus and his disciples, including Mary, are sitting around eating and talking. Although Mary wasn’t one of the 12 men who were called Apostles in the Gospels, she was indeed one of the core, inner disciples, or devoted followers of Christ. She may even have been one of the 72 who were sent out to preach, and, teach, and heal. And so in the midst of this conversation around the dinner table while Jesus is talking with his disciples, Mary was so overcome with love and devotion for Christ, that she gets up and takes this incredibly expensive bottle of perfume, and pours it out all over Jesus’s feet, wiping his feet with her hair.
Growing up, my pastor used to always say that, rather than buying flowers for someone’s funeral, we should give people flowers while they are still alive and can enjoy them. And that’s what Mary is doing here – she is anointing Jesus’s body while he is still alive – demonstrating her undying devotion to her Savior, who would soon be crucified.
John tells us that as she poured out the perfume over Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).
A Counter-Cultural Act of Worship
Now, just in case you’re wondering, this was not something that typically happened at dinner parties. Yes, it was customary for servants to wash the feet of guests – but not the host. And feet were washed with water, not perfume.
Not only that, but women in those days usually kept their hair covered – it was rare and often considered scandalous for them to let their hair down in public. And feet were not usually dried with people’s hair.
And so everything about what Mary is doing here is countercultural, and abnormal even in Jesus’s day – let alone in our today. And we don’t know why exactly Mary chose to do this in this way, or whether it was premeditated or spontaneous. But either way, it was born out of an incredibly deep love and affection for Jesus.
And so Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone. He affirms Mary’s act of love and devotion, seeing the heart and intention behind her incredible act of generosity, knowing that she was doing what she could to demonstrate her love and care and concern for him.
Filled with the Fragrance
This week as I’ve been meditating on this passage, I’ve been thinking about many of you, and how some of you may have faced criticism for your acts of love and devotion to the Lord.
Some of you perhaps are the only person in your family who comes to church, or you might be the only one of your peers who is actively involved in serving the Lord. And your friends or family might even criticize you, or try to discourage you, saying, “why are you wasting your time going to church? There are so many more fun things you could be doing on a Sunday morning!” Or, “why are you giving your money, or time or energy or resources to the church, when there are so many other worthy causes you could give to?”
But I want you to know that Jesus sees your act of love and worship and devotion, and that as you pour out yourself in worship and devotion to the Lord, you fill the room with the fragrance of God’s love.
Others of us perhaps have faced internal doubts or discouragements about our worship or devotion to the Lord. Perhaps we’ve been serving the Lord for years or maybe even our whole lives, giving of our time or energy or resources, and we wonder if it’s actually made a difference? Perhaps you started a new ministry, or served in a particular program for many years, and you’ve failed to see the impact that you wanted to see. Maybe the program or ministry was even discontinued, and you wonder, was it all worth it?
Personally, I know that feeling. Back in 2008, my wife and I restarted what was called the Baltimore Urban Program, where we would bring college students into the city of Baltimore each summer and spring break to serve in various communities around the city. The program ran successfully for several years, but then we started experiencing challenges with recruitment, finances, and staffing. We took a year off, and then brought it back again for a few more years. Eventually we moved on and turned the program over to others, who faced some of the same challenges that we had faced. Eventually the program was paused for a year, and then a few years, and who knows if it will ever be resurrected.
And there have been other ministry programs that my family and I have been involved with, or served in over the years, that have come and gone. And I know it can be incredibly discouraging when you have poured time and energy, and perhaps even blood, sweat, and tears into a program or ministry, only to see it get shut down, or come to a grinding halt.
But to each and every one of us who has ever found ourselves in those situations, I believe Jesus would say that it wasn’t a waste. Our sacrifice of time and energy and resources, it was a beautiful offering to the Lord. And whether or not we will ever see or know the impact that we made, as we poured out our time and energy and resources in service to the Lord, it was and is a beautiful and fragrant offering to Jesus.
And so this morning, I would invite each and every one of us to envision our lives as that beautiful bottle of fragrant and expensive perfume. Your life is beautiful and valuable, your life has purpose. You are precious and valuable to the Lord.
And what could possibly be better, what could possibly be more worthwhile, than to pour ourselves out in love and devotion to the Lord, who has saved us and redeemed us, adn is worthy of all of our praise. What could possibly be more worthwhile than to go around, each and every moment of the day, offering our lives to Christ as a beautiful and fragrant offering, filling the room, wherever we are – at work, or school, or play, with the fragrance of God’s love?
We do that, not only when we come to church and serve in the various ministries here, but also when we love and care for our neighbors, when we serve those we live with, or work or go to school with, or interact with on a daily basis. We do this through participating in acts of mercy, and kindness, and justice. The prophet Isaiah says that we do this when we spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed (Isaiah 58:10).
And so this morning, may our lives be a fragrant offering to the Lord. Let us fill the room with the fragrance of God’s love. Our service to the Lord is not a waste – it is a beautiful sacrifice. Amen.