This story of Mary anointing our Lord shortly before His death can have a profound influence on our walk with the Lord because of a statement from a sermon by the late Chinese preacher, Watchman Nee. It’s found in the last chapter of his book, The Normal Christian Life titled, “The Goal of the Gospel.”
Nee points out that in the parallel accounts in Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) and Luke (7:37-39), all the disciples joined Judas in scolding Mary for wasting this expensive perfume on Jesus when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor.
But Jesus defends Mary by replying Matthew 26:13 (ESV) Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
Nee says (p. 186) that Jesus “intends that the preaching of the Gospel should issue in something along the very lines of the action of Mary here, namely, that “people should come to Him and ‘waste themselves’ on Him.’” Or, to state it another way (p. 187), the gospel is “to bring each one of us to a true estimate of His worth.”
If Jesus is the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field, then it’s not a waste to sell everything you have to buy that pearl or buy that field. Jesus is worthy for you to devote all you are and all you have to Him.
So this is a story about how not to waste your life.
It’s also a story about motivation: why do you do what you do for the Lord? Do you serve Him for the satisfaction you get when you see results? It is satisfying to see Him use you, but that’s the wrong motivation.
Do you serve Him because it helps others? Again, it’s gratifying to see others helped, but that’s the wrong motivation for serving Him.
The truest motive for serving Christ is because He is worthy of everything you can do for Him and because you love Him and want to please Him because He gave Himself for you on the cross. We learn this from Mary’s act of devotion.
But John contrasts Mary’s act of devotion with Judas’ self-centered focus and with the evil plans of the chief priests, who now not only want to kill Jesus, but also Lazarus, whose resurrection was resulting in many believing in Jesus. So the story’s lesson is: A life spent in selfless devotion to Jesus is not wasted, but a life spent on self is totally wasted.
This story illustrates Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35-36 (ESV) For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Jesus repeats this idea (John 12:25), “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.”
What does Mary show us? She denied herself and “hated her life” for Jesus’ sake by her extravagant act of devotion to Him, and she gained that which would not be taken from her.
Judas greedily wished that he could have pocketed some of Mary’s gift. In a few days, he would sell Jesus for a paltry sum of 30 pieces of silver, which he would eventually throw to the ground and leave. But he forfeited his soul.
1. You will not waste your life if you spend it in selfless devotion to Jesus.
To put it another way, to “waste” your life on Jesus is to save your life. Mary’s act reflects four components of selfless devotion:
A. Selfless devotion is costly.
Mary’s anointing Jesus with this perfume was costly in at least three ways:
1) Selfless devotion costs you financially: “Do I treasure Jesus more than my stuff?”
Pure nard was a spice that came from the Himalaya Mountains in the far north of India. It had to be imported to Israel at great cost. We don’t know where Mary got this 12-ounce jar of perfume. Perhaps it was a family heirloom. Judas estimates that it could have been sold for 300 denarii, which was equivalent to about 300 days’ pay for a working man (Matt. 20:2).
The Lord rebukes them (John 12:8), “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” He was not saying that we should not help the poor, but He was saying, “I am more worthy of your unselfish devotion than all the world’s poor put together!” He was accepting the worship that Mary gave Him because she rightly saw that He is worthy of all that we can give Him and even more. As Isaac Watts put it (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”): 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.
Many years ago, a minister went down and watched what each person put in or didn’t put in the offering plate as it was passed. Some of his people were angry, others were embarrassed, but all were surprised.
Then he went to the pulpit and preached on the Lord standing near the treasury in the temple and watching what each person put in, including the widow and her two mites. He reminded them that the Lord watches the collection every Sunday to see what His people give.
So let me ask: Is your devotion to the Lord costing you financially? If others looked at how you spend your money, would they conclude that you must love Jesus a lot?
2) Selfless devotion costs you socially: “Do I treasure Jesus more than my pride?”
Matthew and Mark say that Mary anointed Jesus’ head, but John says that she anointed His feet. There is no contradiction if she anointed both. Matthew and Mark mention Jesus’ head because anointing the head signified kingship.
John mentioned her anointing Jesus’ feet because it was the lowly task of a servant to wash a guest’s feet. In the next chapter John tells how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as an act of great humility that we should follow.
But Mary didn’t use a towel. Rather, she wiped the Lord’s feet with her hair. Respectable Jewish women never let down their hair in public. In fact, it was considered a mark of a woman of loose morals (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 577).
But Mary was so caught up with her devotion to Christ that she didn’t stop to consider what others might think about her.
So ask yourself, “Do I treasure Jesus more than my pride?” Or, am I more concerned about what others think about me? People may think you’re a zealot or a religious fanatic. But what matters is what Jesus thinks about your selfless devotion to Him.
3) Selfless devotion costs you some criticism: “Do I treasure Jesus more than my reputation?”
Judas led the attack, but the other disciples echoed his criticism. Matthew 26:8 reports, “But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, ‘Why this waste?’”
They were only being pragmatic and sensible. The money could have benefitted many poor families. But instead, it was all wasted on Jesus. Or, was it wasted?
B. Selfless devotion stems from personal love and gratitude.
Although the text doesn’t state it directly, Mary’s action obviously stemmed from her love for Jesus and her gratitude for His raising her brother from the dead.
Love for Christ should be the motive in all that we do for Him. Judas postured himself as being concerned for the poor, but even if he had given some of the money to the poor, he would not have been motivated by love for Christ. People can give great sums of money to the Lord’s work, but their real motive may be that they want others to know how generous they are.
But the Lord looks on the hidden motives of our hearts, not on our outward actions.
C. Selfless devotion flows from knowing Jesus personally.
John 12:7 (ESV) Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.
Mary had just poured out the precious perfume, so she couldn’t keep it to anoint Jesus after He died. And, how much did she understand about Jesus’ impending death when none of the disciples saw it coming?
Mary knew more about the infinite worth of Jesus than even the apostles did at this point. Her personal knowledge of Jesus, gained by sitting at His feet, led her to this act of selfless devotion.
If you want to follow Mary’s example of devotion to Jesus, you have to follow her example of sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to His word. Every time we encounter Mary in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet—first, learning from Him; then, pouring out her sorrow to Him; and now, expressing her love and devotion to Him.
You won’t love the Lord as you should unless you’ve spent much time at His feet. You do that by spending consistent time in the Word and in prayer.
D. Selfless devotion results in action.
Mary didn’t just think about this radical display of love, but then allow reason to prevail and not do it. Rather, she did it! Good intentions are nice, but it takes good actions to produce results. This story highlights three results that flow from selfless devotion: one from Mary, one from Martha, and one from Lazarus:
1) Action results in the fragrance of Christ surrounding your life.
John 12:3 says, “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Can people smell the fragrance of Christ on you? You ask, “What does it smell like?” It smells like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23): Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Does your home smell like that? Do others sense from the fragrance of your life that you spend much time at Jesus’ feet, worshiping Him in selfless devotion?
2) Action results in witness for Christ.
Here, we’re looking at Lazarus. The text tells us three things about him:
- First, Jesus had raised him from the dead (John 12:1).
- Second, he was reclining at the table in fellowship with the Lord who had raised him from the dead (John 12:2).
- Third, his resurrected life resulted in many coming to see him and believing in Jesus as a result John 12:9-11 (ESV) When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
- You will totally waste your life if you spend it on yourself.
John tells us about Judas’ greed in verse 6: He really wasn’t concerned about the poor, but he was a thief. He had the money box and used to help himself to the funds. If Mary had given her perfume to sell and give to the poor, some of that money would have ended up in Judas’ pocket!
But now the future looked dim. Jesus kept talking about His death, not His reign. This incident pushed Judas over the top. When Jesus came to Mary’s defense with more talk about His death, Judas decided to go to the authorities and betray Jesus.
Mary’s action reveals the proper basis for evaluating your actions: Did you do what you did because you love and treasure Jesus? She didn’t do this out of duty or pragmatism, but out of sheer devotion for Christ.
Mary did what she did because she had a perception of Christ that even the apostles at this point lacked. She knew that He was worthy of extravagant love. She gained this knowledge of Christ by sitting at His feet. When Jesus is your treasure, you will spend your life in selfless devotion to Him.