The biggest holiday of the year was coming, and people were pouring into Jerusalem. But Jesus and his disciples went the opposite direction. They headed, instead, to Bethany, the home of some of his closest friends and many who believed in him.
Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was dead the last time Jesus had arrived in Bethany. Martha – always faster than her sister – had run to him. She greeted him with some words that were filled with disappointment (“If you had been here, my brother would not have died”) and also with hope (“But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you”) (John 11:21-22).
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus told her.
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection …” Martha said, anticipating a day far in the future.
Then Jesus said something remarkable: “I am the resurrection …”
There was no waiting for a “last day.” Jesus’ beloved friend, Lazarus, was alive again, that day. Now, this rabbi friend who had demonstrated power over nature, over the spiritual realm, and over sickness, showed the village of Bethany that even death could not withstand him.
That’s what had happened the last time Jesus visited Bethany.
So on this day before the Passover, Jesus was visiting people who had already seen a miracle, and who recognized it as an outpouring of his love (John 11:5, 47). Many who witnessed it had come to believe in him (v. 45), and the grateful town of Bethany prepared a dinner in his honor. In Jerusalem, the religious leaders were plotting to arrest and kill him (verses 45-57); but in Bethany, he was celebrated. These people had become his own.
Jesus was reclining at the table with the people and with Lazarus when Mary approached with her gift. It was a pound of pure, costly, scented ointment.
Without invitation, she took the most expensive thing she had and poured it out on Jesus’ feet.
She knelt down, weeping. She wiped his feet with her hair. She worshiped.
Jesus didn’t move to get up, though the whole house was filling with the mess and the smell of her sacrifice. Maybe the conversation stopped as they all looked on. It’s likely that it was uncomfortably silent. What Mary was doing was over-the-top extravagant, to the point of being improper (like David when he danced before the Lord in public).
Mary cried openly. Her hair had come loose as she displayed her deep affection for Jesus in front of a room full of men. She focused completely on offering her gift, showing no regard for their opinions. No one could deny that this was an act of true and pure love.
Except one. One of the invited guests (the same one who would betray Jesus) became angry about the squandering of this expensive product. An entire pound of ointment “wasted” on Jesus’ feet … the feet that walked to Mary’s home, where he saved her, gave her brother back to her, and brought eternal life to her town.
Maybe this jar contained the only thing she had that she considered a valuable enough gift for her Lord. And if she had not given it to Jesus this day, that pound of perfume would have been wasted. It certainly wouldn’t have been remembered two millennia later as the offering that prepared Jesus feet for what was coming after they walked him back to Jerusalem. But it was … is remembered, even to this day.
Jesus responded to Judas: “Leave her alone.” The anointing was for his burial (Matthew 26:12). Mary’s act of adoration had become a visually and sensorially prophetic moment. And a night became holy because of her largesse.
That evening, while the Pharisees plotted against Jesus’ life, more people came to believe in him (John 12:11).
First and best, last, and most costly
Mary’s gift was costly, and surely this did not escape Jesus’ notice. The God who sees our hearts (1 Samuel 6:7) and knows when we are offering our best, recognizes true worshippers. He even seeks them out (John 4:24). When we give him our treasure, we put our hearts with him. This act, itself, is worship. It is pleasing to God, and it brings glory to him, inspiring others to worship.
King David offered an extravagant gift, and thousands of his people followed suit, willingly, with “perfect heart,” inspiring a nation to rejoice (1 Chronicles 29). Some men from the east traveled miles to get to an infant Jesus, bringing gifts to represent that they knew he was worthy of worship. And 2,000 years later, Christians still remember their story when they worship in remembrance of Messiah’s birth (Matthew 2:11). Some churches in Macedonia gave themselves to the Lord and, though they lived in extreme poverty, they were able to give beyond their means, exceeding expectations and resulting in overflowing joy that spread through first-century churches (2 Corinthians 8). We honor God when we stretch ourselves and give from the first of what we have.
Honor the LORD with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops.
Giving has always been a form of worship in the Bible, and we are commanded to honor and glorify God in this way. The Old Testament is filled with requirements to bring the firstborn of your flock, the first fruits of your harvest, to use the best spices, the finest flour and the freshest oil. And in the New Testament, Jesus praises a woman for giving her last…because it was all she had (Mark 12:41-44).
God knows the hearts behind our gifts. He knows when we’re giving him something of value. King David argued when he was offered a free piece of property to build an altar for worship, refusing to offer to God something that cost him nothing (2 Samuel 24:24). God doesn’t need anything from us (Acts 17:25), but he is glorified when the Holy Spirit stirs our hearts to give to him.
Gratitude for the past, trust for the future
When we give God something that costs us, we point to the past, acknowledging that everything we have comes from him. We declare our gratitude, but we also point toward the future. Giving up something we might need is a move of trust, evidence that we believe that he could do it all over again and that, in his time, he will provide for every one of our needs.
God asks us to trust him like this, and he often inspires us to give more. Giving is the only arena in which God invites us to actually test it (Malachi 3:10), not so we will get more, but so we can see that he has everything and wants to be generous to us.
When we honor God with our gifts, we acknowledge that he has everything we need and has promised to take care of us. When we give something we might be depending on, we show our love and trust that he will keep his promises. When we give in abundance, even to the point that people think we might be overdoing it (like King David or Mary), God sees.
When we begin to grasp what he has done for us – the deep, immeasurable and sacrificial gift he has given to us – the question demands to be answered: How are we supposed to respond to a gift like this? How do we respond to this unfathomable love and grace and sacrifice?
The simple answer is that we worship. We do what pleases him and brings him glory. When the Spirit leads us to worship the Lord by giving, God is glorified, and others may come to know him too.