At the beginning of John 12 there is a brief but incredible story with a rich cast of characters. First is Lazarus, recently raised by Jesus from the dead and his resurrection is the catalyst for this whole episode. Here he is at the dinner table once again. The Gospels tell a handful of stories about Jesus bringing the dead back to life, but this is the only one for which we get some followup. What is it like for Mary and Martha to have their brother back after he was dead for four whole days? Are they poking him every few minutes to make sure he’s real and they’re not just dreaming? And of course, what is this like for Lazarus? What does he have to say about his experience? All the people from nearby, who knew of and mourned his death, are now showing up at their house to see him with their own eyes. Does Lazarus feel like a zoo animal? Or is he excited to share his story with as many people as will hear it? Sadly, the fact that his story is bringing people to faith in Jesus is putting something of a target on Lazarus’ back. The religious authorities don’t like how many people are flocking to Jesus as a direct result of Lazarus, so they decide that not only must Jesus die, but Lazarus too.
Next is Lazarus’ sister Mary, who steals the show here in John 12. She’s so overwhelmed with gratitude and joy toward Jesus for the gift of having her brother back that she takes a bottle of expensive perfume and pours it all out to anoint Jesus’ feet. She must express her love for Jesus and she must express it in the most extravagant way she knows how. Now the fragrance filling the room matches the fragrance of gratitude that was already there.
Which brings us to the final of our rich cast of characters in this episode. Judas Iscariot himself. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he asks. The narrator interjects to tells us that Judas’ real motivation here is to handle the money and embezzle a little for himself. But even so, the concern he’s voicing is not without logic (a concern shared by all the disciples in similar stories in Matthew 26 and Mark 14). Three hundred denarii is roughly a year’s worth of income! This single bottle of perfume, however Mary came into possession of it, is worth tens of thousands of dollars. Of course we wouldn’t deny how much good that money could do in the hands of a faithful and productive ministry.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus answers. Mary’s act of extravagant love is not only permissible, but perfectly appropriate. With this perfume, she is already initiating a kind of burial ritual for Jesus and preparing us for his imminent death. But she also knows that all the good to be done in the world can’t come at the expense of simply showering Jesus with our love and adoration. Jesus is so wonderful, so beautiful and lovely, so abundantly worthy of our adoration that there come these moments when all else, even many good and necessary things, fade away into our love for him. We’ll never run out of opportunities to minister to the poor, says Jesus. So taking time to express love, gratitude and joy must not run out either. And if those expressions are extravagant and lavish and over the top, so be it. Let our love and joy and gratitude take every form that Jesus deserves.