Can the worship of God ever get too extravagant? At first pass the answer is probably no. God deserves all creatures in heaven and earth ascribing to him his supreme worth. But in every church board meeting there is some “practical person” who wants to know, “How much will this cost?” That is not a bad question—the disciples essentially asked that question in our lesson text—it is just not a good first question. God invites all of creation to worship him. How extravagant should that worship be?
The Passion Week of Jesus began in Mark 11. But the Passion event began in Mark 14. Jesus’ march up Calvary was only hours away.
Extravagant Worship Rejected
The Passover lamb was killed on the 14th day of Nisan. That began a weeklong festival known as the Festival of Unleavened Bread. The text says this date and festival were only two days away, so Judas would have made plans with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus somewhere in the middle of Passion Week (Mark 14:9-10).
The chief priests (notice the plural, which probably means that Annas still had some clout with his son-in-law, Caiaphas—John 18:13), who were Sadducean, and the teachers of the law, who were Pharisaic, were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. The Gospel writers spared no words in telling the motives of the Jewish leaders. Their true colors were shown when they gave some restraint to their plans lest there be a riot among the people (cf. John 11:47-53). In rejecting Jesus, the religious leaders were rejecting his invitation.
Extravagant Worship Displayed
In contrast to the Jewish leaders, Mary displayed extravagant worship toward Jesus (John 12:3). Part of it, no doubt, was her gratitude for Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44). Mary is unnamed in Matthew and Mark, and the event is not recorded in Luke, though some think that the penitent woman of Luke 7 is this woman. There are some similarities in these anointings, but the differences outweigh the similarities. Mary lived in Bethany, and the penitent woman probably lived in Galilee.
Jesus was reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper. Simon might have been married to Mary or Martha or he might have been a leper Jesus had formerly cleansed. Without fanfare, Mary entered the room where the men were eating; she had with her an alabaster jar (vessel) of very expensive perfume. This perfume was spikenard, which originally came from India. Spikenard was extracted from small, thin straws (plants); it was very expensive—maybe representing Mary’s life savings. She broke the jar (probably snapped it at its neck), which meant it could not be used again, and anointed Jesus’ head and feet (John 12:3). It was extravagant in every way.
Extravagant Worship Questioned
Mary’s act of devotion not only was questioned, it also was criticized. The disciples thought she had gone “overboard.” The negative chorus, led by Judas (John 12:4), believed what Mary had done was wasteful. They tallied the loss in their heads and told one another the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. At the least, their reaction indicated Jesus had taught them to care for the poor (Luke 12:33-34).
On the surface, smug self-righteousness can sound pious and spiritual. But in the end, it simply shows a shrunken heart. The disciples rebuked her harshly. The word for “rebuke” has some heat in it. They were angrily indignant toward Mary. But Jesus quickly came to her defense.
Extravagant Worship Defended
Jesus criticized the disciples, commended Mary, and went on to teach about true kingdom values. The Greek word translated as “leave her alone” is the word normally used for forgiveness (as in letting go). “Mary did a beautiful thing to me.” First, Mary chose “what is better” (Luke 10:42), and then she did this beautiful thing.
Caring for the poor is a central mark of the gospel (Luke 4:18). When Jesus said the poor you will always have with you, he was not offering an excuse for never caring for them. Jesus’ time on earth was limited. Mary acted decisively. In fact, Jesus likened what she did to burial customs of the day (John 19:39-40). Mary likely did think in those terms, but worship takes us beyond understanding in the present. Worship of Christ connects us with the real world above us (Revelation 4–5). Jesus defended Mary’s extravagant worship of him by saying that what she did would be told in her memory. Our lesson text is evidence of that.