Reminiscere, the Second Sunday in Lent March 11, 2001


Mary’s Lenten Gift of Love

John 12:1-8

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. Here ends our text.

In Christ Jesus, whose love brings us together again this Passion Season, Dear Fellow Redeemed,

Love is arguably the most powerful emotion one person can feel for another. Sadly, it sometimes happens that love is unrequited. A four-year-old girl once found that out. She had two favorite dolls which she played with incessantly. She cuddled them, talked to them, held tea parties for them, and tucked them safely into bed at night. One day, though, she came to her mother with a troubled look on her face. With the two dolls tucked in her two chubby arms, she said wistfully, “Mother, I love them and love them and love them, but they never love me back!”

Much more tragic than this is the indifference some people show toward the love of God. God loves them and loves them and loves them—but they never love Him back. Our text for today, however, gives us the opposite example. Today we hear of a woman who was acutely aware of how much God loved her, and was ready to make even the costliest sacrifice to show her love for God in return. If your love for God has been something of a formality lately; if it’s lost its first luster and grown cool, then this text will be good medicine. Consider with me the theme—


  1. It was a generous love.
  2. It was a humble love.
  3. It was a believing love.

The time is Friday evening, exactly one week before the crucifixion. The place: the little village of Bethany, just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem. I’d like you to imagine that it’s evening, and that we’ve been invited to a dinner in Jesus’ honor. We’re a little late as we stoop to enter the low doorway of the house. On the white plastered walls inside there are eight or ten oil lamps that have been lit to cast a warm glow around the room. The meal isn’t quite ready yet, and we recognize many of the people who are standing or sitting around the big main room. There’s the owner of the house, who’s called “Simon the Leper,” even though Jesus healed him of his leprosy long ago. There’s Peter and John, and the rest of the disciples, quietly talking with the other guests. We notice Judas sitting silent by himself; brooding under his dark eyebrows, lost in thought. There’s Lazarus, smiling at something somebody said, looking happy and animated. Who would think that this man—so alive and healthy—had been raised from the dead by Jesus not long ago? His sister Martha is, once again, bustling around the table, helping get things ready for dinner. At the center of everything sits Jesus Himself. His face seems to cast a warm glow of peace and light over everyone there.

At Jesus’ feet sits Lazarus’ other sister, Mary. This is her favorite place to be; Mary would rather sit quietly and listen to Jesus’ words than do anything else in the world! Tonight, though, she has a special gift that she’s been waiting to give to her Master. Seemingly from nowhere, she produces an exquisite little box of white alabaster. Everyone’s attention is turns to Mary, and we watch amazed as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and breaks the box open. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

This was the best way Mary can think of to show how much she loved her Savior, Jesus. And Mary’s was a generous love! Oil of spikenard was a very expensive lotion, like a perfume. She used up a whole pound of it to anoint Jesus’ feet, and our text says that one pound of the precious lotion was worth 300 denarii. One denarius was the common wage for a whole day’s work; in terms of today’s money, the amount Mary spent on this one act of love was probably about the price of a new car. Think of it! The fragrance that immediately filled the room was the sweet smell of Mary’s love for her Master. As far as she was concerned, nothing was too good for Jesus.

The disciples were amazed. Some of them were angry and indignant over what Mary did, and they said so. Judas protested the loudest. Our text says, “Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” Judas was very conscious of money. He was the treasurer of the disciples, and had gotten into the bad habit of dipping into their account whenever he wanted to line his own pockets. He was so greedy, in fact, that he had made a secret deal with the Jewish rulers to betray Jesus Himself into their hands for thirty pieces of silver. “Generosity is one thing,” Judas said, “but this is too much. This is a waste of money that could be used for better things!"

Was Judas right? Is it possible to be too generous in showing our love for our Savior? Is anything too much to give to Jesus? If so, how much is too much? I noticed that about half of our 39 members were at Sunday services last week; maybe that extra hour of devotion is too much to give. The offerings that we take at our services are dedicated to spreading the message of a Savior here in our midst, but these extra offerings have been coming up somewhat short of our needs lately; perhaps it strikes us as a little too much to give.

But what about Jesus’ generosity to us? Who can put a price on the weary steps, the humiliation, the torture, the agony He went through for us? What’s the dollar-value of the blood He shed to rescue us from our sin? How much is the love of our Savior worth? Mary had an answer. Jesus’ love was priceless to her, and this was her way of showing it.

There’s something else about Mary’s gift of love that we can’t help but notice: Mary’s was a humble love. Some of the disciples were proud men—they even asked Jesus what places of honor they would have in His kingdom! But not Mary. Every time the Bible mentions Mary, we find her in the same place: at Jesus’ feet. She listens to Jesus’ words in silence and humility. When the time comes to give her gift of love, she kneels humbly, and anoints Jesus’ feet. Then she does something that is considered socially unacceptable in Jewish society—she takes down her hair in public, and uses it to smooth His feet dry. There’s no embarrassment, no thought for herself. Her thoughts and her love is focused only on Jesus.

What about our love for the Savior? Is it a humble love? Do you come to these services thinking that you’re doing God a favor? Or do you come in humility to have God pour His favor out on you?! Sit at the feet of the Savior again this Lenten season! Listen, humbly, as the story is told of how Jesus, who was equal with God—who was and is God!—allowed Himself to be humiliatingly executed for us! Paul says, “He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.Php 2:7-8.

Finally, Mary’s love was a believing love. She had seen the evidence of Christ’s power in her own life. She had seen Him perform miracles of healing. When she was in despair over the death of her brother Lazarus, she had seen Jesus call him forth, alive, from the grave! Mary believed that, if God’s promise of a Messiah was true, that Messiah could be none other than Jesus of Nazareth. How much did Mary understand about the dark days that were coming for Jesus? We don’t know. Jesus had warned them all several times that this last trip of His to Jerusalem would end in His suffering and death, but his disciples still didn’t understand what was going to happen. Perhaps Mary did, though. It’s interesting that the oil of spikenard that she bought for Jesus was commonly used for anointing the bodies of the dead. And when the disciples rebuked her, Jesus replied, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.” I wonder… Perhaps Mary, alone, understood what was coming. She certainly believed in Jesus as her Savior. Mary’s was a believing love!

You and I have an advantage over the guests gathered in Simon’s house that evening—we know what happens. We’ve traced over and over again the events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. On many Good Fridays we’ve seen the dreadful consequences of sin, and mourned the death of our Savior. On many Easter Sundays, we’ve rejoiced at His resurrection. The Holy Spirit has worked saving faith in our hearts so that we, too, believe the Good News of redemption. You can go home from this church service today with joy in your heart. For you know, as Mary did, that ALL your sins—all your mistakes, misdeeds, and failures—have found pardon under the sheltering arms of your gentle Lord Jesus. Yes, thank God—our love, too, is a believing love!

Whenever a hurricane is forming off the eastern coast of the United States, the U.S. Weather Service sends out an observation plane to determine it’s strength and severity. The pilots report that, despite the turbulence all around the outside of the system, there’s always a pocket of peace and quiet in the very center of the storm. The peaceful evening that Jesus spent at Simon’s house that Friday was like the eye of the storm; trouble came before it, and more trouble would follow. Today you and I have spent a quiet hour with Jesus at a house in Bethany, and we’ve witnessed the generous, humble and believing love of Mary. May God grant that our love for our Savior may match hers as we continue on our Lenten journey! In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

—Paul Naumann, Pastor

Sermon Preached March 19, 2000
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA

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