On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus stops by Lazarus’s house in the town of Bethany. Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, are overjoyed to have him in their house, because Jesus is so special to them. Yes, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus literally owes his life to Jesus. A nicely prepared dinner is served for Jesus and his disciples. And it is during all the festivities that Mary breaks open a jar and anoints Jesus with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and wipes his feet with her hair. Then, the Gospel says, the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume (John 12:3).
This got me curious, what is nard? And what does nard smell like? A quick Wikipedia search tells me, the full name of nard is actually “spikenard.” It’s an amber-colored essential oil extracted from a flowering plant of the Valerian family, which usually smells like lavender. I also checked Amazon to see if I could purchase it. And I was so happy when I finally found the pure spikenard essential oil among many other fake ones. Yes, I had to read a lot of reviews. Anyway, when you entered this sanctuary, did you smell any fragrance? I dropped a few drops of oil on this diffuser. If not, no worries. Please take one of these test strips. You can definitely smell pure nard from it. What does it smell like? To me, it smells like a mixture of lavender, peppermint, natural wood with some earthy scent. I find it quite soothing and comforting. Now, think about it. What did it actually smell like in Lazarus’ house that night, when Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with nard? Even a few drops of pure nard on this diffuser and on the test strips spread fragrance in the air around us. Then, imagine, what would it be like, if it were a pound of it, almost 95 bottles amount of this little bottle I have here? No doubt, the house must be truly full of fragrance.
And you also have to know, this nard oil was not a cheap perfume at all in Jesus’ days. It was very expensive because the spikenard plant grew only in the Himalayas of Nepal and India—not in Palestine. It’s a completely imported good, something that couldn’t be used like Mary does in such a generous way. Even today, this little bottle cost 25 dollars on Amazon. Then it’s not very surprising to see Judas Iscariot who has a problem with her and says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:4-5) Some explain three hundred denarii of gold was worth a year’s wages. Yes, it’s a lot of money.
Then, why does Mary use such a generous amount of extravagant oil to anoint Jesus? I think, Mary does it because she felt Jesus being resolute and determined to do something groundbreaking, something final, as soon as she heard about his way to Jerusalem. Jesus once told, Jerusalem is the ultimate destination of his ministry where he will undergo passion and death. Out of love for Jesus, Mary wants to anoint him in a best way she can. She wants to bless his arduous journey to the cross and deeply thank him for his grace. Although she understands, Jesus is the only one who must bear such burden, she wants to do at least something to help him and support him. So she willingly sacrifices the valuable nard oil without any reservation.
That night in Lazarus’ house, a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, with excellent fragrance and prime value, is being dedicated to Jesus, to his anointing. For Judas, it seems such a great loss, such a great waste of expensive perfume, because he mainly focuses on the cash-value of the nard oil. But for Mary, it’s great gain, a great opportunity to bless Jesus for his unending love and grace. Why? It’s because Mary focuses primarily on the meaning of Jesus to her and to others. For Mary, the cash-value of the oilis no match for the surpassing value of Jesus. And the cost of oilis no match for the costliness of graceshe has experienced through Jesus. She’s confident that, Jesus is going to be the savior of all as he already has been to her brother.
With this sincere heart, Mary anoints Jesus. Then the house gets filled not only with the fragrance of nard but also, I believe, with the aroma of love. Jesus senses this and talks to Judas, “Leave her alone. I know, she bought the nard oil to keep it for the day of my burial. But instead, she chose to anoint me with it today, because I now go to Jerusalem and die. Like her, please know that you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me here” (John 12:7-8). By her sacrifice and dedication that night, Mary has been remembered until now as a woman who anointed Jesus for his work of salvation.
Looking at Judas and Mary, today, a simple question comes before us. What can we dedicate to Jesus? In this season of Lent, what can we sacrifice to bless Jesus’ name, to thank his grace, and to support the continued mission of the church, the body of Christ? I know it’s so hard for us to give up things that seems valuable to us. I know it’s so hard for us to sacrifice our time of pleasure for more time of prayer and meditation. It’s so hard for us to dedicate our treasure to others and to our works of mercy. It’s hard, because the sacrifice and dedication we make sometimes seem like a loss to us, just as Judas sees it.
But here, Paul gives us an assurance from his lifetime experience: whatever sacrifice and dedication we make for Jesus, it truly is gain. It may look like a loss, but it truly is gain. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul says, for Jesus, he gave up his reason to be confident in flesh—his status and pride as a legitimate Jew. He was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; …as to righteousness under the law, blameless(Philippians 3:4-6). However, Paul says, he can let it all go away because he may gain, what he calls, “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” For Paul, anything in the world is no match for this surpassing value, no match for the costliness of his grace.
Look at this diffuser spreading the fragrance of nard oil now. The candle gives up its wax to warm up the oil, and the oil gives up its fragrance to spread it out. In the same way, without sacrifice, without dedication, we can’t spread the aroma of Christ, the aroma of love to fill this church and fill our lives. Jesus gave up his life on the cross to share his abundant love and grace with us. By his sacrifice, we’ve become God’s children. We’ve earned our new life—the life in communion with God and in loving fellowship with one another. The cross of Jesus, his death, looks like a loss but it truly is gain, indeed, the ultimate gain of everlasting life.
So today, what can we sacrifice for Jesus? What can we dedicate to his kingdom on earth? Today Jesus is calling us to think about the things that we can give up for him in our daily lives. And he is calling us to learn how to focus on the surpassing value of following him and the costliness of his grace over all the other material values in the world. Let us offer ourselves to Jesus and his ministry so that our life may diffuse the fragrance of faith. And let us offer our lives to one another so that the people around us may smell the aroma of Jesus Christ, the deep aroma of love and grace, from us always. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim