Is there any symbol of selfish religion more cliché than an over-emotive televangelists selling promises and prayers through the airwaves? Many of us see the televangelist and balk.
As Christians, we are disgusted or ashamed or angry or some kind of combination of all these and more. But as much as we’d like to distance ourselves from this kind of double-minded religion, it ought to hit close to home. Inside each one of us is a televangelist eager to use the means of religion for his own ends. The story of Mary anointing Jesus in John 12 confronts that darkness within us. Here’s the story:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1–8
In this story, we see an outwardly religious person bent on using religion for his own gain shame an outsider for her extravagant worship . . . all in the name of religion. Mary’s wasteful worship is nothing more than an offense to Judas. John, of course, opens up the hood of Judas’ heart and we see the engine of double-minded religion exposed as greed. Judas’ heart is contrasted with that of Mary’s who, being enamored with Jesus, is the image of single-minded devotion.
Mary’s wasteful act brings out Judas’ corrupt and pragmatic heart. Whereas Mary understands the importance of Jesus’ presence and his limited time on earth, Judas focuses on the price of the perfume. Notice how he automatically prices the perfume: It’s 300 denarii?! If you can’t do the denarii math in your head, that was about one year’s wages. This is a significant amount of money! And Judas, focusing on the money, misses the priority of Jesus and the importance of his presence. Judas’ presence in this story is more than a way for us to feel self-righteous (“at least I’m not like that Judas!”). As we point the finger at Judas, we can’t help but point back into our hearts.
As much as we’d like to remove ourselves from Judas’ corrupt pragmatism, how often do we use religion for our own ends? I live in the American South. We are known for getting drunk on Saturday and attending church on Sunday. Do we think Sunday somehow cancels out the weekend? We use religion to offload guilt and feel better about ourselves. Or maybe you think yourself better or more special than others who don’t come to church on Sunday. You, like Judas, are using religion for your own ends of self-justification.
Like the corrupt televangelist on the screen using religion for their greedy gains, each Sunday we find ourselves in the pew using religion for our own greedy gain. We are Judas.
Wasteful worship confronts our dark hearts, but it’s more than that as well. Wasteful worship is costly. For Mary, this perfume was tangibly a great cost. The amount of time and money put into this little jar is astounding. It came all the way from India, and some even think it was possible this was a family heirloom, passed down from generations.
This cost her reputation. If she was married, letting her hair down was a massive cultural taboo. Even if she was single, her act would have scandalized. People would have been talking about how inappropriate Mary’s affection was probably for weeks after this event. Though it was common for guests at banquets to be anointed and for them to wipe off excess perfume on others’ hair, that was a job reserved for the lowest servant. Mary is willingly taking a humble position at great cost to her own reputation.
This act also cost Mary emotionally. She didn’t just robotically go through motions of anointing; she is overcome and all in. Her heart is engaged with her hands.
Mary teaches us that worship rightfully cost. It cost our money, time, reputation, and emotions. We don’t mind costs when it comes to things we love. We willingly buy gifts and spend time with those we love. We risk what others might say about us for the sake of what or who we love. If we truly are engaged with whatever we desire, our emotions will follow suit. For Mary, the cost wasn’t calculated like it was for Judas. She was in awe of Jesus. Jesus had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead! This is the Son of God!
Mary’s worship was a waste . . . a glorious waste. As quick as Judas is to shame her, Jesus defends her. Jesus is on the side of the wasteful worshipper. He tells Judas to back off, then gives the reason for his defense. “You will always have ministry opportunities with you, ” he says, “but I will not always be with you.” Jesus rebukes Judas’ priorities of work over worship, instructing us in our ultimate calling as humans—to worship our Lord.
Jesus then re-focuses this God-approved waste toward his impending death. The shadow of the cross looms over this banquet. Jesus on the cross confronts our greed and guilt that lead to death. He takes them on himself and puts those sins to death. Jesus, his body on the cross, pays the ultimate cost with his own life. This was his calling. As an act of worship in obedience to the Father, the Son offered up his life and died that we could live.
Jesus confronts death through his own death, that we may not die. This is the ultimate waste. He wasted his status as the Son of God, instead of elevating himself as he humbled himself. He wasted his power as the second Person of the Trinity; he could’ve crushed his opponents. He wasted his blood on those who spit at, cursed, and delighted to see him die. We get to enjoy the blessings of Jesus’ wasteful worship, presented to the Father as a fragrant offering for his satisfaction. The wasteful death of the Son of God allows us to now participate in wasteful worship, freed from our corrupt pragmatism.
This is, after all, our ultimate trajectory. John’s visions of what the new heavens and earth is like is an overwhelming image of wasteful worship—singing, feasting, enjoying the presence of the Lamb. What a waste! A glorious, hopeful, and joy-filled waste worthy of our lives today and forever.