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Five Senses – Smell

For a little change of pace, we’re taking a few sessions to see how Jesus used his body, specifically his five senses, in his ministry.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
(John 12:1-8 NIV)

Today’s passage picks up the same main cast of characters as John Chapter 11:  Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha.  Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead in Chapter 11; after a brief time away from Bethany, Jesus was back in town and spending time with his friends.

Jesus knew His time was short; in less than a week, He would be dead.  Trying to stay away from the crowds, Jesus attended a private dinner given in His honor.  Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were there, among others.  Lazarus was at the table with Jesus, no doubt thankful to be alive and basking in Jesus’ presence.  Martha was showing her love for Jesus by doing, by serving Him.  And Mary was there, showing her love for Jesus by abiding, by being with Him.  Mary had been brokenhearted over her brother’s death; now she was overjoyed at what Jesus had done for them and hung on His every word.

Then Mary does something quite uncharacteristic for what we know of her.  She takes out a jar of expensive perfume and starts pouring it on Jesus’ feet.  And not only that, but she lets down her hair (which was NOT something proper Jewish women did in public, especially in the presence of other men) and uses her hair like a cloth to wipe Jesus’ feet.

John records that this perfume was a pint jar of nard, which was a rare herb grown in the high pasture lands of India and China, likely in the foothills of the Himalayas.  This perfume was then put into alabaster jars and sealed for transport.  The caravan traders would then load these jars and other spices on their camels and begin the months-long trek back to the Middle East.

John also records the value of the perfume, as known by Judas.  This was a year’s wages in their day; using our minimum wage calculation for the United States in 2019, it would amount to somewhere around $15,000 to $20,000.  Even in our modern-day economy, that’s a LOT of money!

In verse 3, John tells us that as Mary applied the perfume on Jesus’ feet, the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  The earthy musk permeated the air, the house furnishings, and everyone’s clothes, hair, and skin with its wonderful essence.

When Judas complained about Mary not selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor, Jesus stopped him and reminded everyone that He would not always be physically present with them.  Mary was doing a really good thing by honoring Him before His death.

Mary’s extravagance toward Jesus was her way of showing her love to Him.  This was likely a nest egg that she had, her life savings all contained in one pint jar.  And she willingly, humbly, and quietly gave it all to her Lord.  And Jesus loved her heart and actions, calling off the naysayers, telling them to leave her alone and let her finish what she was doing because it was her way of honoring Him:

  • Mary gave the Best her best from a deep heart of love and gratitude
  • Mary gave the Best her best humbly, and without regard to her critics
  • Mary gave the Best her best willingly, without prompting, reluctance, or hesitation

Can you remember a time when someone did something that they didn’t have to do… and you will never forget it?

  • Someone from across the country showed up to be with you in your pain and anguish, just because they cared about you?
  • You witnessed a husband or wife sit beside their spouse in the hospital for days and nights on end, just to be with them and comfort them?
  • You received a card with a hand-written note that touched your soul?
  • You witnessed an impossible need met by a person or group or community?
  • Someone was able to experience a dream for which they had given up hope, because of the goodness of others?

The essence of those times and memories stick with us for a lifetime like Mary’s perfume, don’t they?

May we love God extravagantly in the here and now like Mary, breaking open and pouring out the best of ourselves for Him, not because we expect anything in return, but because He has already given His Best to us in His Son Jesus.

And may we also learn to love others extravagantly and without regard to the critics, carrying with us the wonderful aroma of Christ everywhere we go, just as Mary’s perfume infused everyone and everything that special night.

The apostle Paul uses this same imagery of smell to express a life lived fully for Christ:

14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.
(2 Corinthians 2:14-17 NIV

May the essence of our life be the pleasing, pervasive aroma of Christ for all.


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