Our olfactory senses matter. There is nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Coming home to the scent of baking bread or catching a whiff of a slow-smoked brisket cultivates the desire for the meal. An aroma that fills the home, and in the case of brisket, the whole neighborhood.
This is the scene that unfolds: the pleasant tendrils of extravagant nard wafting throughout the middle eastern home, mingling with and overtaking the odors of the ordinary, everyday life in the town of Bethany. “So the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).
An ordinary home, in an ordinary place. But it is no ordinary time. It’s six weeks before Passover. Jesus, the Passover Lamb, is seated at a table in Bethany, just one Sabbath prior to His betrayal in Jerusalem. In addition to Jesus, there are two key characters in this account, Mary and Judas. Mary, the sister of Martha, and Judas, the (presumably) respectable disciple of Jesus. But that is not how John describes them. Mary is comparable to the pure and expensive nard she brings; pure of heart and priceless in her affections. Judas is a phony and a cheat. While Judas protests Mary’s waste and lack of attunement to the needs of the poor, he is actually protesting because of his own greed. Judas sees that coffers lie sparse because she has not filled them. Jesus sees the overflow of perfume and Mary’s expression of love and service, and He receives all of it as the gift it is. But it is more than a gift.
Exodus speaks of the process of anointing the tabernacle with a special perfume, consecrating it as holy (Exodus 30:23–33). When Jesus says that Mary has kept the perfume as preparation for the day of His burial, He may have this in mind (John 12:7). Through Christ’s death, He became the inexplicable new temple. And just as Mary serves as a model of extravagant worship, Judas serves as the foil to the kinds of worshippers Jesus desires. In contrast to Judas, the hypocrite and religious playactor with a cleaned up exterior, Jesus came to bring healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, proclaiming the year of favor and judgement (Isaiah 61:1–3).
What makes Mary’s offering so beautiful isn’t the perfection of her conduct. Jesus came to bring healing for the spiritually sick. Jesus doesn’t need our tithe as much as He desires our hearts. Religious duty—as important as generosity and practical ministry of mercy are—is a poor substitute for Christ-adoring joy. Christ desires extravagance in our affection. And He desires so in perfect love, for our flourishing. Such love is like a fragrance that fills the home, the neighborhood, and the world.