The Smell of Sacrifice

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Learning from the best

One of the most effective ways to improve any skill set is to spend time with people who demonstrate mastery over that desired ability. We may call them coaches, mentors, role models, or even heroes. As we study them and try and copy them, we can find ourselves growing in our expertise as well.

It’s with this dynamic in mind that we set-up internships, work placements, and apprenticeships: To provide opportunities for those who want to learn to sit at the feet of those who have excelled.

The Christian life is no exception. We are all at various stages of learning how to follow Jesus faithfully. Some are more experienced and mature than others. That’s one of many benefits of the church. As we are involved in body life we are unavoidably both learning from those ahead of us and encouraging those behind.

Scripture also is full of godly role models providing examples of what it looks like to be a faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And when the Bible holds an individual up as an exemplar or picture of faithfulness, all of us who desire to mature would do well to take careful notice.

In the 14th chapter of his gospel, Mark highlights such a woman and invites us to enter into a brief apprenticeship with her. Through her example we can learn how to more faithfully follow Jesus.

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.” 

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. 

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” 

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over (14:1–11). 

Recognizing the Mark Burger

When building a hamburger, the meat is the star of the show. The bun on either side of the patty, while important in its own right, is primarily there to support and showcase what’s in the middle.

In this passage, Mark is building a literary hamburger.

The bun, in the first two and last two verses, describes the treachery of a handful of men as they plot the demise of Jesus. But, as in a hamburger, the main role of those verses is to support and showcase the meat in verses 3 through 9—the woman with the perfume. She is the focal point of this passage and, contrasted with the men around her, provides a model of discipleship that we should strive to mimic.

What is she doing?

So, what is this woman doing that makes her such an example worth following?

The scene opens in the town of Bethany. Jesus, Mark says, is in the home of a man called Simon the Leper. While this man would have been excluded from much of Jewish life because of his disease, here we have Jesus dining in his home. It’s a dinner party!

Then, suddenly, a woman appears and approaches Jesus. A hush probably fell over the room as the other attendees turn and to watch. But what she’s about to do is too important, too necessary to be dissuaded by social norms and issues of propriety.

The sacrifice she’s about to make is audacious, bold, daring, and maybe even brash. 

The woman has with her “an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard” (v. 3). Immediately we recognize that this sacrifice is not only audacious, but extravagant. It’s very expensive perfume. Verses 4 and 5 further emphasize its value through the disapproving reaction of those in the room: 

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. 

I read recently that the average household income of the city in which I live is just over $170,000. Let’s assume that’s two equal incomes of $85K per year. Can you imagine $85K worth of perfume? “More than a year’s wages,” the text says. This very well could have been this woman’s inheritance or her nest egg. It’s all she had.

This woman walks into a dinner party carrying a lot of money in her hands. Her intention is to pour it all over Jesus. This was an audacious and extravagant sacrifice.

But it was even more than that: It was also irrevocable. There’s a detail in verse 3 we should notice: “She broke the jar […] and poured it on his head.”

Why break the container? The same reason I throw out the lid of a pint of ice cream as soon as I open it. I don’t need it anymore! I’m no quitter! I’m all in!

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And so was this woman. She had no intention of keeping any of that perfume. It was all for Jesus and, because of that, she didn’t need the jar anymore. This was an irrevocable, un-returnable, and irreversible sacrifice.

It’s an incredible model of selfless worship.

And it becomes even more pronounced when we contrast the meat with the bun—the sacrifice of the woman with the betrayal of the men.

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot” (vv. 1–2). 

These are important people who worked in an important place—the temple—during an important time of year—two days before Passover. The woman is not important. In fact, Mark doesn’t even name her.

The religious leaders wanted to arrest and kill Jesus but felt they couldn’t because of what the people may say and do. Remember the woman? She didn’t care what people would say or do.

There’s also a contrast when it comes to money. On one hand, this female disciple joyfully bankrupts herself to honour the Lord while, on the other hand, at the end of our passage, a male disciple pads his coin purse by betraying the Lord.

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over (vv. 10–11). 

Mark is using the treachery of the men in this passage to highlight and emphasize the faithfulness of this woman as she presents Jesus with an audacious, extravagant, and irrevocable sacrifice.

She’s an example worth following.

Why is she doing it?

But, why is she doing this? What is her motivation for such dramatic display? 

We find in verses 6–8, that her sacrifice is rooted in her comprehension of who Jesus is and what he’s come to do. Because she understands, because she knows him well, she’s motivated to give everything up for him.

In verse 6 we see that she understands that Jesus was worth it. A literal translation of that verse is “she has done a good (or precious) work unto me.”

To whom do we do precious works? To the people we feel are precious! And so it is here. This woman is doing a precious, good, extravagant, bold, and un-returnable deed unto Jesus because she believes he’s worth it.

She also understands that he’s not long for this earth.

“The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me” (v. 7).

Jesus isn’t speaking against ministering to the poor. He himself has done exactly that for most of his ministry. What Jesus is explaining is what the woman understands: That their opportunity to serve him will not last much longer. There would always be the poor in need of service, but God in the flesh would not always be around.

We have this woman making a remarkable sacrifice, not only because she understood he was worth it, but also because she understood that he was leaving. 

And finally, she also understood that he was going to die (at least, that’s how Jesus interpreted her actions).

“She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (v. 8).

Perfume was often used as a burial spice in the first century to combat the stench of decomposition (see John 19:39–40). This woman, Jesus said in her defence, was motivated by her understanding of his pending death.

So, why did this woman do what she did? Because she understood the worth of who Jesus was and what lay ahead for him.

Again, we’re brought to a contrast between this woman and the men around Jesus. On multiple occasions, Jesus tried to warn the twelve about his coming death, but they never understood (see 8:31–33; 9:31–32; 10:32–40).

The Messiah the disciples envisioned wasn’t a dead Messiah. They couldn’t wrap their heads around that idea. But this woman, in Mark 14, she gets it!

Imagine if someone you love was given a few months to live. (Tragically, some of you don’t have to imagine.) Is there anything you wouldn’t do for that person? I doubt it. And this woman, understanding Jesus’ death was imminent, wasted no time in making a sacrifice that demonstrated her love for him and commitment to him. That’s why she did what she did.

How do we follow?

From this text we’ve asked and answered the questions, what is she doing? and why is she doing it? But now I want us to ask one final question: How do we follow her example? 

How do we learn from this perfume-touting anonymous woman? How can we apprentice with this expert and glean from such a model of sacrificial discipleship? I think we find the summary of our charge in the first phrase of verse 8: “She did what she could.”

Mark uses this same phrase at the end of chapter 12 to describe another unnamed woman:

Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (12:43–44).

Both gave of themselves all they could give. They were sacrificial. 

An old joke describes the difference between sacrifice and generosity. For a chicken to bring eggs to breakfast is generosity; for a pig to bring bacons sacrifice. Generosity gives out of abundance; sacrifice costs us something. 

These women brought bacon. This was sacrifice, not generosity. It was audacious, extravagant, and irrevocable. She did what she could.

I’d suggest our charge is the same today. Each one of us is called to do what we can do. Not in a flippant way, but following the lead of both of these women—we’re called to go all in, to sacrifice for Christ.

What that means for each of us is going to vary. We all need to ask God to help us identify the sacrifice he’s inviting us to make. Money? Time? Energy? What is it?

You see, we’re reminded here that following Jesus is simple but it’s not easy. It’s simple in that the only prerequisite is faith—“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). We believe he is who he claims to be and did what the Bible claims he did, died for our sins and rose from the dead. It’s simple. 

But it’s not easy because it calls for all of us: “If anyone wishes to come after me, they must deny himself, and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). It requires I go all in; that I do what I can, just like the anonymous woman in Mark 14.