Expensive Perfume, Deceptive Rebukes, and an Example of True Stewardship

At FDC, many of the ways in which we enable and equip our members to be effective consumers involve helping you spend, save and steward money. We spend a lot of time talking about these things because it’s important for our personal lives, the lives of our families, the communities we inhabit, and the culture at large in America. We can help you save money through the FDC Marketplace. We enable you to spend money wisely and strategically through the FEI. And we often write blogs or feature podcasts about how to save and steward so that you can experience the blessing of financial health and freedom.

These are all tremendously important things that we believe in and are exceedingly happy to be able to provide our members. But occasionally, it’s helpful to step back, re-center and ensure that we are doing all of these things – good things – out of a foundational and overflowing love for Jesus Christ. As sinful humans, our greatest struggle is with idolatry – making good things, god things. And even something as good and important as saving money and spending it in ways that promote Christian values in our culture, it can become an idol that distracts us, or can even become a monument to our own kingdom here on earth.

One of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament provides us with a powerful reminder of how a true follower of Christ “stewards” her resources in the presence of Jesus her Lord. Let’s take a moment to read this tremendous passage from John 12 together.:

[1] Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. [2] So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. [3] 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. [4] But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, [5] “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” [6] 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. [7] Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. [8] For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (ESV)

This passage depicts an intimate event, just days before Jesus would be crucified, where His disciples and followers would spend one of their final moments together. During this time, while Martha was about to serve dinner, Mary left the room and came back with a bottle of perfume. This perfume was exceedingly expensive and reserved for burial treatments of family members. A pound of it, as the verse says, would have cost almost a year’s worth of pay for the average person and was among the most expensive and precious things a family owned. It was this perfume that Mary retrieved and then proceeded to pour out – entirely – onto the feet of Jesus. The beautiful aroma filled the room in a way that would’ve been powerful and overwhelming for a rag-tag bunch of smelly fishermen-turned-vagabonds.

Mary’s act of love and sacrifice was not only profound for those in attendance of that intimate dinner with his loved ones. It has been a story that has stirred many hearts for two thousand years as Christians have read of the intense love and devotion of Mary towards her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It stands as one of the most beautiful depictions of intimate love and devotion ever recorded, and, indeed, an example for those of us who are striving to love and serve God in a deeper and more authentic way.


Not everyone reads this story and sees it that way. In fact, within the brief story, itself, we are exposed to the disapproving perspective of Jesus’ disciple Judas. And Judas provides an argument against Mary’s actions, which on the surface seems reasonable enough. Couldn’t she have sold the perfume instead? Wouldn’t all that money have been able to secure much needed resources for impoverished people? Couldn’t it have been used in a less wasteful way? Shouldn’t she have discussed with group or asked permission to use it in this way before impulsively pouring it out on Jesus’ feet? And for that matter, why did she have to pour the entire bottle out? Couldn’t a few drops have been sufficient and gotten the point across?

These are the kinds of complaints Judas had against Mary’s actions as he chastised her for being so wasteful and unthoughtful. But if we’re honest, and if we, for a moment, put aside what we come to know about Judas in later passages, I think we must admit that we are sometimes prone to thinking in similar ways as Judas was here. Sometimes we become distracted and deluded enough to think that there are better ways to spend our resources, time, money and efforts than in pure love and devotion towards our Father and Savior.

But this Scripture tells us what Judas’ rebuke of Mary and his “alternative monetary strategy” was all about: greed and idolatry. Judas had found a way to justify his greed and his treachery and had rebuked others who didn’t contribute to his selfish and earthly fiscal strategy.

It seems that much like how the prodigal son is not only wonderful and redemptive story about a wayward son coming home, but also is just as much a cautionary tale to pharisaical “older brothers,” this passage in John 12 is not just about Mary’s incredible act of devotion and love, it’s also a warning. And while I suspect and hope that none of us have the traitorous and duplicitous intentions on the level of Judas Iscariot, it’s important to remember that we’re still very capable of this kind of thinking and reasoning. We are masters at twisting logic and constructing arguments to conceal our greed and idolatry. And we can fool everyone around us into thinking we’re being good stewards and doing good things for the kingdom.

But even if we aren’t embezzling money from a church or charity, we can still find ourselves building our own kingdom and using clever arguments to justify it. But the truth that this Scripture unequivocally conveys is that there is no use of our resources greater than pure devotion and sincere love displayed through sacrifice to the God who loves us, saved us and has adopted us. May we strive to put on Mary’s lenses, and not Judas’. May we consider God’s economy and the currency of heaven, not the ones of this earth. May we strive to be good stewards of our money and do as we are commanded to in helping and giving to the poor. But may we never fall into the idolatry that places a higher value on anything – whether it be our own greed or any earthly cause, however good it may be – than pure and sincere, self-sacrificial love for Jesus.

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