Hot asphalt peppered with rain, spicy chai, gardenia blooms—certain smells have the power to transport us back to childhood, unlock hidden memories, and trigger unexpected emotions. Is there a scent you associate with a scene of warm camaraderie, a moment of deep affection, or perhaps an unforgettable act of sacrifice? For Jesus, the answer would be spikenard oil.
Before turning to Scripture, pray for God’s Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in the key passages below. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. Above all else, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.
Key Passages: Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:1-11; John 12:1-11
Luke 10:39 introduced Mary as a woman who prioritized Jesus above all else: She was sitting at His feet, defying cultural norms that deemed it fitting only for men to learn from a rabbi. She was even willing to endure the disapproval of her sister Martha, who complained Mary was shirking her responsibilities to help serve the meal (Luke 10:40).
In John 12:3, Mary once again invites the scorn of her audience when she honors Jesus in a shocking way: by sacrificing expensive perfume worth about a year’s wages (Mark 14:5 NIV)—tens of thousands of dollars in today’s economy. Not only that, but in a dramatic display of devotion, she uses her hair to wipe the fragrant oil on Jesus’ feet.
- With this in mind, how would you describe the scene in terms of risk and exposure?
- Do displays of vulnerability and affection make you uncomfortable? If so, how do you typically deal with the discomfort?
Continuing the Story
When Mary’s brother Lazarus died, Jesus patiently bore her rebuke: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). And even though He was just moments away from raising Lazarus back to life, Jesus met Mary in her grief and wept along with her (John 11:33-35).
Even though Jesus was just moments away from raising Lazarus back to life, He met Mary in her grief and wept along with her.
And now He’s blessed her family by doing the impossible. Given that Mary’s relationship with the Lord is a close one marked by tenderness, it makes sense that she wants to do something to demonstrate her love and profound gratitude. What better time than at a dinner honoring Him? (See John 12:2 NIV).
Although multitudes have already been following Jesus everywhere, this dinner turns into even more of a spectacle than Mary may have imagined. Now, besides wanting to see the Miracle Worker, a large crowd gathers at the house to catch sight of the miracle: the once again living and breathing Lazarus. His return from the grave has made him an instant celebrity and a compelling argument for faith in Jesus.
But as famous as Lazarus is, he has also become infamous—the Pharisees see his very life as a threat to their grip on power. Deciding that the solution to their problem is to get rid of it, they plan to kill both Lazarus and Jesus (John 12:10-11).
It is in this supercharged atmosphere of excitement, curiosity, and conflict that Mary’s dramatic and controversial sacrifice takes place.
While Matthew 26:8 and Mark 14:4 show that what Mary did confronted something in all the disciples, John’s gospel singles out Judas (John 12:4-6). Mary’s sacrifice was somehow a particular challenge to him. It touched a nerve, whether that had to do with an inner contempt for such extravagant affection or his concern about the group’s money.
- Though Judas’ interest in the poor is a façade, does his argument resonate with you? Sometimes sacrificial worship does come at the expense of attending to the needs of others. In what ways does Jesus’ response to Judas offend or relieve you?
- Mark 14:3 notes that Mary had to break an alabaster jar in order to anoint Jesus with the nard oil. What do you think that says about the relationship between brokenness and sacrifice?
- Look at John 12:3 again. The perfume was strong enough to fill the house with its fragrance. This means that although Mary intended only to anoint Jesus, she ended up changing the entire atmosphere and marking everyone present with the scent of sacrifice. How do you imagine the aroma of nard would affect them all in years to come? Now think about your own life: When have you been impacted by someone else’s humble, selfless sacrifice? Were you the direct recipient or a silent observer? In what ways has it changed how you think or act now?
- Describe how experiencing God’s power can alter our worldview. How might it impact the way we respond to Him, with regard to service, sacrifice, and prayer?
Sometimes sacrificial worship does come at the expense of attending to the needs of others.
REMEMBER Sacrifice confronts.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
Reread Mark 14:8-9.
When Mary is accused of wasting the valuable perfume, Jesus defends her good deed by explaining, “She has anointed My body beforehand for the burial” (Mark 14:6; Mark 14:8). In other words, her lavish act reveals what she believes about the Lord—including His predictions of His death (something that His own disciples didn’t grasp until after the fact).
In fact, Jesus considers Mary’s sacrifice so integral to the gospel that He prophesies it will always be mentioned in conjunction with the good news. How does that inform your opinion on the significance of her sacrifice, specifically? What about sacrifice in general?
- Sacrifice confronts not only those witnessing it, like Judas, but also the one who brings the offering. It forces us to ask, What do I believe? What do I value—and am I willing to lose it for Jesus’ sake? How much scorn am I willing to endure? Consider your own life: If God called you to sacrifice your most precious possession, what thoughts would go through your head? What fears would you have to make peace with? What part would trust play?
- Mary used her precious nard to anoint the Lord mere days before He was crucified (see Mark 14:1, Mark 14:8; John 12:1). Given the pungency of perfume and the fact that she used the entire bottle, her hair undoubtedly bore the fragrance for a long time. What reminders and emotions would that lingering scent evoke in Mary during the forthcoming days? How might the aroma be a comfort to Jesus as He faced torture and death on the cross?
- Sacrifice isn’t always understood by everyone—some sneer, calling it waste. But not Jesus. To Him, our sacrifice is worship, and it’s always worth the price.