How Mary’s Perfume Frees you from the Tyranny of Utility

April 4, 2024

…a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor….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. (John 12:2-3)

Because you’re subscribed to my devotionals, I’m confident you’ve overcome the unbiblical hierarchy that elevates the calling of pastors and missionaries above the work of mere Christians who work as entrepreneurs, accountants, and baristas.

But if we’re not careful, another hierarchy of callings can slip into our thinking—one that elevates the work of mere Christians most clearly “changing the world” above the work of those of us who are simply sustaining and serving it. Prosecuting human traffickers matters, but not selling insurance. Curing disease matters, but not waiting tables. Teaching kids matters, but not writing novels. 

This too is an unbiblical way of thinking. 

All throughout Scripture, God shows that he values work beyond its “usefulness.” He creates trees that are helpful and beautiful (see Genesis 2:8-9). He decorates cities with 5,600 miles of seemingly superfluous gems (see Revelation 21:10-21). He makes it rain in uninhabited deserts, apparently because he thinks that sounds fun (see Job 38:25-27).

In short, God doesn’t limit his work to the useful. Sometimes he does work the world would call useless.

And in today’s passage, we see Jesus encouraging Mary to do the same.

This scene took place the night before Palm Sunday—just days before Jesus’s death. While we can’t be certain what Mary did for work most days, on this night, she engaged in the work of washing Jesus’s feet with her most precious perfume.

“But one of [Jesus’s] disciples, Judas Iscariot…objected,” saying, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages” (see John 12:4-5).

Judas, like so many of us today, was obsessed with function.

“How impractical!” we can hear him screaming. 

But check out Jesus’s response: “Leave her alone,” he told Judas (John 12:7). Because what Mary did brought a smile to Jesus’s face. And that was enough, because bringing a smile to God’s face is the essence of worship

What does that mean for you today? It means you can joyfully lean into the job you love making donuts or building software—even if your work isn’t solving one of the major problems of our age. It means you can spend a few extra hours on that project for your client in the name of God-glorifying craftsmanship—even if you can’t point to an increase in ROI.

If you, like Mary, are doing your work in a God-honoring way, then you can feel freedom from the tyranny of utility. Because 1 John 3:22 says that when “we keep his commands,” we “give him pleasure when he sees what we are doing”—even if the world can’t see the “use” of our labor.

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