According to Town & Country magazine, “Clive Christian’s No. 1 Imperial Majesty, which was named the World’s Most Expensive Perfume by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2006, was priced at $2,355 per ounce—a splurge that included delivery in a Bentley. A bottle of DKNY’s Golden Delicious, designed by jeweler Martin Katz and featuring nearly 3,000 precious stones—including 2,700 diamonds—sold at a charity auction in 2011 for $1 million. And even now, in an Emirati mall, you might still be able to find a diamond-and-pearl encrusted vial of Shumukh by Spirit of Dubai, which was priced at $1.295 million when it debuted last year.”
This is the kind of extravagance we should be thinking of when we read in the gospels the story of the woman who poured the expensive perfume onto Jesus’ feet. She didn’t just give to Jesus, she gave lavishly and abundantly and beyond her means to pay. In short, she gave to him the way he gives to us. And she didn’t do it perfunctorily or out of a sense of duty. She gave passionately and relationally and intimately, even letting down her hair, which in Jewish culture was culturally taboo outside of the bedroom. She came to Jesus the way he describes us in scripture, as his precious bride, dearly loved.
It’s rare to see someone love the way Jesus loves. For anyone in the room not stymied by self-righteousness, it must have been a moving sight. It should not be so rare, though. Why indeed, when Jesus has forgiven us so much and loved us so completely, are we not continually throwing ourselves at his feet in worship and repentance, pouring ourselves out with love and joy?
Perhaps it is because so few of us have recognized the depth of Christ’s love and forgiveness. Martin Lloyd-Jones writes, “You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation. We are all on very good terms with ourselves, and we can always put up a good case for ourselves. Even if we try to make ourselves feel that we are sinners, we will never do it. There is only one way to know that we are sinners, and that is to have some dim, glimmering conception of God.”
Dane Ortlund says in his book Gentle and Lowly, “If we saw with deeper clarity just how insidious and pervasive and revolting sin is — and … we can see this only as we see the beauty and holiness of God — we would know that human evil calls for an intensity of judgment of divine proportion. … And just as we can hardly fathom the divine ferocity awaiting those out of Christ, it is equally true that we can hardly fathom the divine tenderness already resting now on those in Christ.” For those of us in Christ, our sin no longer separates us from God; instead, it provides an opportunity for him to lavish his grace upon us like a sweet perfume. Romans 5:20 tells us, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
Paul unpacks this for us at length in the following chapter:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:1-11).
Consider that scripture tells us that the woman passionately pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair was a prostitute. How could the king of all creation allow such an unworthy sinner to touch him in such an intimate way? He, who was sinless? The answer is simple: because of his compassion. It is his kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4), not his judgment or condemnation.
In John 8 we see another disgraced woman experiencing the forgiveness and compassion of Jesus. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says, and the would-be executioners slip away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus is left alone with the woman standing before him. “Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more’ ” (John 8:10-11). Do you suppose the woman turned from her sins because someone pointed them out and condemned her? No, of course not. Judging her for her lifestyle didn’t change her lifestyle. Shaming her did not set her free. We can feel so burdened by the unsustainable expectations of perfection from the religious institutions in our lives, or crushed beneath the weight of our own sin. But Christ comes to us there in our mess and embraces us with more compassion than we can fathom. Our sins, in fact, magnify his forgiveness.
Ortlund goes on, “If you are part of Christ’s own body, your sins evoke his deepest heart, his compassion and pity. He ‘takes part with you’ — that is, he’s on your side. He sides with you against your sin, not against you because of your sin. He hates sin. But he loves you.”
Consider furthermore that in Isaiah’s vision, a seraphim touches his lips with a burning coal taken from the altar and pronounces, “And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:6-7). The coal of course being part of the burnt offering which was intended to atone for individual sins, and a prefigure of Christ himself who became a sacrifice for all sins for all time. The eucharist that we still celebrate bears echoes of Isaiah’s coal, which is symbolically the body of Christ, who is the word of God. “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:29). In Christ — and through the sacrifice of Christ — we are made clean, we are forgiven, we are loved.
Paul tells us the only practical application we can possibly make from this good news, and it is no coincidence that it is the same message Jesus leaves with the condemned woman: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14).
We were dead in our sins, but in Christ we have been brought to life. Praise God! Brothers and sisters, if we’re going to be the hands and feet of Jesus, this is our message. We must be a people marked by the humility that comes from having been forgiven extravagantly, for receiving gifts we did not deserve. We must be a people defined by the compassion and kindness and love that Jesus showed to the broken and lonely and rejected people who encountered him and who because of him were changed forever.
Written By: Jess Glass