What a jar of perfume taught me.

At our church we have quite a few people who regularly come late and miss the music and prayers at the beginning of our service. I get it. Sometimes worship can seem like an extravagance. Why spend time and money on something that seems so, well, unproductive?

After all, didn’t Jesus spend much, if not most, of his time healing, feeding, lifting people up out of their demons — literally and figuratively?

And yet, serving others seems so rawly utilitarian. Or like we’re missing the gospel-mark. Who’s going to tell them about Jesus? Are we really only about making sure that needs are filled and people’s physical cares are taken care of?

“Think about it,” this other view encourages. “Why did Jesus at times leave the people behind (along with all their needs!) and just reconnect with our Heavenly Father? If it’s all about serving, why leave all that human need and just go somewhere to pray and worship?”

Only three days away from being crucified, Jesus was still encountering the passionate feelings this debate can arouse. Apparently unbeknownst to many, the religious leaders were already developing a plot to have him arrested and executed.

Despite (or maybe because of) his time being short, Jesus was doing what he regularly did. He was hanging out with outcast people that few others wanted to be around. On this occasion, he was eating with a leper named Simon. This is what happened next…

“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'” (Mark 14:3-9, NIV).

Jesus’ answer to the “worship or serve conundrum”? Yep, you heard him right.

Sometimes you worship. And sometimes you serve. Both are pleasing to God (“She has done a beautiful thing to me.”). Both accomplish great things (“Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told…”). Both are perfectly valid expressions of our relationship to Jesus. (Remember these words? They were spoken in Jesus’ final days too: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me'” (Matthew 25:40, NIV).

Hmm. Reminds me of one of my favorite words. Some who were following Jesus didn’t realize that it was one of his favorite words too:


So that’s what I’m reminded of every time I see a bottle of perfume. Worship and serve. Serve and worship.

Our Bible reading for Saturday, March 7, is Leviticus 15:1 – 16:34, Mark 13:32 – 14:16 and Psalm 31:1-8.

Jesus, thank you for worshipping and serving perfectly in my place. Way too often I want to make an “or” out of these two. As you have loved me by worshipping your Heavenly Father, and serving him and me always from your throne of grace, may I respond by moving seamlessly between these two ways of saying “thank you” for all you’ve first done for me!

Header image based on "Alabaster Perfume Jar" by Rytell, CC By 2.0