|Anointing Jesus for Burial (John 11:45 - 12:11)
I am big on common sense and practicality. I believe Aristotle was right to classify human beings as “rational animals” and that reason is one of the unique features that reveals the image of God in humankind. Thinking is not a bad habit to be abandoned in favor of following your heart and putting feelings above all. I think everybody ought to take a good course in logic somewhere along the way in his or her educational process. I repeat for emphasis: I value logical thinking, the calculation of probabilities, and prudence in human affairs.
Sometimes, though, common sense gets in the way of devotion. Practicality causes love to stumble and fail. And a drawn-out process of calculating the odds lets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity get away. One of the challenges in a life like mine is to remember that spending too much for a meal on my wedding anniversary isn’t a waste; it is love for my wife. A Weed Eater is practical, but a few flowers and a hand-written note mean more I’ve learned. We have loved our children beyond the limits of logic. And I have watched and learned the extravagance of love from so many of you.
Do you remember the $30,000 I handed out on the Sunday before last Thanksgiving? I’ll bet somebody in the room thought about the waste of that project, about putting a couple of native missionaries on the field with that money. Was it you? A dating couple that took one of those envelopes was at a donut shop several days later and saw a man with three little boys come in. Their clothes looked pretty bad, and the father wasn’t very clean at the end of a non-executive workday. It turns out they weren’t there to buy donuts but to let the boys see their mother and tell her goodnight. She was working the late shift in the back cooking donuts. “My girlfriend and I immediately looked at one another,” wrote the young man. “We knew this was the family whose need was ready to be met by the love of Jesus. Just before we were about to leave, she went to the counter, asked for the lady who had come out to kiss her boys goodnight, and handed her the folded-up $100 bill. She simply said, ‘This is a gift from Jesus to help make life a little brighter for you and your boys.’ The woman said a quick thank you and returned to the back to work. She didn’t even look at the bill in our presence. We promptly left, confident that Jesus’ name had been glorified.” This couple has since used their own money for similar things – as have scores and hundreds of us. A waste? The “Seeds of Kindness” that were planted with a total of $50,000 last fall are blossoming their sweet fragrance still!
Common sense says, “Grow beans and potatoes.” Love plants flowers too! Common sense says, “Be kind to the people who can do you a favor.” Faith says to take care of the weakest and most vulnerable among you. Common sense says, “Do your part – and then turn it over to somebody else.” The extravagant love of Christ in the hearts of his people knows there is always something more love will choose to do that goes beyond all considerations of duty and obligation.
The heroes of our faith are people who acted by love that put them over the edge of duty. Abraham packed up everything he could, left the rest behind, and headed for God alone knew where. Ruth went back to a foreign-to-her place with her mother-in-law when common sense said stay put. Hosea went looking for an adulterous wife with a passionate love that made no sense. Joseph married a woman whose reputation was shot because she was pregnant far too soon. Zacchaeus gave half of everything he had to the poor when a fraction of that would have looked generous. Paul gave up his career as a promising young rabbi and later called it “rubbish” for the sake of knowing Jesus.
Logic didn’t put them on their paths. It wasn’t prudence or moderation that made their lives memorable. They ignored common sense and the expectations of others for the sake of doing what they believed God wanted of them. In the words of one of them: “We are fools for the sake of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). Extravagant love will do that to people.
Our text for today is a textbook case of love going overboard. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, there were many who believed in him (11:45). There were others, however, who had already made up their minds not to believe. They were the more determined now to get rid of Jesus. He could foment the sort of civil disturbance that would cause Rome to crack down and take away the vestiges of self-rule the Jews wanted to preserve (11:45-48). The high priest even made an unwitting prophecy that John recorded in this Gospel for the sake of its irony: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). So as the Jewish leaders plotted against him, Jesus withdrew from the Bethany-Jerusalem area to await his climactic hour (11:53-57). The light is shining into the darkness, but the darkness will not stop trying to extinguish it!
Mary’s Beautiful Deed
Six days before the final Passover of Jesus’ time on Planet Earth, he and his disciples resurfaced in public. The place was the home of Lazarus in Bethany. What a scene it must have been – Lazarus alive and gawked at by everyone, Martha and Mary thrilled at hosting their Lord, guests both thrilled and curious, and uninvited souls jostling and craning their necks to see what would happen next.
There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”Nard was an especially expensive spice imported from northern India. It was used in the ancient world in medical recipes, to flavor aromatic wines, and as a perfume. A pound of either the spice or perfume made from it would have cost a small fortune for that time – 300 denarii would be around $20,000 today! Nard smelled like gladiola, and I can hardly imagine how strong the smell must have been when Mary poured it freely over Jesus’ feet, body, and clothing. John says “the house was filled with the fragrance” of it (12:3). The aroma must have lingered on him for the balance of the week that led up to his death. And remember that Jesus knew his death was looming, so he received this extravagant anointing with that event in view.
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus (John 12:2-11).
But there was a common-sense element in the room. Judas Iscariot voiced the sentiment of reason and practicality. “A host of poor people could have been fed with what that perfume cost!” he opined. (One writer said Judas, if he had not betrayed Jesus, would now be the patron saint of accountants!)
John’s after-the-fact comment about Judas is interesting. With the hindsight of having audited the books after Judas’ suicide, the disciples found he had been pilfering their common purse throughout Jesus’ ministry with them. So Judas didn’t fall from grace in a moment of disappointment and frustration late in the ministry. He had been harboring willful sin all through it! He had been stealing from petty cash. He had been making personal calls on the company card. He had been visiting Internet porn sites all along. In other words, Satan got Judas the way he gets most people – not in one dramatic failure but in a public exposure of the private corruption that has been at work for a long time. But Judas isn’t the point. And the issue here is not to put all of us on guard against the “little sins” we tolerate too easily and that set us up to steal, to have an affair, to do something criminal. This is Mary’s moment!
When either sinister Judas or other purely practical souls in that house looked at Mary with contempt, Jesus looked at her with gratitude for her devotion. He accepted her deed for the loving event she meant it to be. Practical considerations aside, he knew her heart – and received, treasured, and affirmed her over-the-top act of devotion.
John also remembered later that Mary not only anointed Jesus’ feet with her very expensive perfume but “wiped them with her hair” (12:3b). This borders on the scandalous and most certainly isn’t a moderated, deliberate action. “Women did not let down their hair in public, and the only one who saw a woman’s hair was her husband. Mary is acting with abandon, extravagant abandon, hoping that the close circle of friends will understand.” But maybe she didn’t really care about what even her “close circle of friends” would or would not understand. My sense is that she only cared for Jesus and would have been concerned with his reaction alone.
And Jesus took courage from the pure and extravagant love Mary lavished on him that day. She broke the long, slender neck of the jar. She poured out the expensive fragrance. She gave her best for him. In what she was doing, Jesus saw what he was doing: God’s extravagant love for wayward, rebellious humanity had become flesh. In Jesus’ words and deeds, the excesses of grace and mercy had been seen repeatedly – with lepers, social outcasts, immoral people. God is in love with the world he has created, and he will stop at nothing to reclaim it. Jesus is the incalculably valuable and beloved Son of God. God’s most precious essence of pure love is about to be poured out for the world!
When Jesus saw Mary’s act, he thought of his own. Precious love is not to be held back, displayed discretely, and admired. It must be opened and offered. It must be poured out – expended to the last drop. God’s, Mary’s, mine, yours – love isn’t love until it is given away!
Does your Christian life flow from common-sense practicality? It just makes sense to keep your promises, maintain your good name, and keep your family together! Or does it flow from pure love for God? For me to love God, these are the things that will honor him and give him glory! The purest and best devotion to God springs not from duty but from love. And the happiest day in your Christian life is when the things you ought to do are now the things you want to do because of your love for the one who first loved you.
Jesus doesn’t just invite you to believe in him and command you to obey him. He invites you to fall in love with him. He calls you to love his Father, just as he loves him. He offers you the Holy Spirit to empower and enable that love. Duty won’t keep you from moral collapse. Obligation won’t maintain your Christian behavior. Love will.
Babette’s Feast is a Danish film based on an Isak Dinesen story. It is set in a tiny village on the coast of Denmark years ago. Two spinster sisters provide leadership to a little Protestant sect their pastor-father founded years before. It has dwindled down to eleven sour-faced, overly pious, and self-righteous old people. On a stormy, rainy night, Babette knocks at the sisters’ door. A refugee from France, she bears a letter that says simply: “Babette can cook.”
For the next fourteen years, Babette lives with the sisters and cleans and cooks for her room and board. Then comes the news that she has won 10,000 francs with a lottery ticket which a friend still in France has renewed for her annually. What Babette does next is her exuberant expression of love for the people of the little town where she had lived. She asks and receives permission from the sisters to host a dinner in honor of the one hundredth anniversary of their father’s birth. She cooks a gourmet dinner of turtle soup, caviar, quail, pastries, champagne, and vintages wines. After serving the meal, she reveals that she was once the chief chef for the world-famous Café Anglais in Paris. Moreover, she had spent her entire 10,000 francs on the one sumptuous feast the townspeople have just eaten.
At first it appears that the extravagant gift has been wasted on an unappreciative group of pious sour-pusses. As it turns out, however, the gourmet banquet has a transforming effect. The amazing grace of turtle soup and aged wine creates an atmosphere in which old feuds get settled, friendship and love are rekindled, and hearts are strangely warmed. In the words of Isak Dinesen: “Taciturn old people received the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened to it. Time itself had merged into eternity. Long after midnight the windows of the house shone like gold, and golden song flowed out into the winter’s air.”
Come. Eat with us at the table of extravagant grace God has set for us! Eat the bread of unity and drink the wine of celebration! In coming to the table, receive God’s grace. At the same time and place, give it. Forgive an offense. Let go some bitterness. Speak the language of love and appreciation to someone. Renew your commitment to live for Christ – not from duty but in exuberant love.
If you will pour yourself out to him, he will receive your gift. If you fear being judged by another or giving away too much, know that Mary received a love that was worth far more than the everything she gave him. And so will you.
 Gary M. Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 2000), p. 339.
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