Last week, we heard the incredible story of Jesus declaring that he is the resurrection and the life, and then demonstrating that by raising Lazarus from the dead. Before we get into today’s story, there is a plot development at the end of chapter 11 in the Gospel of John that we need to fill in. Because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, John tells us, many of the people there believed in Jesus. But some went and told the Pharisees what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a council, and in that council expressed their fear that if they let Jesus keep going as he was, then he would gain a following and the Romans would come in and destroy the temple and the country of Judea. The high priest, Caiaphas, then declares that it will be better for one man to die than for the whole country to be destroyed. And from this moment on, the leadership begins to actively plot to have Jesus put to death. So Jesus withdraws from that area to a town called Ephraim, in the north, near the wilderness, and stays there. But as the Passover approaches, the people begin to go to Jerusalem, and they start to ask among themselves whether or not Jesus will come. They also know that there are orders out for anyone who sees Jesus to report him to the authorities, so that they can arrest him. John is building up the suspense of the story.
And now we come to today’s story, where Jesus returns to Bethany and eats with Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and many others. This is a very interesting story with layers of meaning that don’t always come through with our English translations. For one thing, this is a very intimate scene. A Jewish woman of good standing would not let her hair down in public. For another thing, washing another person’s feet is an act usually left to the slaves of a household; if you want to hear more about foot washing, please come to the Maundy Thursday service during Holy Week, where we will hear about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. For Mary to anoint Jesus’ feet with very fragrant and costly perfume in front of her sister, her brother, and many other guests there for dinner that evening would have caused outrage and offended sensibilities on many levels in that time and place.
But the main question in this story seems to be about how this perfume was used. The perfume that Mary had bought was indeed very expensive: three hundred denarii would have been about one full year’s wages for a laborer. In today’s dollars, think somewhere around $20,000 to $30,000. And so, I can kind of understand Judas’ very obnoxious, but ultimately self-serving, question: wouldn’t it have been better to sell the perfume and use this money to help the poor? Wouldn’t Jesus have been happier to have his feet anointed with something less expensive, and all of that money used to make other people’s lives on this earth better?
But let’s think back a moment. Jesus had just raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus, from the dead. And in that story, we know that Lazarus had been dead: dead for four days, so that, when Jesus commanded the people to open up the tomb, Martha protested that there would be a bad smell. There was no doubt that Lazarus was dead; there was no trick on anyone’s part. And Jesus did something that no human has ever been able to do: he restored life to a dead body, not in a horror movie/zombie type fashion, but full and abundant life. Lazarus was as he had been; it was as if he had never died. If someone restored your loved one back to life after he or she had been dead for four days, what would you give to that person? Wouldn’t you respond with all of the love and gratitude in your heart? Wouldn’t you devote your entire life to serving the person who saved your loved one from death? How much money would you spend for that person? Twenty thousand to thirty thousand dollars doesn’t seem like too much money now, does it?
However, we should not take Jesus’ comment about, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” to mean that we should stop working on behalf of the poor. The entire witness of the Scriptures says differently. Rather, it is simply this: Jesus knows that his time on this earth is short. He knows he is headed to Jerusalem to undergo a gruesome death on the cross. He knows that, when he is gone from this earth, his disciples will have all of the time in the world to help the poor. And so, in this moment, before he continues on to give his life for the world, he approves of Mary’s lavish and sensual act of devotion on his behalf. Mary is pouring out her life for him in love and in gratitude for him, just as Jesus will soon be pouring out his life, literally, on the cross for his love of humankind.
So, the question becomes, how do we devote our lives fully and completely to Jesus, to the one who has saved us from our sins? How do we give so completely of ourselves that our entire lives are marked by love of and service to Jesus? If we think that just coming to church on Sundays is going to do it, then we may need to rethink what we believe about Jesus. In his book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark traces, in a sociological manner, how Christianity went from a group of several disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to becoming the religion of the empire. And one of the arguments that he makes has stuck with me. He makes the case that, when an epidemic of illness hit, the Christians showed their love for one another and for the non-Christians around them by nursing those who were sick. In the process, the Christians themselves often became sick and died. For the Christians, this was simply what they did out of love and devotion to Jesus, and they were not afraid of dying in the process. For the non-Christians around them, this was something so new and different that they had to find out more about this faith for themselves. And thus, Christianity gained new converts.
When the message of the culture around us is that we need to have more and more stuff in order to be happy, how do we proclaim the counter-cultural message of Jesus: that we find our lives only when we lose them in service to others? And how do we do this in a way that others will be drawn to want to know more about this man, this Son of God, who gave himself away so that others might live? How do we witness to others that what we have is enough, and give ourselves away in costly devotion to Jesus?
If you’ve grown up in the Lutheran church, I hope that you’re getting uncomfortable right now. Lutherans teach that there’s nothing that we can do to earn God’s love, and that is the absolute truth. We have God’s love already and nothing we do is going to earn it, and nothing we do is going to earn us a place in heaven. We have it already. But, we also hear from the Holy Scriptures that faith without works is dead. If it were John talking about this, he would phrase it in terms of love: if we claim that we love Jesus because Jesus first loved us, then that love should be showing in our actions. As the old song has it, they’ll know we are Christians by our love. So, my question to you today is: How do you show that you love Jesus? Well, here are some suggestions for you to consider:
Giving back to God what God has first given to us. Mary showed her devotion to Jesus by anointing his feet with a very expensive perfume. If a stranger were to come upon your checkbook and open it before she gave it back to you, would she be able to tell that you love Jesus? Are you giving to the church? Are you giving to groups that help other people in ways that God has commanded us to? What about if a stranger were to come across your calendar and open it up before giving it back to you? Would he be able to tell that you love Jesus by the places you go and how you spend your time? Could you give more of your time, talents, and treasure to serve God than you are doing right now?
What about the time that you spend in prayer? Now this can be considerably more private, because it is about the relationship that you have with God. But even so, there are ways to pray for others in public that can be a good witness to others without being obnoxious about it. For example, if you are having a conversation with someone else, and they are relating some struggles they are having to you, you can ask them if they would like to pray about it. If they say no, that’s fine—let it go and pray for them on your own time. But if they say yes, take a moment and pray together. Yes, it might feel awkward at first, but God knows what’s in your hearts and will hear you.
With these suggestions and with other ideas that you may come up with, it’s also important to examine your motivations. What you do to show your love for Jesus is not so that you just look good to everyone else—it should be a genuine act of devotion to show your love and gratitude for what Jesus has done for you. Mary of Bethany certainly did not do what she did to make a spectacle of herself, even if that’s what others thought she was doing. But the life of a Christian was never meant to be one of comfort and ease. The life of a Christian is a commitment to walk the path that Jesus has set before us. Jesus’ path meant crucifixion, death, and resurrection. While the path that he has set before us may not mean literally dying for the faith in Jesus, it does mean a commitment to a life that will entail hardship for the faith that we have. But it also means great joy as well as great pain, for in giving our lives away for others, we can see the joy that Jesus gives to the world through us. So do not be afraid—give of yourselves abundantly and joyfully for Jesus’ sake and for the sake of the world. Amen.