(…continued) Whose side would you be on in this story?
William Willimon spoke at a seminar one time at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. I was there and I heard the story from him in person. I am retelling it from memory so it is not word for word, but the gist of it is true. There was a challenging sermon, an inspired young couple, and some disgruntled parents. I remember the story was a thought provoker for me. It still is.
I am a minister, so I am big on following Jesus, and I am big on telling you to do with your life what God wants you to do. I have also been in Brad’s position, and one time had started filling out the application papers to go to Nairobi, Kenya as a short-term missionary for two years with my wife and two children. I did not go, but still wonder sometimes if the call of God was somewhere in that; or, if God was calling me to stay at my little rural church, which is what I did. And Brad’s parents, though they are the ones resisting this call of God, are not the bad guys in the story for me. I am a parent and a grandparent, and I would hate to see any of my children or grandchildren go off to the other side of the world to live in a shack with a war going on all around them.
So there are no bad guys in this story. But there does seem to be a call from Jesus; Jesus, who calls on each of us to take up the cross, to serve others in his name, and perhaps even to go to the ends of the earth. We see a lot of that in the Bible. We even sing about it, don’t we? “Take my life that I may be…ever only all for thee.” We like that hymn— up to a certain point.
In the Gospel of John there is a similar story of someone who seems to be ‘going overboard for religion’ as Brad’s father described it. The story also includes an objection to such extreme devotion, and the response of Jesus.
John 12:1-8 — Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 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. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Image of John 12:1-8 from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth
Jesus is at the home of two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. These were friends of Jesus, and Lazarus was the one who Jesus had just raised from the dead in the previous chapter of John.
After dinner, Mary took a pint of expensive perfume, anointed Jesus feet, and wiped them with her hair. We don’t do any of that anymore, but back then washing feet was a big deal. Today we’ll take our shoes off in the house to keep the mud off the carpet, but in those days that would not have done any good. You could take your sandals off, but even then your bare feet would still be caked with dirt from the dusty paths. So, you would take your sandals off and you would wash your feet– or some servant, or the even host might do that for you. But Mary goes way overboard. Jesus is already in the house, so his feet have probably already been washed clean. But then Mary anoints his feet with perfume and dries them with her hair. This isn’t just begin a good hostess. This is an extravagant act of devoted worship.
It was far too excessive for Judas who objected saying, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It is worth a year’s wages.” The next verse informs us of his real motive, telling us that Judas was the keeper of the money bag and would steal from it.
But apart from that unpleasant little detail, I always thought Judas had a point. After all, the equivalent of a year’s wages certainly could have made a significant contribution to the local food shelf. Mary does seem to be going overboard in this act of worship and devotion.
But Jesus did not criticize Mary, and he said to Judas, “Leave her alone.” Jesus then started talking about the day of his burial, and how he would not always be with them.
Think about the context. Jesus just raised Mary’s brother, Lazarus from the dead after Lazarus was in the tomb four days. In just a few more days, Jesus himself would be arrested and killed and put in a tomb. Even though he would then rise from the dead, his time on earth with the disciples would soon be coming to an end. Jesus said “The poor you will always have with you,” but this did not mean “So don’t worry about them.” Jesus had already said too much about helping the poor to mean that. Rather, this was said in the sense of, “Yes, you do indeed need to be concerned about those in need, so keep doing what you can for them from now on.”
But, Jesus said, “You will not always have me with you.” Those last few days with Jesus were special, and what Jesus was about to do for the world was not only unique, but was to be the most important event in all history, and it was worthy of Mary’s extravagant act of devotion.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with going overboard for Jesus. (continued…)
Take my life and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in endless praise.
Take my will and make it Thine,
It shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own,
It shall be Thy royal throne.
–Francis Havergal, 1874