Good morning, Friends!
This winter we’ve been spending time with the gospel of John. I don’t know if you realize it, but the gospel of John is different from all of the other books in the New Testament. John has a lot of the same stories you find in the other three gospels. But John also has things which are unique – you don’t find them in Matthew, Mark or Luke.
For example, only John has the great I AM sayings. We looked at them a few weeks ago. John is the only gospel which tells the story of turning water into wine.
John is the only gospel with the story of Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night because he was scared to be seen with Jesus in the daytime. That’s the only place in the Bible, where Jesus says “You must be born again.”
Jesus heals people in all the other gospels, but John is the only one that tells the story of Jesus healing a man who was born blind – we looked at that story last week – and the story of the healing at Bethesda – we looked at that one a few weeks ago.
John is the only gospel that tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. John is where Jesus says, “A new commandment I give you: love one another, as I have loved you. . .” John has a lot of special stuff.
Today’s story is not unique to John. There are different versions of it in all four gospels. Any time I hear someone say that women can’t be ministers, I always ask if they’ve read this story. But John tells it in a different way.
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 Jesus, objected. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” Judas didn’t 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.”
– John 12:1-8
There’s a lot going on in this story.
It’s right before Passover, so this is an Easter story. In fact, this story may have happened on the night before Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem.
Palm Sunday was a day of joy – but things got ugly very fast. Seems like Jesus had some idea of what was ahead of him.
The story takes place at the house of Lazarus. We didn’t read that story this year, but maybe some of you remember how it went.
Lazarus had been sick and died. They sent word to Jesus, but he didn’t arrive till too late. Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were upset. Martha was the one who came outside and talked with Jesus; Mary stayed in the house weeping for her brother. Jesus told people roll away the stone, and called Lazarus out of the grave.
We actually met Mary and Martha in one of the other gospels, in Luke chapter 10. Maybe you remember – Martha was in and out of the kitchen, busy serving the meal. But Mary stayed as close as she could to Jesus, listening to him. No one could get Mary to move. She was devoted to him.
So, that’s the background for today’s story. Jesus was back at the house of Lazarus, Martha and Mary.
At the end of the meal, Mary did something completely unexpected. She brought out a jar of really expensive perfume or ointment. It cost as much as a whole year’s wages – we’re talking ten or twenty thousand dollars worth of perfume here. You could smell it all over the house.
Matthew and Mark say that she poured the perfume all over Jesus’ head. Luke and John say that she anointed his feet.
Either way, it was a costly gesture. It probably represented everything that Mary had. Jesus had called her brother Lazarus back to life. Now Mary was pouring out her very best for Jesus.
I want you to feel the tension, the balance of this story. On the one side, you’ve got the unbelievable love of Jesus for Lazarus and his sisters. A love that would give anything, even life. On the one side you’ve got Christ saying, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even though they die, will live. . .”
And on the other side, you’ve got unbelievable faith, a faith that trusts God even when the worst has happened. “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Savior, the son of God, who has come into the world. . .”
All of the other gospels say that Mary washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. John adds that she wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Again, you can picture the love, the intimacy, and the grief in Mary’s heart.
Everyone else thought Jesus was going to be crowned king. Maybe only Mary and Jesus understood what was really going to happen.
When we first meet Mary in the other story, Mary was the one who stayed listening at Jesus’ feet, absorbing every word that he said, refusing to leave him even for a second. Now, she’s anointing his feet, saying goodbye with her heart breaking, getting ready to let him go.
Then we get this jarring note. In the middle of this scene of faith and love, Judas speaks up. “This is all wrong!” Judas said. “What a waste! Why wasn’t this useless perfume sold, and the money given to the poor?”
The writer of John says that Judas didn’t care at all about the poor. Judas was in charge of the money for the group, and used to help himself to whatever was put into it. So, a whole year’s wages would have been a windfall for Judas.
I don’t know why Jesus would have put someone like Judas in charge of all the money. What was he thinking of? Surely Jesus knew Judas’ heart. Maybe Jesus was trying to win Judas’ back by giving him responsibility. Maybe Jesus was trying to show Judas he trusted him. You really wonder why Jesus would have made a choice like that. But then, you really wonder why God trusts us sometimes.
Then there’s a line which has been taken completely out of context and misused for centuries. Jesus says, “You will always have the poor with you. . .”
People have been using those words for two thousand years as an excuse to neglect the poor, to avoid caring for them, to blame the poor for being poor.
“It’s their own fault for being poor,” people say. “Or it was their parents’ fault. They made bad choices. They deserve to be poor. Anyway, Jesus said it – You will always have the poor with you. . .”
I have heard those words misquoted and misused so many times in my life. Jesus never said that people belonged in poverty.
This is a story about Jesus’ death. Jesus and Mary knew what was coming. Mary had been listening to what Jesus said about having to die on the cross. Everyone else was deaf or in denial about it. In that whole house full of people, Mary was the only one who understood.
Jesus said, “You won’t always have me here. That’s why she did this. Leave her alone, She’s doing what she can. You can always help the poor, and you should. But right now, this is what she chose to do.”
People who say, “There will always be poor people” are probably right. There will. But that’s no excuse for us to turn our backs on the poor.
Didn’t Jesus tell the rich young man to sell everything he had, and give to the poor, if he wanted to enter the kingdom?
Didn’t Jesus say that whenever we feed the hungry, or give a thirsty person a drink, or give clothes to the naked, or visit people who are sick, or welcome the stranger, or visit those in prison, that whenever we do these things, it’s the same as doing it to Christ himself, in person?
And didn’t Jesus say that if we don’t do these things, if we deny our care to the least and to the most vulnerable among us, that we are refusing Jesus himself?
I’m not telling any of you what to think or what to do. I’m only asking us to be honest about what Jesus really said.
Don’t let anyone pervert the gospel by saying that old people should go without meals, that children should go to school hungry, that people shouldn’t be cared for, that people should stay in poverty for the rest of their lives, and that Jesus approves that, because “the poor are always with you.”
That is a perversion of Jesus’ words. Don’t let anyone say that and get away with it.
People here in Carolina are great storytellers. I just love to listen to people here telling stories about things. It doesn’t bother me to hear the same story told a different way. People just remember different things, that’s all.
The story of the woman who wept at Jesus’ feet is in all four gospels. That must mean it’s pretty important.
In Luke, it says the woman was a sinner, who lived in the streets and had a bad reputation. When they criticized Jesus for accepting her gift, he said, “Her sins are many are forgiven. That’s why she loves me so much. Those who are forgiven little, love little. . .” (Luke 7:36-50)
Matthew and Mark tell this story, but they don’t mention her background at all. In Mark, the oldest gospel, Jesus says, “Let her alone; she has done what she could.” (Mark 14:3-9)
Sometimes it doesn’t matter what our gifts are. We know we can’t overcome all the pain and suffering in the world. We know we can’t fix everything. What matters is that we do what we can.
If we just try to help one person. If we just try to do one thing that’s within our reach. Sometimes that’s all we can do. Then sometimes we discover we can do more. But that’s such a beautiful saying of Jesus – “she has done what she could.” I hope people will say that about us one day.
Both Matthew and Mark add a comment from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. . .” (Matthew 26:14, Mark 14:9)
When John tells the story – the one we heard today – the one at Jesus’ feet is Mary, who was part of the family that Jesus loved.
I think I like John’s version best of all. There was Lazarus, who Jesus loved so much that he called him back from the grave. There was Martha, the practical member of the family, who was always ready to serve and put food on the table. And there was Mary, who stayed close to Jesus, who listened to his every word.
I wish I could be a part of that beloved family. I wish I could be like all three of those people.
I think that the church needs to have people like Lazarus, like Martha, and like Mary. I think that’s why John told the story that way.
I think the church needs people who are teachers and leaders and organizers. But the church also needs people who are workers, who are witnesses, who are strong in faith and strong in prayer.
And the church needs people who are like Mary, who stay close to Jesus no matter what’s happening all around them. That was Mary’s gift – to stay as close to Jesus as she could, to listen to his every word, to know what Jesus was feeling and to share his grief and his joy.
Not everybody is going to love the Lord like that. We’re all different. And Jesus loves us all, just the way he loved Lazarus, Martha and Mary, even though they were all different.
What matters is that we love. What matters is that we have faith. What matters is that we do what we can, because we feel the love of Jesus, and because we love him in return.
Copyright © 2017 by Joshua Brown