March 26, 2017
I believe God gives us opportunities to grow in faith and service through everyday life experiences. Sometimes you rise to the invitation and looking back, realize that this particular situation was one that helped you grow closer to the Lord. You made the decision to seek out a church and become more active as a believer. You engaged in worship, became intentional about service, and your life was changed. God molded your character to become more gentle, more forgiving of others, and you found yourself to be more at peace – with yourself and those around you.
God gives us these opportunities, yet sometimes we don’t use these experiences well. Let’s be blunt here – sometimes we flunk the test. These are the moments we look back on and wonder what we were thinking of when we made such a bad choice. These are the head-scratcher moments when we say to ourselves, “Did I really do that? Wow, that was dumb!”
We’ve all been there. We’ve said things we regret; we’ve done things that were hurtful. Foot in mouth disease goes around in epidemic proportions. That’s where we may find solace in the Bible. There is no sugar-coating here. People mess up in the Bible just like you and me, and it’s right there in black and white. If you have ever felt badly about your doubts or some past behaviors, you’re in good company. In the next few weeks, we’re going to see the disciples make plenty of wrong judgments. Today is only round one in this chapter where the disciples fail to make the right choice.
We’re coming up to Passover in this passage, which is also called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Mark tells us that tensions were escalating among the chief priests and teachers of the law. They were determined to have Jesus arrested and killed, even though they were afraid to have that happen during Passover when there were a lot of pilgrims in Jerusalem who would be upset. No one wants to be responsible for inciting a riot during a holy time.
Certainly blame can be put on the shoulders of the chief priests and teachers of the law. They failed their test miserably. Jesus threatened the security of their position, he pointed out how they led the people away from God’s true intent of the law, and he undermined their authority.
The disciples didn’t do much better, sorry to say. They spent three years with Jesus, yet they did not understand his identity and what he was about. They were the ones closest to him yet they misunderstood him time and again. The disciples got their priorities mixed up. Jesus told them they would fall away, that they would be scattered at his arrest. Peter was adamant he would remain faithful, yet three time he denied even knowing Jesus. Jesus asked them to watch with him while he prayed, but they fell asleep. By the end of the chapter, they have all deserted Jesus, and have left him to his fate – alone.
Lent is considered a somber time, because this is a time when we consider how we have all failed Jesus. We made the cross necessary. We all need forgiveness for wrongs we have done. Praise God that God has given us Jesus! He shows us right paths. He takes away our guilt when we make wrong choices. He who knew no sin became sin for our sake.
I hope this becomes a praise God moment for you, to realize how much God loves you and understands you. God certainly shakes his head over our mistakes, yet God also provides for us the means to get beyond our past. You do not need to stay in whatever uncertain place you find yourself. Jesus has taken them all from you in the cross. The disciples were changed forever when they realized God gave them the power to forge a new future, hand in hand with our risen savior. The same is true for you and me. We should be ready to accept our shortcomings, but this passage reminds me that we do not need to stay there. Mark gives us another choice in the example of one who goes to the extreme in expressing her love for the Lord. She is a counterpoint to the failures of the disciples. She surrenders herself in an act of devotion.
The situation in our passage today is that Jesus was with his disciples in Bethany, a town about two miles away from Jerusalem. Jesus is at the home of one called Simon the leper. We don’t know whether Jesus healed this man, but he was still called Simon the leper even though presumably he did not still have the disease. Lazarus also lived in Bethany, with his sisters Mary and Martha. Lazarus was the one whom Jesus raised from death, as described in John’s gospel, chapter 11. From John’s account of this episode in his next chapter, John says that it is Lazarus’ sister Mary who anointed Jesus with perfume. Mark does not identify her by name. We can also find this incident in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 26.
Mark tells us that a woman came into Simon’s house with an extremely expensive jar of perfume. She broke the seal and poured the perfume on Jesus’ head. The disciples were indignant at her action, saying that she wasted perfume that could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and given to the poor. They were harsh in criticizing her. In comparison, Jesus recognized the significance of what she had done, and said that this anointing was a preparation for his burial. He commended her for the beauty of her actions and said that the world would remember what she had done.
Just a little background for a moment. It was usual in those days, when a guest entered a home for a meal, that the host would anoint the guest’s head with a dab of oil. This woman went way beyond what was customary to pour the entire contents of the bottle on Jesus’ head. She wanted to express her love for Jesus and she did so in a personal and extravagant way.
She was not a disciple. She was not a religious leader. She was like some of the outsiders in the gospels who understood Jesus’ identity, more than it seems the disciples did. It was the blind, the demon-possessed, those needing healing, children and women – they knew Jesus. One commentator called her a first-century hospice worker. She was tenderly helping God’s son in his preparation for death. She’s the only one in the room who really heard what Jesus has been saying. She knows that his body will be taken, broken and killed.
She did not ask permission from Simon or the disciples for what she was going to do. She made Jesus the sole focus of her attention. She blessed him in pouring out the costly perfume, given from the abundance of her heart in an act of impulsive generosity.
Let me share some thoughts with you. Some have called her action a holy waste, but then think about how much beauty God wastes on us every day. Were you up at sunrise to witness the first lightening of the darkness into morning? Maybe you were busy watching your pillow instead. Did you catch the first flowers of spring poking up before snow covered them up again? Did you hear the trill of a songbird? Do you appreciate the palette of color which God paints in the sky every day? We miss much of the beauty that God gives us. What can be wrong with a little wasteful perfume poured on Jesus’ head?
Secondly, we have lots of things that take our attention – work, families, being involved in the community, even caring for this church. They can be good and worthy activities. The disciples were critical of this woman because they felt it would be more beneficial if this woman had sold the precious perfume and given the money to care for the poor. And maybe some lives would be helped if she had done this.
This woman gave Jesus an expensive gift, but was her love that was priceless. That’s why Jesus said she would be remembered. Jesus had just entered Jerusalem, riding into the city as a king. She anointed Jesus the way a king would be anointed to his position. She wanted to worship him through this act.
Jesus affirmed the generosity of her heart. There will always be people needing our aid. It is good to care for others, even sacrifice to help those in need. But in this situation she did the right thing, because she demonstrated how much she loved Jesus. This is a lesson for us in making sure our priorities are straight. Family is important. God wants us to be committed to good causes in our community and around the world. But our first priority is not that activity. It is not about service, in and of itself. Service and caring for others is but the expression of what is primary, of what should come first – our love for God in Jesus Christ.