JOHN 12:1-8

MARCH 22, 2009

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            A prominent theologian wrote a book titled, What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?  What a provocative question.  Have you ever thought about it?  What would the world be like if Jesus had never been born? 

            If Christ had never been born, think what we might be missing today: Some of the world’s greatest hospitals and universities.  Literacy and education for the masses.  Benevolence and charity.  The high regard for human life.  Changed lives.  Hope.   The list could go on, and one of the greatest impacts Christ had on history was the elevation of women in society.

            Prior to Christ, a woman’s life was very cheap.  In ancient cultures, a wife was the property of her husband.  Plato taught that if a man lived a cowardly life, he would be reincarnated as a woman.  In ancient Rome little girls were abandoned in far greater numbers than boys.  And in ancient Israel, a woman never reclined at a table full of men.   She would prepare the meal and serve it to the men, but then she would eat in another room, probably the kitchen, much like the custom in Arabia today.  And she would certainly never let her hair down in public. I mention this so that you can be prepared for the shock of Mary’s behavior.

            This morning we continue our Lenten sermon series wherein we are looking at three of Jesus’ closest friends – Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  These three were siblings, and whenever Jesus was in Jerusalem he stayed at their home in nearby Bethany.  They were great friends, and last week we focused our attention on Martha.  Next week we will focus our attention on Lazarus.  This week we focus our attention on Mary.

            When looking at Mary, I think of a letter Bob Dole received on the campaign trail when he was running for President.  An article about Bob and Elizabeth Dole appeared in a magazine, along with a picture of Bob and Elizabeth making the bed together.  Well, a male reader of the magazine wrote to Bob Dole and expressed his disappointment that Dole would allow himself to be photographed in such a “compromising” position, making the bed with his wife.  Senator Dole wrote back to the man, saying, “You don’t know the half of it; the only reason Elizabeth was helping at all was because the photographer was in the room.”

            Mary seemed to be a lot like Elizabeth.  She didn’t seem to help much around the house.  That was her sister’s complaint last week when Martha and Mary had Jesus and the boys over for a dinner party.  Martha slaved away in the kitchen while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.  They get along better here, but she’s still not in the kitchen.

            Poor Mary.  She’s mentioned three times in the Bible, and two of those times she’s getting chewed out by someone, and the other time she is a basket case.  When she was not being chewed out, she was crying.  After the death of her brother, she could hardly control herself.  Over come by grief, she wept inconsolably.  But here, at this particular dinner party, her tears have turned into joy because Jesus brought her beloved brother back to life. 

            Look once again at what she does.


     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.


            I wasn’t all that familiar with the term “nard” so I looked it up.  I discovered that it was a costly fragrant ointment prepared from the roots and hairy stems of an aromatic Indian herb.  They had a picture of it in the dictionary.  It’s an ugly looking plant, but it smelled great, and this was “pure nard” that Mary uses, not watered down nard.  According to the footnote at the bottom of my Bible, the cost of such pure nard was equivalent to a year’s wages for a laborer.   So, if you weighed Mary’s act in terms of dollars and cents, we’re talking super extravagant, top-notch quality stuff here.  Kenneth Lay and Bernie Madoff kind of stuff.

            And, of course, someone got his nose out of joint.  In the mind of the treasurer of the group, Judas, a drop or two of the fragrant oil would have been enough.  After all, it’s the thought that counts.  And indirectly Judas criticizes Jesus here because he accepts her extravagance.  But there’s also a note of hypocrisy present because on a number of occasions Judas and the rest of the apostles enjoyed the hospitality of Martha, Mary and Lazarus.  They didn’t complain then when they were doling out money to entertain them.  And also, there’s John’s parenthetical comment that Judas has had his hand in the till and it wasn’t so he could give a little extra to the poor, unless he considered himself poor.

            Unfortunately, what happens here has plagued the followers of Jesus from the get go.  How much do we spend on ourselves and how much do we give to others? 

            In partial response to this question, my mind goes back to an experience of William Willimon, chaplain at Duke University.  Willimon tells of the time the faculty of Duke was discussing a proposal to renovate the seminary chapel.  They had received a modest proposal from the architect.  But, would the chapel be renovated?  No.  “With all the poverty and hunger in the world,” said one faculty member, “how can we as Christians justify spending $50,000 to pretty-up our chapel?”  Of course, this person failed to offer similar objections when faculty salaries were raised each year, (a figure that collectively exceeds $50,000) nor does he question the morality of the luxurious faculty lounge.  Obviously the man was posturing, just as Judas was posturing.  Even so, the problem is tough.  How much to should we give to others and how much should we reserve for ourselves?

            With all this in mind, note how Jesus responds to Judas’ criticism of Mary.  He defends Mary’s action based on her purity of motive and urgency of the hour. 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.


            In six days Jesus would be hanging from a cross.  It was on his mind, and Mary intuitively picked up on it.  She knew Jesus was troubled by something.  She didn’t know what it was, after all, the cross caught everyone by surprise, but she knew Jesus was troubled.  So she wanted to do something nice, something compassionate for him.  In appreciation Jesus said, “Leave her alone.  She’s not waiting until after I die to do something nice for me.  She’s doing it now.” 

            And for a moment let’s get back to the statement about the poor, about the poor always being with us.  There has to be something in that statement.  At first blush it seems so callous, so fatalistic, out of character for Jesus to say.  We know Jesus better than that.  No one has been a more significant instrument for helping the poor than Jesus.  No one has demonstrated a greater heart of compassion.  Then what could he mean by that comment about the poor always being with us?  Let me tell you what makes sense to me.  Remember the context.  He’s looking at Mary’s act in light of its overall perspective.  He sees his death as imminent.  He sees her devotion as properly extravagant.  And so he says, in effect, “It’s all right.  Don’t’ criticize her or try to stop her.  For this one moment, forget the poor.  In this case her extravagance is absolutely appropriate, in fact, in this case her extravagance is commendable.”  And in six days Jesus would do something infinitely more extravagant for the poor, and for the rich, and for everyone in between.   He would die for them on the cross.

            Now, why was this particular story preserved?  Why did John tell it?  At the end of his gospel John says he could have told a million stories of Jesus, and yet he only told a few, and this is one of them.  Why did John include this? 

            The obvious reason is to expose Judas for the man he was, and to clear up some of the mystery about him.  Ever watch the television show “Unsolved Mysteries?”  I’ve never watched it, but like the assassination of JFK, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the death of actress Marilyn Monroe, Judas is sort of a man of mystery, and John attempts to clear up the mystery, to tell us what may have motivated him: money.

            Now, that’s why John may have included this story, but I think the Holy Spirit included this story for another reason.  I think this event has been preserved to teach us one major lesson: There are certain times when extravagance is appropriate.  There are times when God shouts with a smile, “Break a vase!”

            Think back.  Remember when God built that magnificent tabernacle in the wilderness?  In so doing, God broke a vase.  God instructed those wilderness wanderers to construct a fabulous, albeit temporary, place of worship – a tabernacle.  And they followed God’s design to the nth degree.  Lots of gold.  Beautiful tapestry.  Lovely wood craftsmanship.  You can read about it in Exodus 25 & 26.  And throughout those years in the wilderness God’s glory resided in the so-called “extravagant” worship center.

            And have you ever taken a close look at the “new Jerusalem” in the Book of Revelation?  Ever done a study of the heavenly city that God designed for us to spend eternity?  We’re talking wall-to-wall broken vases.  If the thought of extravagance makes you nervous, you’ll be nervous throughout eternity.

            I’m told that Harry Ironside, a fine pastor and conference speaker of yesteryear, once checked into a hotel where a church had made reservations for him.  Without a word, one of the bellboys led the pastor to the designated accommodations and unlocked the door.  It was like nothing he had ever seen.  It was the penthouse.  At first he just stood in the doorway staring in disbelief at the plush furnishings – among them a silver service sitting on a carved table and lots of highly polished brass.  On further investigation he discovered multiple rooms, including several bathrooms with thick, luxurious towels and marble finishings.  Immediately, Pastor Ironside went to the phone and called the desk attendant downstairs, and said, “I think there’s been a mistake.”

            The receptionist asked, “Are you Harry A. Ironside?”


            “Are you speaking at such and such a church tomorrow?”


            “Well, I have a note here that I don’t understand, but it says, ‘If Dr. Ironside calls you and has any concerns, just say, ‘We want you to learn how to abound, Dr. Ironside.’”

            Now before you get your hopes up, remember, that’s not what we can expect … nor should we.  Like the account of Mary’s anointing Jesus, such rare moments need to be handled with care, not flaunted.  Vases were not broken over the Savior every day.  He didn’t smell the luxurious perfume throughout his life.  But how fittingly perfect it was at this moment. 

            Now for a few pointed questions:

            Must we always fly economy and never first class?

            Must we always drive Chevrolets and never Cadillacs?

            Must the best buildings in town be banks and never churches?

            Must we live all our lives under constant restraint and self-imposed guilt, for fear of being told that we are overlooking the poor?

            Must everything be just “adequate.” 

            There’s an old theatrical expression actors sometime use in jest when a person is about to go on stage.  They say, “Hey, break a leg.”  Jesus has another expression for us.  He says to us, “Hey, break a vase!”

            Some would say Mary wasted this precious perfume on Jesus.  And some would say that Jesus wasted his life on you.  But Jesus would never say that.