Palm Sunday April 1, 2007
160, 161, 403, 162(3-5)
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him. Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. But Jesus said, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always”
Fellow-redeemed in Christ Jesus, our crucified and risen King:
Choose your favorite disciple and pretend for a few minutes that you are he. Are you a skeptical Thomas? Blustery Simon Peter? A young and earnest John?
It has been a glorious spring day in Palestine; it is now getting toward evening. The Sabbath is past, and you have been invited, with Jesus, to dinner at the house of a man, Simon, who was once a leper. Most likely, your Master had healed him of his affliction. But there was more to celebrate for dining with you and the others is another dear friend of Jesus, Lazarus. Only a couple of weeks earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. This astounding miracle has commanded the attention of the region, including Jerusalem, ever since. This miracle has only added to the speculation about what will happen when Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the Passover which begins in just a few days.
You can imagine a fairly upbeat mood at this dinner, but things change quickly when Mary enters the room and approaches Jesus. All conversation ceases when she stops before Jesus while holding a flask. She breaks open the neck of the bottle and pours something on His head then on His feet. The room begins to fill with the fragrance of a very expensive lotion. Every head is turned and your eyes are open wide as she removes her scarf, lets down her hair, and uses it to wipe Jesus’ feet.
Host, brother, disciples, all in attendance look around in amazement and confusion. Only Jesus looks composed. You are thinking to yourself “what are we to make of this?” Then brother Judas begins to speak…
As we take up the bittersweet Palm Sunday praises, as we see Jesus with noble bearing enter the city on a donkey, as we think about the terrible events that will soon sweep over our Savior, it is good for us to go back to that Saturday evening meal, to Mary’s anointing of Jesus, and ask ourselves what are we to make of this extravagant act? Today we will consider I. Mary’s Actions: Were they a sickening extravagance or fragrant devotion? II. Judas’ Criticism: Was it genuine piety or hypocritical grandstanding? and III. Jesus Acceptance: Was He beguiled by flattery or noble understanding?
Our attention is naturally drawn to Mary and her actions. What on earth does she think she’s doing? Is this a sickening extravagance or a fragrant act of devotion?
It is not hard to develop a picture of the sort of woman Mary was. When Jesus came to her and her sister’s home, Martha worked to put on a meal while Mary sat listening to Jesus speak giving Him her rapt attention (Luke 10:38ff). We picture her a gentle person, tender, given to introspection.
Nor is it surprising to anyone that Mary would now, after Lazarus had been raised, have a powerful emotional attachment to Jesus. Of course she loves Him deeply (we are thinking) as we all do. Certainly it is a fine thing to express that devotion. But this thing with the oil and her hair, isn’t this a little much? Didn’t it go beyond acceptable social conventions? Men and women just didn’t have that kind of contact in those days. A woman normally didn’t even let men see her hair! And to anoint Jesus with expensive oil like that! Mary’s a nice girl, but she should know better than to do that!
Or was this act not quite as crazy as it seemed. Maybe there was something beautiful and true in it all. Why, now—just before Jesus entered Jerusalem—did she do this act of anointing? Was she trying to tell us all something?
Your thoughts, at this point, are interrupted by Judas, whose voice betrays almost an anger: “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” [v.5] Now this incident gives us more to consider. Beside Mary’s actions now we must consider Judas’ criticism. Did his criticism arise out of genuine religion or hypocritical grandstanding?
Concern for the poor—for our fellow man in his misery—is a hallmark of true religion. Deuteronomy states: “You shall surely give [to the poor in the land] and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:10-11).
Consider Judas’ position. You’d left all to follow Jesus, often living from hand to mouth, and even then Jesus had taught you to keep money aside to help those poorer than yourselves. So was it right for Mary to take this expensive myrrh and pour it on Jesus? Couldn’t we think of something better—more charitable—to do with it than that?
Who can argue with diverting monies from luxury to charity? We all know it’s a good thing to do. The Muslim religion puts more stress on charity than many Christians do. The Boy Scout philosophy is based on a commitment to perform at least one “good turn” every day. We’ve also seen and been sickened by those who, in God’s name, rake in fabulous wealth and surround themselves in astounding luxury.
So Judas’ criticism seems to have a ring of truth although you’re a little surprised. You don’t remember Judas stumping for the poor like that in the past. Maybe you’ve wondered, too, if that money box was always as full as it ought to have been at times.
You didn’t know it at the time, but Judas’ fine words were hypocritical grandstanding, through and through. He knew what he would have done with that money, had it been designated for the poor. His words came from a self-serving and wicked heart. They were poison and just as the aroma of the myrrh worked its way around the room so the poison of Judas’ blind hypocrisy took hold in the hearts of others. He wasn’t the only one who professed to be offended by the squandering of that precious perfume. What are we to make of this whole situation, now?
Fortunately, there was one more Person who had to weigh in and it’s good He did, or perhaps even He might not have looked too credible, anymore. What are we to make of the fact that Jesus accepted this strange anointing and display of devotion?
It wasn’t like Jesus put up with overwrought displays of honor or familiarity. Those who approached Jesus with empty flattery received a cold shoulder. Why would He now accept such extravagant behavior from Mary? Was even He finally swayed by a lavish show of affection? Was all the praise and attention of the people going to His head? Were His many miracles and great powers leading Him to seek a higher position for Himself?
No, it wasn’t that. In fact, when Jesus opened His mouth, His answer answers it all: “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial.” [v.7]
Here was the noble understanding of a master for His disciple. He had insight into Mary’s actions (and Judas’ criticism) that brought everything into focus. First of all, Jesus understood that Mary’s actions were far from silly sentimentality. They were well-reasoned actions that stemmed from her clear understanding of what was to happen to the Lord in the very near future. She understood these events because she had really listened to Jesus while everyone else around Him was wrapped up in their own version of how Jesus should become king! Mary understood what Jesus had repeatedly told his disciples—that He would be betrayed and die, that it had to happen this way. If you were Simon Peter, you’d remember that you even tried to argue with Jesus about that and received a bruising rebuke for your efforts. But Mary listened to the word of the Lord. Mary believed and Mary acted. What do you do with those who die? You honor them with a proper burial. Mary found the money, somehow. She went out and bought the ointment. She saw this dinner as an opportunity to do what might not be possible later.
Mary was moved with emotion while she anointed Jesus because she understood the reality that Jesus would suffer and die. She knew Him to be the Resurrection and Life. It was He who had given her such peace and had restored Lazarus to them. He would die and He would do it for her and all the rest of us too.
What Mary believed prompted her actions and caused her to do what she did. She gave a very expensive gift, but there would be opportunity and resources for the poor later. Nothing was kept from them. Rather, with Jesus going forward, greater treasures—the riches of grace—would be open to us all. Now was the time to act on the love her Savior generated in her heart.
It is because of Jesus’ love—the love we come to know as the redeemed of God—that we act on our hearts and show true, meaningful love and devotion toward our God and Savior by exercising it toward the people around us.
It is because of the joy—the joy that we find in Christ our triumphant king—that our hearts are opened to see the true values of this world and the next: that love is more joyous than pleasure, that kindness is greater than greed, and that compassion is more pure than judgment.
Jesus said that in the future wherever the Gospel is preached what Mary did will be remembered as a memorial to her. So what are we to make of this extravagant act? In the end, we might better ask, “what does this extravagant act make of us?” How do our offerings, how does our religious routine, how do our spiritual acts compare in the light of this woman’s deed. Do they tell the story of people who really, really, love and know their Savior? Do they witness of people who truly have placed themselves at His feet and who listen with wonder at God’s plan for our salvation? May the Spirit work such faith and deeds among us. Amen
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