In John 12, the evangelist tells us of a dinner – a banquet, really – given in Jesus’ honor. In John 11, Jesus’ raised Lazarus from the dead. Here in chapter 12, this same Lazarus throws a party for him. How do you say thank you for your life?
Long before fellowship dinners became popular in southern churches, they formed an important part of Jesus’ ministry. The New Testament evangelists frequently tell us about Jesus’ meals. Eating together was an intimate act. Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners was one means of communicating God’s grace to those with whom he ate (as is the holy meal of communion today). Conversely, the hospitality which the hosts offered to Jesus and his itinerant band of disciples demonstrated their positive response to Jesus’ message of God’s grace and power. In the fellowship of the table, actions speak louder than words.
One of those at the dinner – a man named Judas who was a longtime companion of Jesus – made things uncomfortable for everyone by raising a stink about how the host was treating Jesus. Judas complained that the host was treating the guest of honor too well! What kind of guest complains about that? What kind of graciousness does that display?
You can feel the tension around the table: people staring at the walls, people looking intently down at the table, everyone hoping this awkwardness goes away soon.
It seems that Judas complained about the cost of the gift that the host had bestowed on Jesus. The gift was worth nearly a year’s wages; it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor.
Even though Jesus and his disciples were penniless beggars, they did have a common purse from which they gave to those who had even less. In his charitable attitude toward the poor, Jesus was not alone in ancient Judaism. Simple kindness to those in need was commonly valued, even if not commonly practiced.
Judas, however, turns love into law and plays the accuser. You’ve met these folks, I’m sure. It seems that their Christian faith consists of telling others how they are doing it wrong. You find them on both the left and right of the theological spectrum. Both are equally clueless about the grace of God.
Moreover, the evangelist tells us that Judas wasn’t even sincere. He was a thief who stole from the church’s common purse. Embezzlement and misuse of funds for personal gain still happen today. That’s why financial transparency and accountability are essential for the church. Let’s not give those tempted by money an occasion for sin.
Judas wasn’t the only one making things uncomfortable, however. He just made things worse.
Remember Lazarus? The one whom Jesus raised from the dead? It was his sister Mary who bestowed this extravagant gift on Jesus. And what a gift it was.
Mary anointed Jesus with an expensive perfume called “nard.” She didn’t package the gift in a ribbons and bows, but poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.
It is an embarrassing scene, this woman wiping a man’s feet with her hair. In Jesus’ day, it would have even been more unbelievably unconventional. Even today, many orthodox Jews will not shake hands with a woman (at least they wouldn’t with my wife when she taught in a Jewish school). Here, 2000 years ago, this woman not only touched a man, but wiped his feet with her hair, soiling her locks with oil and dirt.
Don’t you hate it when converts get carried away?
And, well, wow, this stuff was expensive: a year’s wages – for foot perfume? Don’t you think that maybe Judas was a little right? I can imagine the IRS agent speaking to the televangelist: “Now you say that your organization spent $20,000 on lotion for your feet.”
Mary was such a respectable woman from a respectable family. Had she gone nuts? Making such a scene! Wasting such money! Uncomfortable, indeed!
The Extravagant Excess of Overwhelming Gratitude
Still, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have Mary’s experience of love: carefree – uncalculating – exuberant – excessive. Through Jesus, God had raised her brother from the dead. In response to something like that, too much is not enough.
Contrast Mary’s response with the narrow legalism of Judas: angry, bitter, tight faced, thin lipped, a heart of stone disguised as compassion.
How Much is Enough?
You’ve had the experience when writing the check to the charity or volunteering your time. How much is enough? You could always do more. How do you know when you’ve met God’s requirements?
Back when I served local churches, Huey was the least self-conscious rich guy I had ever met (and I hadn’t met very many of them). He invented a product widely used in retail establishments and had made a good bit of money. How much should Huey have given away? I couldn’t say. I just know that he loved God, that he knew something of the depth of God’s grace in Jesus and that he opened his wallet frequently whenever he thought God was involved in a project.
God’s grace to us drives us to be gracious toward others, but it is not grace that drives us to calculate whether we’ve “done enough.” Jesus ragged on Pharisees who counted the seeds of their herbs and spices so that they gave exactly one-tenth but had no clue about the extravagance of grace. Jesus didn’t come to set a new legal standard for the care of the poor, but to overwhelm men and women with God’s exorbitant love. Those who have received God’s extravagant gift – and who have some understand just how extravagant this gift really is – know that they have no way to “pay God back” for what he’s done. It’s a debt that we can never even begin to repay.
For My Burial
As Lazarus hosted this banquet, six days remained before the Passover when Jesus would offer himself as the paschal lamb. In the Gospel of John, it is the resurrection of Lazarus that seals Jesus’ fate (John 11:45-53). When Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb he made himself a wanted man.
An air of impending death hung over the dinner. When Mary poured her perfume on Jesus’ feet and then wiped them with her hair, she was not only pouring out her heart in gratitude for her brother’s life, she was anticipating Jesus’ own coming death. She anointed the one who called her brother from the grave and the one who would go to his own grave for the sin of the world. In the light of Jesus’ coming death, Judas’ preoccupation with the monetary value of Mary’s gift is even more pathetic.
To Be Like Mary
If Mary had reason to be extravagantly grateful for in the resuscitation of her brother, how much more do we have to be grateful for the sacrifice that defeats sin and death.
In our own relationships with Jesus, we really ought to have the exuberance and joy that Mary exhibited. Because of what God has done for us and for our world, “it is right to give our thanks and praise.”
True gratitude, however, is not something that you can ever command. True gratitude toward God flows not from “oughts” of any sort, but from knowing God’s grace and power.
Both Mary and Judas were present that evening at Lazarus’ banquet. Mary had powerfully experienced God’s grace in Jesus and from her grateful heart flowed embarrassingly extravagant expressions of love. Judas, too, had experienced that grace, but he misunderstood it and abused it. From his heart flowed anger, jealousy and accusations.
I think I’ll have what she’s having.