Title: Though he sees, he does not see but as she sees she worships
Date: March 17, 2013
12 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint[a] 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.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.[b]” 6 He did not 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.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you,[c] but you will not always have me.”
9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.
When I was a kid, I remember that one day when I was in a taxi with my mom and my sister. When that taxi came to a stop, we noticed a woman standing by the road. We all looked at her for a while until the taxi drove on. After a while, my sister opened with her comment first. She said “that woman had a nice looking bag”, my mom replied “oh really? I didn’t see that but she was standing so close to the curb that I was little worried.” But I remember thinking to myself “she was eating a hot dog…”
Yes, seeing same object does not necessarily guarantee “perceiving” the same object. In my story’s case, we all looked at what we predominantly drove us: my sister had a taste for nice looking bag, my mom (being a mom) was concerned for anyone standing near a curb and I was simply hungry (I probably always was). This is why sometimes we see an event occurring in front of our eyes and yet completely misunderstand what had taken place in front of us. It is because how we perceive things, is not necessarily how the presenter wishes it to be perceived. Take the matter of this sermon as an example. In each sermon, I have a specific theme and few points to make but what I want to get across is not necessarily what you take away each week. Some of you will take away my humour, some of you my dress code, some of you may learn from my illustrations or some of you might completely understand what it is that I am trying to get across. All of you will take away something but there is no guarantee that you will take away what I want for you to take away each time.
In today’s passage, we see similar thing going on. Judas and Mary see the same person – Jesus but their reactions in today’s story tell radically different perception of the same person. What’s the scoop and what is the significance?
In order to understand what is happening in John 12, we really need to go back to the story in chapter 11 so let me just provide the background details and we can understand what is happening in this scene then we can draw out some principles from it.
In the previous chapter, a man named Lazarus is introduced without any relational description to Jesus. But it is obvious that he was such a close friend to Jesus since Jesus was actually expected to return to Bethany (Lazarus’ home town) as soon as he heard that Lazarus was deathly ill. Jesus delays his return on purpose so as to reveal the glory of God. While Jesus was taking his time, Lazarus dies and by the time Jesus returned to Bethany, Lazarus was already dead for four days and the body had been put into a grave.
To a modern Canadian hearer, this may seem odd because in Canadian society we are more familiar with having the viewing of the deceased first and then funeral on the 3rd day of the deceased’s passing. However, it is in Jewish law to conduct the funeral and burial within the 24 hours of the deceased’s passing and that is why Lazarus’ body was already in the grave.
When Jesus went to the grave, Martha, Lazarus’ sister, tells Jesus that the odour would be unbearable since the body would be decomposing. Jesus tells them to remove the grave stone and prays (John11:41 – 44) “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
It is recorded that along with the disciples, Martha and Mary (sisters of Lazarus) were also there to witness the event (of course it is also recorded that many Jews were there to witness the resurrection miracle) It is important to notice that Mary was there to witness the resurrection of the body since her action in chapter 12 is in clear contrast to her mood in chapter 11 – Mary was VERY upset with Jesus. She was so upset that she did not even go out to greet Jesus and the first thing she said when she finally ran out to him was not “Hello” or “How are you?” She said (not in such a rude way as she fell on his feet to say this) “If you arrived before my brother died, he’d been alive still”.
So in chapter 11 we have
- Dead Lazarus resurrected via Jesus
- Astonished Martha
- Mary who is upset
- The 12 disciples who witnessed the whole thing
And John chapter 12 unfolds from here: One main event in today’s passage is anointing of Jesus by Mary. To be sure, it was weird that Mary did this. In fact, Mary had no right to do this – anointing of kings or anyone belongs to prophet and priestly office but what is more is that Mary broke many Jewish customs in the process of inadequately anointing Jesus as King. It was considered highly inappropriate for Jewish women to let down their hair in the public. Furthermore, it was rather erotic act to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair (perhaps an act appropriate for married couple) and it definitely looked too luxurious and extravagant that she spent so much money to be “wasted” in many people’s eyes.
In fact, Judas Iscariot simply spoke up what all other disciples were thinking. The sharp tongued Judas rebukes this woman’s sincere act. He points out that 1. It was an expensive perfume 2. The perfume is worth one’s annual salary 3. The money could have been spent for the poor instead.
In many people’s ears, Judas had a point. If we were present at the scene, we probably would have agreed with Judas – the man actually sounded pretty good. But Jesus sees something different and I want to highlight two points for you:
1. We have to understand that Mary is “anointing” Jesus in her thankfulness to have her brother back from the dead and we also have to understand the fact that she knew Jesus can perform miracles but she did NOT believe that Jesus can resurrect a man from the dead. John 11:32 shows it clearly
“When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
It is more than plausible then that she did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. At least it did not dawn on her before Lazarus was raised from the dead!
Upon witnessing her brother’s rising from the dead by Jesus. She sees and believes! How much does she believe? Well… just notice the fact that the perfume (which Jesus says she saved for his burial) was NOT used during her brother’s funeral. Lazarus actually died for four days and he was already wrapped in grave clothes and he was buried. Assuming that Mary had the perfume in her possession, she had plenty of opportunity to use the perfume on her brother’s dead body but the perfume that is worth a year’s wage (probably her entire life savings) was not used on Lazarus. Instead she anoints Jesus with it. This can only mean that Mary now sees Jesus as King in personal sense and that he is worth far more than her entire life savings and worth humbling herself for. This is the moment where Mary declares that Jesus is everything to her. This is an astonishing turn of events since for a moment she blamed Jesus for her brothers passing. “My brother would have died!” she cried but with the rise of her brother Lazarus from the dead all of her blaming turned into joy, which turned into worship in humility. Think of her emotional rollercoaster! That is why just as inappropriate as her actions were as a Jewish woman in a Jewish society during Jesus’ days; Jesus accepted it as an act of worship and was pleased.
2. Secondly, although Judas Iscariot knew exactly the right thing to say, he lacked something that mattered the most. He neither “actually” believed what he commanded nor did he believe the one who taught him. That is to say, Judas never really had faith. Mary broke many Jewish social customs while Judas Iscariot said many things that no one disciple can argue against but Mary is declared righteous while Judas is put back to his place – all because of “Faith”. Judas, as part of the twelve disciples, was in close proximity to Jesus for many days (so close that he will get to observe him well. He could even touch/smell/feel Jesus.) After spending so much time, of course he will share the similar vibe as Jesus and effectively caricature Jesus’ teachings. He might be able to pick up on Jesus’ speech patterns, key words and perhaps even argument strategies. In a sense, while he misunderstood Jesus’ message by a mile, he still was able to superficially mimic Jesus’ messages without the core understanding. That is to say, Judas’ words were derived from culture rather than from faith. And that’s the danger for us as well. Having spent so many days in church environment (some of you have been attending this church from your mother’s womb!), we might know how to sound and appear like Christians but do we do that out of culture or out of faith?
People who live by culture and not by faith will always judge the likes of Mary and rebuke them – they have missed the point. These people are caught up by their own righteousness that they will not see the saviour even while talking to him face to face. After all, did the Pharisees see saviour in Jesus? Let there be no mistake about it. Pharisees saw plenty of Jesus. Do we not see Pharisees constantly engaged in arguing with Jesus? Do we not see them conspiring against Jesus? And during their conspiracy, did they not think of Jesus’ teachings and arguments thereby spending “time” with his messages? (In a bizarre and ironic twist, Pharisees showed how NOT to do Quiet Time devotionals for modern Christians) This is what Jesus saw in Judas’ barking – self-righteousness spoken and covered with Jesus’ vocabulary.
3. So here is my question to you: Do you live by culture or by faith? What drives your actions? What defines your actions? What defines you?
Often faith in Christ leads people to radical actions or at least it brings you out of yourself to do things that you would normally not do due to lack of courage. Mary broke through that cultural barrier and what people might call “Awkward Moments” in order to show her worship to God and new King – and Jesus redeemed her embarrassment by restoring honour in her worship. That is, humiliation in act of self-forgetfulness in worship always finds its relief in Jesus.
Have your faith taken you to actions that you would normally not do? Faith binds us to Jesus Christ as saviour and Lord so if your faith is telling you to take an action and you have been hesitating because it might seem awkward or you might get humiliated, I have to encourage you to break through the barrier you and your friends have set for you. Jesus was radical, Mary was radical and Faith is radical in its very nature. Faith is bound to take you beyond what you are comfortable with so you might as well learn to be happy with what the world sees as awkward.
People tell me that I am “unique” but I know what they really mean is I’m “weird”. Over the years, I have grown fond of that expression. Even if some people mean harm with it, it does not matter. In fact, I am proud of my weirdness since it is the fruit of my journey with God. Of course I had to break through many embarrassing moments but none of those moment matters. The ultimate question putting to you and me is “have we sufficiently loved God and the neighbour with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength?” I sincerely hope you can re-think your life in the light of Mary’s worshipful act and have courage to act out of yourself as the Spirit leads so.