March 17, 2013

Expensive Perfume and Surpassing Value

Passage: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

3Mary 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.

8…... I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.


In January a British art gallery was at the centre of an off-the-wall treasure hunt—after an artist claimed to have hidden an £8,000 ($12,675) cheque among its exhibits. Milton Keynes Gallery said it had no prior knowledge of Tomas Georgeson’s apparent attempt to boost its visitor numbers by concealing the cheque—with the payee left blank—in one of its public spaces. The artist said the cheque won’t bounce if somebody finds it and cashes it. He hopes the potential windfall will lift interest in local art and break down a “disconnect” between the visitor attraction and the public. The gallery’s communications director said staff looked for the cheque but couldn’t see anything. “We can’t confirm or deny whether it’s a hoax or not.”

I wonder if we announced that a cheque was hidden in the church sanctuary if there would be an increase in people at services.  (I suppose the amount on the cheque may be a factor).  Jesus said that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  People may not treasure the art in the gallery but if there is money hidden there for the taking they may show up.  I think there is a parable here of the corrupted hearts of sinful humanity.  God has given us the wonderful treasure of life made for relationship with him; we are much more interested in where the money is hidden.

Yes, the pursuits of commercial life are a necessary and important part of life—which Jesus readily acknowledges.  According to a Forum Research poll of Canadians 26% describe themselves as not being spiritual.  For a quarter of Canadians, to the extent they think about a purpose or mission in life, they are content with the necessary but superficial pursuits of commercial life.  Perhaps this is to be the expected consequence of a culture largely devoted to consumption and recreation, as indebtedness levels and the time spent on TV, social media and surfing the web testify.

In our scripture readings today we encounter two people who—as the Apostle Paul stated it—are convinced of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.  One is the Apostle Paul who was willing to endure great suffering for the sake of proclaiming the good news of Jesus; the other is Mary demonstrating her great love for Jesus by anointing his feet with very expensive perfume and wiped them with her hair.  Indeed these two followers value knowing Jesus above all else; the value of this relationship surpasses everything else.  I fear that too often my valuing of my relationship with Jesus is more like a person showing up at the art gallery looking for the hidden cheque; so much of what I pray for is rather self-serving.

1.  Mary is the sister of both Lazarus and Martha.  Yes, the same Lazarus who some three or four months prior to this dinner event had been raised from the dead by Jesus.  In fact, John tells us, it was Jesus’ grand miracle of raising up Lazarus that cinched the case against him as far as the religious authorities are concerned.  If they let Jesus keep doing this kind of thing, there’d be no stopping him. So they colluded in a plot to kill Jesus.  They further planned to put Lazarus to death because so many believed in Jesus because of Lazarus.

The Passover was coming close on the calendar; many were heading to Jerusalem early to participate in purification rites in preparation for Passover.  People knew that Jesus was a devout Jew; the chatter at the temple was would he come given the personal danger lurking for him.  Orders had been given that if anyone saw him they should report in to the religious authorities so they could arrest him.

While all this is swirling around, Jesus has come to Bethany—a small village on the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem—to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  This family proceeded to organize a dinner in honour of Jesus.  Considering what Jesus had recently done in raising a beloved brother back from the dead, you can understand why they think Jesus is worth a little fuss! Yet the text is largely understated.  We’re told (almost casually) that Lazarus is reclining at the table along with Jesus.

If one of our 24 hour news organizations decided to “cover” this event where do you think the focus would be?  Aren’t you a little curious about what Lazarus experienced?  But John’s gospel doesn’t linger over the fact that this recently deceased man is now back in circulation. We’re not made privy to any conversations about what Lazarus experienced between death and resuscitation. We have no ancient world equivalent of a news anchor hovering around to interview Lazarus and asking questions like, “What did you see? Any bright lights? Bump into Moses or anybody we’d know?”

Of all the things that happened at the dinner party that evening the gospel writer draws our attention to Mary; yes he mentions that Martha served the dinner (as was her passion), Lazarus was there as were Jesus’ disciples but it is Mary we are pointed to observe.  As is so often the case in Jesus’ ministry our questions need correction; our attention needs to be directed to somewhere other than the place we consider crucial.

Evangelist R.A. Torry was a driving force in the founding of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University).  In one of his sermons he told the story of a young woman in England many years ago who always wore a golden locket that she would not allow anyone to open or look into, and everyone thought there must be some romance connected with that locket and that in that locket must be the picture of the one she loved.  The young woman died at an early age, and after her death the locket was opened, everyone wondering whose face would be found within.   And in the locket was found simply a little slip of paper with these words written upon it, "Whom having not seen, I love." (A paraphrase of 1 Peter 1:8: “Although you have not seen him, you love him.”)

Many regard such devotion as odd, perhaps naïve; the scale tilting towards abnormal.  In the case of Mary anointing Jesus feet with expensive perfume we wonder at its extravagance—hasn’t she gone a little over the top?  And then she wipes his feet with her hair—thus is way too intimate for public consumption.  We are prone to leap to conclusions of a sexualized relationship; don’t we do this in life to one another?  Think how many friendships we regard with this suspicion; consider how many friendships are never pursued because of fear of how others may regard such attachment.

But Mary’s love for Jesus is out there for anyone to see and the gospel writer draws readers’ attention here.

Have you ever been given a gift by someone and the extravagance seemed too much such that you were hesitant to receive it?  Or given a gift that the giver couldn’t afford to give?  If you refuse such a gift what message have you communicated to the giver?  Jesus is aware of the plight of the poor—why doesn’t he tell Mary that the money was better spent on the poor?

Jesus accepts her gift because he knew the meaning of the Mary’s act: her act didn’t mean she was unaware of the plight of the poor. Our Lord knew that what Mary was pouring upon him wasn’t perfume, ultimately, however costly; it was love she was pouring upon him. It was gratitude taking the form of love.  Ever since that day some years ago when she sat at Jesus feet as he taught the Scriptures, the feasts and the world as she knew it was never that same. Her pouring out the perfume wasn’t the most adequate expression she could find of her love for the one who meant everything to her; it was the only expression that occurred to her in that instant. Of course it was a waste in one sense; in another sense, no waste at all, since it was categorically different from all considerations of waste and usefulness and thrift and expedience. It can be considered waste as long as a price tag (300 denarii) is attached to the perfume; it can’t be considered waste as long as no price can be affixed to love. Does anyone want to suggest that she should have sent a text message to our Lord instead?

Have you ever bought a gift you could not afford for that someone who is dearer to you than life itself?  We know that the best love gives its best; such loves ransacks the house of its choicest stores, and hastens to bestow them on the object of its affections.  Others may call us imprudent and foolish for going into debt to give a gift we cannot afford; what we know in our hearts is that a price cannot be affixed to inexpressible gratitude and love and devotion.

The thing I invite you to observe is one of the things I think the gospel writer wants us to see.  We observe how deeply Mary loves Jesus; we observe that Jesus readily receives that from her and shields her from those who would cast aspersion on her love.  Does her love not testify to each of us that there is something special about Jesus that evokes such adoration and devotion?  Her love teaches us that everything we invest growing in our love of him is never misplaced or misguided.

I wonder if we Christians are hesitant in prayer to say to Jesus—I love you.  Our world teaches us that you are the one you should invest in; we can fill up our lives with the pursuit of economic store.  Mary shows us that to give of our store for Jesus’ sake fills the heart and life in a way that nothing else can.

2. I marvel at the stories of the nineteenth century Methodist ministers in North America who endured much for the proclamation of the gospel.  More than a few died having lost their way in snow storms as the endeavored to travel to keep their preaching appointments.  Experience taught these circuit-rider preachers that "Christians enjoy those meetings most which cost them the greatest sacrifice." A fifty-mile journey was "a pretty sure pledge of a profitable meeting."  Circuit riders were so relentless in their ministry that on stormy days there was a proverbial saying: "There is nothing out today but crows and Methodist preachers."  (And I think it a tough day if the church parking lot isn’t plowed after a snowfall).

Why did Paul put up with it? Listen to the litany of hardship: imprisonment, beatings, stoning, three times shipwrecked, adrift at sea for a day and a half, hunger, thirst, exposure. Why did he put up with it all? Very simply he tells us why in the warmest letter he ever wrote, his letter to the congregation in Philippi : “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” These nine words say it all.  If our hearts echo the same nine words; that is, if our experience of our Lord echoes his, then we understand the apostle.  If, on the other hand, “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” finds no echo within us, then we must conclude that Paul was either a masochist or a fanatic. He must have been a masochist, putting up with extraordinary affliction because he liked to suffer. Or he must have been a fanatic, and like any wild-eyed fanatic, so very intense, hysterical even, that he was beyond feeling any pain.

But there’s no evidence of derangement in Paul. There’s no evidence he was ever masochistic or hysterical. Then “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” sufficiently explains why he put up with tortuous hardship.

It all began for the apostle when the risen Lord seized him. Paul was seized precisely when he expected nothing of the sort. It wasn’t the case that he had been badly depressed or anxious or confused or conscience-stricken and then had one day found relief in “religion.” He wasn’t looking for something to counterbalance assorted personal deficits that he had dragged along (“baggage” we call it today) since childhood. Neither was he calculating how much better it might for his career if he joined the service club, the historical society and the church. He had been overtaken. As he was overtaken he was overwhelmed. What possessed him now was light-years beyond anything he had expected, anything he had ever wanted, anything he had ever thought possible.

I’m not belittling in any way those who look to Jesus Christ out of fear or anxiety or guilt or loneliness or bereavement or illness or approaching death.  Such is our Lord’s humility that he welcomes those who come to him for any reason.  Such is our Lord’s mercy that he accepts those who look to him from any motive, however self-serving.  My only point is that Paul didn’t look to our Lord because he felt needy; he wasn’t even looking.  He was overtaken. Once overtaken and overwhelmed he found himself possessed of what he hadn’t even known to be available.

No well-meaning Christian come alongside him prior to his arrest on the Damascus Road and said, “Brother, you need Jesus,” Paul would have snorted, “For what?”  Then how had the gospel gained a hearing with him?  He was overtaken and overwhelmed.  What then possessed him he had never anticipated and could never have expected.  He was captivated by “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

“Surpassing value” or “surpassing worth” – what is it? Huperechon is a Greek word which means that which is loftier, recognizably better, and more telling, and all these at once. Loftier, recognizably better, more telling. It doesn’t mean that what preceded was bad or worthless; it means that what has come surpasses even what is very good. What has come is simply loftier, recognisably better, more telling.

Expensive perfume and surpassing value; Mary and Paul each witness in their own way that the value of knowing Jesus is beyond any scale we have to measure.

3. Let us go back to Mary for a moment.  Judas’ saw Jesus as his ticket to power and prestige—when the Messiah finally used his power to take over he would be a key figure in the new world order.  Mary seems to be one of the few who has taken to heart Jesus’s prediction that he has come to Jerusalem to die—she anoints him for death, said our Lord.

Note with me that Judas will a few days hence sell Jesus for 30 pieces of silver—the price of two months of a slave’s work.  The value of Mary’s perfume was about a year’s wages for a working man.  See the difference love for Jesus makes.

Yet today, in the power citadels of our world, in the haute cuisine restaurants in our leading cities, along the runways of Paris fashion shows and on the beaches where the rich and famous go to play, our world shouts, “here is true value!” What say the gospels?

3Mary 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.

8…... I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.