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A Beautiful Thing

Date: Mar. 22, 2020

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Mark 14:1-11

Key Verse: Mark 14:6

 "Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me."

Before much of the world was put on lockdown, Major League Baseball was supposed to have its opening day on March 26, which is this Thursday. Unfortunately, that is not happening anymore because of the pandemic. I heard that sports television and sports radio really don’t have much to talk about, since there are no sporting events going on right now. Normally, people would be talking about this year’s matchups and the rivalries. Think about some of great rivalries in baseball. One of the most famous is the Yankees vs. the Red Sox. There is a ton of animosity between these two teams and their fans. Closer to home, one of the Cubs’ great rivals are the St. Louis Cardinals. Those two teams first met way back on April 19, 1901. In the town where my parents live, Quincy, which is about two hours north of St. Louis, there are equal amounts of Cardinal fans and Cubs fans. During games the fans go all out. Even closer to home, both of Chicago’s home teams, have a bit of a rivalry, at least among fans. We here, are just steps away from the White Sox’s stadium, so, naturally, many of us are Sox fans, but we do have a few Northsiders as a part of the church, and, yes, they are Cubs fans. When the Cubs win, the fans love to wave the W flag as a sign of their win, but when the Cubs lose, some Sox fans like to wave the L flag to rub their loss in the face. Whether the Sox win or lose, Cubs fans don’t even really care. These types of sports rivalries show a sort of strange love/hate relationship, in that there is a group of people that absolutely love a team and there is another group that completely hates the same team. The team is either hated or loved because of what they represent to the people. To those who hate the team, that team is an obstacle to their goals, which is their own team’s victory. To those who love the team, that team gives them joy when they win. In today’s passage, we will see various people loving and hating Jesus and the reasons why they do so are all because of what Jesus represents to them.

Our passage starts out, “Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.” (1) The time of Jesus’ sacrifice is drawing nearer. The Passover was almost here. The passage says that it was two days away. The Passover, which would have a sacrifice of a lamb, and the people would eat it, would occur on Thursday night. There was a very specific time that the Passover was celebrated. Jewish reckoning started the day at sundown, about the time of the evening meal. This Passover lamb was sacrificed, cooked and eaten right at sunset on Thursday. So, when the passage says that the Passover was two days away, it means that it would start in two days. So, counting back from Thursday night would put this passage on Wednesday. The first verse states that the chief priests and the teachers of the law were trying to think of ways to arrest Jesus and kill him. These religious leaders hated Jesus and Mark mentions a number of times that they were wanting to kill Jesus, going all the way back to chapter 3, but now, they were all the more adamant to have Jesus killed. He needed to die as soon as possible.

To these religious leaders, Jesus represented a threat to their position and power. Time and time again, Jesus went against their rules. God’s law said that people shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, so they set up rules about what constituted work. In their mind, they thought that Jesus healing people on the Sabbath violated those rules, but time and time again, Jesus just kept on healing. Jesus also had a knack of pointing out their hypocrisy. The religious leaders were seen as high and pious, but their hearts were dark and unloving. They loved outward showings of piety. They prayed on street corners loudly and with fancy words. They dressed in flashy ways so that the people would know who they were, and they loved the honored positions. These religious leaders loved the attention and power that they had, but they also made sure that anyone who couldn’t measure up to their standards would be pointed out. They belittled anyone who couldn’t measure up. They thought of people like that were lesser beings, but Jesus said that they loved their traditions more than they loved God. They were selfish and valued recognition above everything.

Under their benevolent guidance, merchants set up shop inside the temple courts to better serve the people coming to the feasts, but these merchants charged more than anyone else and lined the pockets of the religious leaders. Just a few days prior, Jesus cleared out the merchants who were preying on the people. The religious leaders were furious at what Jesus did and wanted to know by what authority he cleared out the temple. Who told him to do that? They had just lost an important source of their income and influence on the people. They tried to make Jesus look foolish with their impossible questions, but that didn’t work at all. Instead, it just frustrated the religious leaders all the more. They looked like fools before Jesus and the people were just lapping up every word from his lips. It had reached a tipping point and their desire to see Jesus dead was never stronger. In their mind, Jesus had to die soon. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t know exactly when or how.

Yet, they did know that they didn’t want to upset the people. “‘But not during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people may riot.’” (2) During the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the population of Jerusalem swelled from around 50,000 people to several hundred thousand. With such a large crowd on hand, the religious leaders didn’t want to start a riot. With the city so overcrowded, emotions ran high and they had to be very careful in their scheming. I find it a bit ironic that they didn’t want to make their move during the feast, but in the end, they arrested Jesus that Thursday night after the Passover meal. They did it anyway and we can see later in this passage what caused them to change their mind.

Now, the passage shifts from these religious leaders and their hatred to a different scene, Jesus at a house. Now, this part of the passage may not be chronologically here. Mark is well known to put things in a different order to make a point. As you can notice when you read this passage, this part in Bethany is bracketed by scheming. Mark is probably trying to make a point by contrasting the people at the beginning and end of the passage with those in the middle. He did this bracketing thing before with the fig tree and clearing the temple. The part in Bethany is also recorded in Matthew and John, but John places the event before Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, before the Triumphal Entry. The timeline is not important in this context because Mark wants for us to compare what happens in Bethany to the religious leaders.

The passage continues, “While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.” (3) Bethany is about two miles from Jerusalem and it is where Jesus spent the night during this passion week. He spent the night at Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s house, but, here, he is eating at the house of Simon the Leper. Little is known about this Simon; except, he had leprosy and was probably cured of it by Jesus. While at the house, a woman came up to Jesus and poured the contents of a perfume jar on Jesus’ head. That seems a little odd. Usually, women were not in the dining room with the men, unless they were serving. John’s gospel identifies the woman as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Perhaps, she was serving, but took a break to pour out this perfume on Jesus’ head. It must have been a strange sight.

Beyond the initial strangeness, however, there is more significance to this perfume. The passage mentions that it was an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. The jar was probably a stone flask with a long neck on it. It would have been sealed and the only way to open it was to break open the neck. Once the jar was open, there was no way to seal it back up again. It had to be used. The contents were pure nard, as the passage notes. Pure, in this sense does not mean 100%, but genuine or authentic. It was made with real nard, not a knock off. Nard was an aromatic oil extracted from a root found in India, so it was imported and very expensive. It served as a base for the rest of the perfume. The passage later notes that the perfume cost a year’s wages. That’s a lot. The median income in the US is $63,179. In Chicago, it is a little higher at $68,403. Does anyone here own anything that costs that much? A house will, and more, but people really don’t own things that are that close to that median income. Even most people’s car purchases are around half of that. To own something that is worth a year of your income is something that is rare, even now. Literally, the perfume was worth around 300 denarii, with one denarius being a day’s wage. It must have taken the woman a long time to save up that much money to get the perfume, but she had it, most likely, for a very important occasion. We don’t know exactly why she had the perfume, but for her to pour it out on Jesus shows a change in heart. Whatever she was going to use it for was important to her, but now Jesus was more important to Mary than that.

The people at the dinner were not impressed. “Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly.” (4-5) Some of the people there thought that the woman was being wasteful. The account in Matthew’s gospel says that it was some of the disciples that said this and John singles out Judas as having this attitude. It was an expensive perfume and just pouring it over Jesus does seem a little wasteful. These people thought that it would be better to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. It is a noble statement, or so it seems. These people started to talk harshly to the woman, possibly calling her names which I wouldn’t even repeat here. The woman must have felt attacked by these people.

However, Jesus was there to defend her. “‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.’” (6) Jesus tells those rebuking to leave the woman alone. He sees what the woman has done as a beautiful thing. This woman gave her most precious thing to Jesus. But it was more than that. Jesus saw deeper meaning in Mary’s act. “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” (7-8) Jesus saw a timeliness to Mary’s actions. There would always be poor people that would need help, but Jesus wouldn’t be physically around for much longer. His journey on this earth was nearly over and Jesus saw Mary’s actions as doing what she could. He was on his way to the cross and Jesus saw her actions as preparing his body for burial. I highly doubt that Mary knew why she decided to pour out the perfume on Jesus. She probably felt compelled to do so, but Jesus knew why.

To Mary, Jesus represented many things. He was a family friend and a teacher. She would sit and absorb every word he taught. When her brother Lazarus died and was buried, Jesus came and brought him back. Jesus restored her family. Greatest of all, Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Savior of the world. Jesus was God’s chosen instrument to bring about the changing of men’s hearts by solving sin, so Mary anointed him. She took what was most precious to her and gave it to Jesus. She didn’t hold back, and Jesus calls it a beautiful thing. Once that jar was broken, it had to be used. There were no half measures allowed, but she didn’t hesitate or waver one bit. She gave all that she had to Jesus out of her love for him. It didn’t matter how much the perfume cost. She felt compelled to pour it out on Jesus.

Jesus even mentioned that when the gospel is told, what this woman did would also be told, and, sure enough, here we are talking about it. Her gift is truly a beautiful thing, but not everybody felt that way. “Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them.” (10) This is only the second time that Judas’ name is mentioned in Mark’s gospel. The first being back in chapter 3, when the Twelve were first listed. Judas was one of the Twelve, one of Jesus’ closest disciples. He had seen everything the other eleven did, but for some reason, Judas chose to betray Jesus to those who sought to kill him. This passage doesn’t give a direct reason as to why Judas betrayed Jesus, but we can put a few pieces together. Our passage concludes, “They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” (11) The religious leaders were delighted to hear about his betrayal and were willing to give him some money in exchange for his help. When you connect this verse with the anointing, you can see that Judas saw Jesus as a means to enrich himself. Jesus was a meal ticket, but when Judas saw how he praised the old widow’s meager offering and the extravagant gift of perfume being poured out over Jesus, he had enough. Judas realized that his opportunity for riches was not with Jesus, but with handing Jesus over. To Judas, Jesus didn’t represent salvation or healing or even the Messiah, he was just a means to an end and that end was money. John’s gospel confirms this by calling Judas a thief who helped himself to the group’s money.

In this passage, we see three different types of people. We have the religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat to their livelihoods, Judas who saw Jesus as a meal ticket, and Mary who saw Jesus as a friend, a teacher, a healer, the one who restored her family, and the savior of the world. Each of these people had a reaction based on what Jesus represented to them. The religious leaders’ fear led them to hate Jesus and desire to kill him. Judas betrayed Jesus in order to get the money he wanted. Mary did a beautiful thing because she loved Jesus for who he was and what he did. She was devoted to him. We can see that our reaction to Jesus is just an extension of what Jesus means to us. We worship on Sundays, but what is your reaction to that? Are you burdened by coming to church? Then you feel that Jesus burdens you and is an intrusion into your life. You are probably wondering why we are doing these remote worships. We could just take a break during the lockdown. We are doing this because we really need God’s word, especially during these uncertain and unusual times.

Our actions and reactions really show our heart for Jesus, whether it is love or hate or ambivalence. It is not that we have to do something beautiful for Jesus. Mary didn’t feel obligated to pour out the perfume on Jesus, but she wanted to. It is a natural extension of who Jesus is to each of us. When we love Jesus, we want to do things for him. It’s like a child wanting to do things for their parents. My kids love to show what they have done and have given me many things that they have created because I am their father. I love them and they love me. Their actions are an extension of that love, and it is no different with our relationship to Jesus.

When I first started Bible study, I was closed off because I still had this false notion of a vengeful God. I kept my sin a secret because I was afraid. At the time, Jesus represented judgement and hellfire. Stepping out of line meant punishment, so I kept quiet. Once I experienced his grace, however, my reaction to Jesus changed. I had been distant, but now I was seeking Jesus out. I began to open up. Now I find Jesus as the one who brings peace to uncertain times. He is one who does not condemn but gives life. He wipes away tears and does not kick you when you are down. He is life and he is love. He never leaves us alone. He is always with us. He protects us and keeps us safe. He stands as a shield against condemnation and death. Jesus takes those who are truly low and give them a place in his kingdom. Jesus takes the broken and weary, and he puts them back together. How would you react to someone like that? Would you be filled with hatred or love? Would you be thankful or grumbling?

The way we live our lives is indicative of our beliefs. It is not with our words that we will show what we believe, but with our actions, and especially our reactions. In good times, it is easy to praise God, but in times of distress, we really test our beliefs. The truth of our hearts comes out when we have to react. If we are reacting in fear, then we do not trust. If we react in anger, then we have no grace. If we are not thankful, then we have not accepted what Jesus has done for us. If we are reluctant, then we have not seen how readily Jesus saved us. We give because we love. We love because of who Jesus is. Mary did a beautiful thing for Jesus, not out of obligation or duty, but out of love for who he is to her. In these strange times, it is important to look to Jesus. It is important to remember who Jesus is to you. I can’t tell you what Jesus has done for you, only you truly know that. But when you are stuck at home, working from home, going to school from home, dealing with the kids from home. We can never lose sight of who Jesus is. It is more important now to remember that Jesus is your savior, your healer, your source of strength, and your source of peace. He is the ruler of the universe and not even a virus can stop the spread of the gospel. We should have that heart to cry out, to sing praises to our Lord. We should give our all, without half-measures. We should see Mary as an example, not because of who she is but because of who Jesus is.

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