Years ago, a nearly full-sized replica of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall toured the country. During its Chicago stop, a TV reporter asked one man who had gone to see the wall why he was there. “Because,” the man replied, running his fingers across one particular name, “when I was in Vietnam, this man saved my life.”
As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I can readily understand that man’s emotions. You and I are privileged to know Someone Who sacrificed His life to save ours. Jesus Christ, true God and true sinless human being, died on a cross for us, accepting our punishment for sin, so that all who repent and believe in Him live with God forever.
Jesus’ death on the cross should engender endless gratitude in those of us who have been baptized and who believe. But that true story from Chicago compels me to ask myself: Do I have as much gratitude to Jesus for saving my life as that veteran had for the man whose name he reverently touched on the Vietnam War Memorial?
Our Gospel lesson from John causes me to ask the same question about my gratitude and belief in the God we know through Jesus.
The lesson records an almost bizarre incident that happened just six days before the Passover Feast that would see Jesus’ arrest and subsequent execution. At the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, his friends in Bethany, Jesus is having dinner. In the midst of it all, Mary walks over to Jesus, falls before Jesus, and pours a costly ointment, imported from India, onto Jesus’ feet. She dabs the liquid with her hair.
If this scene is strange to us, it would have been downright offensive to the people of first-century Judea where Jesus lived. For one thing, washing or anointing feet was slave’s work. For another, a woman was never to let her hair down except in the presence of her husband. And of course, the cost of the ointment, the equivalent of about one year’s wages, would have made her gesture almost incomprehensibly extravagant to some.
And though, in a short time, Judas will betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver—roughly one-tenth the value of the ointment Mary uses on Jesus’ feet, Judas says the money that selling the ointment could have raised, rather than "wasting" it, could have been given to the poor.
Jesus upbraids Judas. Mary, Jesus knows, is grateful for what Jesus has done for her family: in the preceding chapter of John's Gospel you can read about Jesus bringing Mary’s brother, Lazarus, back to life. She knows that is but a preview of coming attractions for all who believe in Jesus, because it was to Mary that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in Me, though they die, will live!”
I’d like to talk about four valuable lessons this incident teaches us. In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to:
- do whatever good we can do,
- whenever we can do it,
- for whomever we can do it.
- And for God’s sake, we should never worry about either what it costs us or about the limitations of our abilities.
First, in response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do whatever good we can. In his new book, The Me I Want to Be, John Ortberg, talks about how we pastors can sometimes crush the spirits of our congregations without intending to do so. He writes,
A mother with three preschool-age children hears her pastor talk about [the fact that he loves] God so much that he is up very early every morning to spend an hour of quiet time, but her children simply will not cooperate. What she takes away is that she ought to be doing the same thing and so she does spirituality by comparison, living under a cloud of guilt. It never occurs to her that the love she expresses to her children might ‘count’ as a spiritual activity. It never occurs to her that perhaps she is serving God more faithfully than the very pastor who may be neglecting his wife and children in the morning so he can have that hour of quiet.In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do what we can do and not compare ourselves to others.
We know that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were people of modest means. There were no servants helping with this dinner they were serving. Yet they had this expensive ointment, something for which they’d probably scrimped and saved for years. Putting it on Jesus’ feet was an extravagant, unnecessary, and altogether loving thing for Mary to do. She did what she could do. That’s our call too: to do what we can to thank and praise Jesus.
In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do good whenever we can do it. Bishop Thomas Clary tells the story of a conversation that happened after the meeting of a board on which he served. People were telling stories about their most embarrassing moments. One man, Frank, talked about his dad, a fisherman who loved the sea and was devoted to his entire extended family. As the Bishop tells it:
[Frank said,] "When the weather was bad [my Dad] would drive me to school. He had this old truck that he used in his fishing business...[It made lots of noise, announcing its presence wherever it went.]...As [Dad] would drive toward the school, I would shrink down into the seat hoping to disappear...[so I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of my schoolmates]...[Dad] would drive right up in front [of the school], and it seemed like everybody would be standing around and watching. Then [Dad] would lean over and give me a big kiss on the cheek and tell me to be a good boy. It was so embarrassing...Here I was twelve years old, and my dad would lean over and kiss me goodbye! I remember the day I decided I was too old for a goodbye kiss. When we got to school and came to a stop, he had his usual big smile. He started to lean toward me, but I put my hand up and said, "No, Dad." [Frank explained that he was too old to be kissed by his father. His dad’s eyes teared up.] He turned and looked out the windshield. "You’re right...You are a big boy, a man. I won’t kiss you any more."In response to Jesus’ love, like Mary, we’re to do good whenever we can. That includes giving and receiving genuine love even among the people to whom we seem prone to subject our worst behavior, our families.
[Then, Bishop Clary says that as he remembered his embarrassing moment,] Frank got a funny look on his face and the tears began to well up in his eyes as he spoke. "It wasn’t long after that when my dad went to sea and never came back. It was a day when most of the fleet stayed in, but not Dad. He had a big family to feed. They found his boat adrift with its nets half in and half out..."
[There was a pause.] Frank spoke again, "Guys, you don’t know what I’d give to have my Dad give me just one more kiss on the cheek, to feel his rough old face, to smell the ocean in him, to feel his arm around my neck. I wish I had been a man then. If I had been a man, I would never have told my Dad I was too old for a goodbye kiss."
In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do good for whomever we can do good. Max Lucado tells the story of a friend’s visit to Walt Disney World. This friend had been at Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom. There, he was part of a huge crowd where, in one corner, a beautiful girl was playing the part of Cinderella. In an opposite corner of the castle was a boy of about seven, holding onto the hand of his older brother. The younger boy was small for his age, his face terribly deformed. He watched as “Cinderella” showered attention on all the other children around her.
But then something wonderful happened! Cinderella saw this little boy just standing there watching wistfully. She politely but resolutely walked through the crowd of adoring children right up to the little boy. She knelt down next to him with a smile on her face and then leaned forward and kissed him. The joy that overtook that little guy bespoke his gratitude.
When we do good even for those the world deems unlovely, the joy of heaven enters our world. It enters us!
In response to Jesus’ love, we’re to do whatever good we can, whenever we can, for whomever we can. And for God’s sake, we shouldn’t worry about the cost. Mary didn’t worry about the cost when she poured that expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet! ! When we truly value Jesus and what He has done for us, no cost is too great. Whatever it costs us in time, effort, money is worth it in order to tell Jesus Christ thank You for the gift of eternity!
And we shouldn’t allow our limited abilities to prevent us from thanking Jesus either. An old joke goes this way: A man happened to walk by a building that was on fire before firefighters arrived. A woman on the second floor called out to him and asked, “Will you save me?” The man said that he would and proceeded to walk away. “Where are you going?” the woman asked hysterically. “I’m going to get life-saving training. I’ll be back as soon as I graduate.”
Many Christians are like that man. They feel that they’re unable to be good Christians—they haven’t read the Bible enough, or they don’t pray enough, or whatever. But just as you don’t need a college degree to show your spouse, or child, or friend, or parent that you love them, you can show your gratitude to Jesus without having special training.
Mary, in our Bible lesson today, apparently wasn’t much of a cook; Martha was the one in the kitchen…again. (And who knows what Lazarus was doing, if anything!) But, grateful for Jesus’ love, Mary soothed Jesus’ aching feet at dinner. She anointed Him for burial.
There’s no reason for us to worry about the things we can’t do. God doesn’t hold us responsible for the things we’re incapable of doing. God only holds us accountable for what we can do.
The most important ability that Jesus is seeking in us is availability. Just make yourself available to Jesus because He loves you and because you love Him back.
As people grateful for what Jesus has done for us, our call is clear. We’re to do whatever good we can do, whenever we can do it, for whomever we can do it. And for God’s sake, we should never worry about either what it costs us or about our abilities.
If we truly want to tell Jesus thanks for the cross and the empty tomb, then we, like Mary who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet, will find our own ways each day to tell Him, “Thank You!” And as we do, we will be truly alive. Amen!