Costly Love - Mark 14:1 - 11:14
How much are you worth? Well, not that much according to a 1991 Readers Digest analysis of the average human being which is made up of the following: enough fat for seven bars of soap; enough iron for a medium-sized nail file; enough sugar for seven cups of tea; enough lime to whitewash a chicken shed; enough phosphorous to put the tips on 2200 matches; enough magnesium for one dose of salts; enough potash to explode a toy crane and enough sulphur to rid a small dog of fleas. All in all we are worth about £60.
And it is the question of how we determine the value of a human being which lies behind many of the debates on abortion and euthanasia. So, is the one aged 17 weeks in the womb of a woman to be accorded the same value and therefore rights of protection as one who 28 weeks or one born which is a few days old? Does someone who is chronically sick, by virtue of that sickness or who is old and incapacitated, suddenly decrease in value and so attract a different criteria for health care which wouldn't apply to those not so frail and elderly? What is it that counts as being of worth? The fact is, how we value a person will invariably effect how we treat them.
So let me ask another question: how much is Jesus worth? That may seem a strange question and perhaps one you think is not worth asking. Surely, it can be taken for granted that his worth is beyond measure, if he is, as Mark has been telling us, Gods Son, the Servant King. But I would ask you not to dismiss the question too readily. The esteem we really do hold Jesus in, will not only determine our attitude towards him but will be revealed by our practice. While we may readily sing Jesus is Lord, our lives may well be singing a different song, one whose lyrics place Jesus and his cause way below a whole host of other things.
And what we have in the passage we are looking at together this morning, Mark 14, is a series of contrasting people all of whom, in different ways, place a price upon Jesus. And the value they give to him, relative to other interests, shows itself in how they treat him. So lets turn to this passage to give ourselves a spiritual health check and see how we measure up in our estimate of Jesus.
First of all, we see hatred linked to power vv1-2 (read) .That little time reference to the religious festivals is quite significant. Passover was the great feast of redemption, the season especially for remembering the Exodus - that great escape from Egypt. And so quite naturally, it was also the season which early Jewish tradition thought was particularly appropriate for the coming of the Messiah, Gods appointed King, since his arrival would constitute the great and final day of redemption with the defeat of Israels enemies and the establishing of Gods reign for ever. So those are the sorts of ideas which would have been buzzing in peoples minds .Religious and political expectations would have been at fever pitch. And that is one reason why these religious leaders were so edgy.
You had the chief priests , who were made up of the group known as the Sadduccees. These were the theological liberals of the day, denying the existence of angels and the resurrection amongst other things. But where they were lacking theologically they made up with a good deal of political savvy ensuring that they held on to power by pursuing a live and let live policy towards the Romans. And this young upstart Jesus, looked set to destabilise such a cosy arrangement. For, if people began to see him as the Messiah, such revolutionary talk could bring the Romans down on top of them like a ton of bricks, which would be nothing short of tragic, so they thought.
Then there were the teachers of the law, the Pharisees. These were at the opposite end of the theological spectrum; religiously conservative, opposed to Romes rule, purists, you might say .So they are not going to take too kindly to this religious firebrand who at one stroke abolishes kosher food, questions their interpretations of the Scriptures and almost literally drives a coach and horses through their temple worship. And so you have for the first time ever an unholy alliance of these two groups, united by their opposition to Jesus. They were looking for some sly way to arrest and kill Jesus. That is how much they rated his life-expendable, to be sacrificed on the altar of political and religious expediency. They will only do that which will ensure they are kept in power, which is why at the moment they thought it not prudent to act because the pilgrims in the town might riot. Power, you see, the supreme value. And things havent changed much have they? Why do you think there has been so many attempts down the years by various scholars and church leaders to effectively get rid of the Jesus of the Gospels ? But so as to ensure that one group stays in power and so has control. So in the 1930s many in the German church watered down the Christ of the NT who demanded unconditional and supreme allegiance in order to allow Hitler to make the same claim- live and let live. And the same conspiracy against Christ continues today by reinterpreting or adding to his teaching in order to prosper a particular cause. So we have extreme theological feminism in which God is called Our Mother and Christ Christa with female crucifixes and all. The story is always the same. The Word is shaped by the World. The Jesus of the Bible must be silenced because he is too disturbing, too challenging. How much is Jesus worth?
Now in order to provide a contrast to the religious leaders who are busy weighing the cost in their betrayal of Jesus, Mark provides a flash back to the previous Saturday nights dinner party at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany, to focus on someone who didnt count the cost, such was her estimate of Jesus nothing was too much for him. And so we have the matter of devotion expressed in perfume-v3 (read).Now here the woman is not named. In John we are told it is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. I am sure Mark knew that, but by relating the incident in this way he could be teaching us something significant. First of all, this is a woman, and in this Gospel they are seen to be the ones who are increasingly the most faithful and reliable of Jesus followers, as is still the case of course when you look around at many of our churches. Secondly, by not naming her, she stands in stark contrast to the others present, the disciples and especially Judas who is named. And I think the point is this: here is, if you like a nobody, an outsider, a woman at that, who in this culture tended to be very much second class citizens, in contrast to those who are close to Jesus. And yet she is the one who is much closer to understanding who Jesus is and what he came to do than any of them. As with Bartimaeus, she may be saying by her actions far more than she realises, but it is nonetheless the truth. The disciples still hadnt cottoned on that central to his Messiahship was his unique death. What is more, she demonstrated an uncalculated act of shear extravagance to expression her love for Jesus in pouring this costly nard over his head. It may well have been a family heirloom, not something you use every day. Whereas the disciples had quickly done their mental arithmetic, v 5, calculating the cost to be a years wages-what a waste, she just gave it no consideration and thought it eminently worth while.
So the lesson is this: close proximity to Jesus does not necessarily indicate either spiritual insight or loving devotion to Jesus. Who could be closer to Jesus than his disciples? Why, Judas was sitting right next to him at the Last Supper, and yet in his heart could not have been further away. Not one of them could see the symbolic significance of this act-pointing to Jesus death ,but maybe with that intuition women often have she could sense that Jesus time was almost at an end, or perhaps it was a divine impulse which prompted her. She wasnt commanded to do this, but then again true love and devotion doesnt need commanding does it? The true worshipper doesnt ask such calculating questions How much will it cost? Do I have the time? Like this woman the real devotee of Jesus simply gives what he or she has.
Could I ask: to what extent are you a true worshipper of Jesus, having a worship which flows from the heart and doesnt parsimoniously count the cost, though knowing there will be a cost? Several years ago I came across these words by the writer Leon Morris which challenged me then and still challenges me today: True worship is at a cost. This is something that still needs to be learned on a day when men and women take churchgoing lightly, when they will go to church only if it is easy, if the church is near, if the choir is good, if the preacher is approved, if the weather isn't bad, if friends havent dropped in for a visit, and if a 101 other things haven't stopped them. If worship means a real effort, then men and women today are often disinclined to make it. Can you imagine those words applying to this woman? Do we groan inwardly when we hear an appeal for money for Gospel work? Do we think what a great occasion to give sacrificially ( a religious word which means until it hurts) when we think of Project Newland and all the wonderful opportunities for Christian service in the area that will open up? Or do we give him the leftovers, while making sure we are well catered for first? Those are the challenges I find here when I look at this woman and I don't know about you but I certainly discover myself to be found wanting. How much is Jesus worth?
But it could be objected that it is all a question of priorities, there are so many other things, good things ,which claim our time, money and devotion. True. That is what the disciples said, which comes first, the Gospel or the poor? v4-9 (read). Righteous indignation some call it. How unspiritual can you get? They were thinking. Doesnt this woman realise that Jesus had a bias to the poor? Think of what could be done with all that money! And so, the public put down begins. Did you notice that? They rebuked her harshly-stupid woman, what did she think she was doing? It doesn't take much imagination to put yourself into her shoes does it? I am sure we have all had similar demeaning experiences, perhaps at school, or at home-parents can be particularly adept at this, maybe even in church, the time when you die a thousand deaths in front of those you thought were your friends and even today the mere memory of it brings you out in a cold sweat.
But why were the disciples so keen that money be given to the poor? Well, I am not convinced it is general philanthropy which moves them. Remember this is Passover time and there was a strong tradition that money be given to the poor so that they could buy the unleavened bread, wine and lamb necessary to enable them to celebrate the festival ( you might see a hint of this in John 13:29 when the disciples thought that Judas was going off as it says to by things for the Feast or give to the poor) So we are not necessarily talking about feeding the hungry masses here, but ensuring that folk can carry out their religious duty.
Now we can see why Jesus replies in the way he does. He defends the woman Leave the poor woman alone -back off she has done something quite beautiful, but you cant see it. She is preparing my body for burial. For you see, when a criminal was executed ,the customary anointing of the corpse was omitted. What he was to achieve on the cross was going to benefit the poor far more than any wine, bread and meat at a religious meal could ever do, he was going to fulfil all that the Passover meal stood for- the offering of himself as an atoning sacrifice, so that sins could be forgiven and eternal life obtained.
And this is further underscored by what Jesus says in v 7 The poor you will always have with you and you can help them anytime you want. The first part is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 15:11 which is all about the sabbatical year, the time for celebrating Gods sovereignty and salvation power. It was the time when debts were cancelled and slaves were released. It was a time of tremendous joy as they thought of God freeing his people from the tyranny of Pharaoh at the time of the Exodus. Now can you see the connection here? What Jesus is offering to everyone, poor and non-poor alike, by his death on the cross is the cancellation of our debt of sin, the liberation from slavery to sin and a worse taskmaster than even that of Pharaoh, the tyranny of Satan. And as people are set free from that, then of course they will be generous to the poor, as Gods love is poured into their hearts and then they can help them properly, not by providing religious rigmarole, which is no longer necessary because Jesus has fulfilled all of that, but holistic care. So ,yes the church should seek to provide debt counselling, wisely offering material things, but also pointing people to where they can find real and lasting spiritual fulfilment in Jesus who died for them and rose again. This woman had got her priorities absolutely right hadnt she? She did what she could - no more and no less. And that is all that Jesus asks of us. And who knows what the consequences will be. As a result of this one act of selfless devotion, this profound symbolism pointing to the heart of the Gospel, this woman has achieved everlasting fame-v9 I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her. But notice, it is what she has done, rather than who she is that matters. And what she has done is in effect to proclaim the gospel. That is the thing that really matters. That is what true worship is all about, devotion arising from the Gospel and exalting the Gospel. And that is the measure we should always be applying to ourselves as a church. Will this promote the Gospel, make it clearer to people or not? If not, then we either ignore it or get rid of it. If it does, well, let's have all the more, whatever the cost. How much is Jesus worth?
But finally, there is someone else in this passage who put a value on Jesus and it is the shameful episode of a betrayal at a price - v10-11 (read). How much is Jesus worth? Judas knew the answer to that, 30 pieces of silver, thats how much. I guess we can call it short term gain.30 pieces of silver could buy you an awful lot in those days. So what if it costs a man his life! Now to be absolutely honest with you, this is the part of the story which frightens me the most. I cant help asking: for how much am I willing to take to betray Jesus? Just how much is he worth? I think of one church which has been damaged almost beyond repair because the minister left his wife and children for another man, after 20 years amazing Bible centred service. And in so doing betraying what was once a thriving and strategic ministry, let alone his family and friends. Whenever a Christian man or woman betrays their spouse in sexual infidelity and refuses to repent, Jesus is also being betrayed. Whenever for the sake of ecclesiastical promotion we ministers soft peddle the gospel, we betray Jesus as surely as did Judas. In saying these things I am not for a moment being judgemental. That is why I said, this passage scares me, for I know myself only too well, that if you do not pray for me and I do not pray for you, we too could be exchanging Jesus for our equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.
So, how much is Jesus worth?
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