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"Extravagent Love!"

MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 30, 2009 FROM MARK 14:1-21

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          This week we continue to look at the gospels as we examine one of the more poignant events in the ministry of Jesus.  The spotlight is on Jesus and a person who provides a stark contrast to last week’s account of the rich, young ruler.  We saw last week that this man had everything the Jews of his day said was important.  He was wealthy, young and influential.  This morning, we meet a person very unlike this ruler.  First, she was a woman—which, in that culture made her an unlikely role model.  She was also from all indications incredibly average—no titles, no authority—she wielded little if any influence beyond her immediate family in Bethany.  Yet the most important distinction between her and the rich young ruler is that this woman loved Jesus with all her heart.  In the end, when the rich young ruler was confronted with the demands of discipleship, he walked away.  This woman in the account we read earlier, completely and joyfully surrendered her most valuable possession to Jesus.  We read the story from Mark’s perspective earlier, but Matthew and John tell the same story and when we combine the contributions of all three, we get a glorious, inspired mosaic of Jesus Christ and the kind of full-throttle, all-out adoration of which he is worthy.

          We could summarize the basic message of this text by saying—Jesus Christ is preeminent over all things and is therefore worthy of our most sacrificial worship.   I see two ways in which his preeminence is displayed in this account.  The first way is: Jesus preeminent is over evil as we see his sovereign will executed even in the midst of great evil.  To appreciate this, we must remember what immediately precedes and what immediately follows Mark’s account of this woman and her worship of Jesus.  As the chapter opens, we see in verse one, “It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread.  And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, “not during the feast, lest there by an uproar from the people.”  By this time in Jesus’ ministry, it was clear to the Jewish religious leaders that they must kill Jesus in order to eliminate the threat he posed to their ministry.  But during these major religious feasts like Passover, Jerusalem was filled to the brim with pilgrims who had come, like Jesus and the disciples, to celebrate. 

          Jesus had become something of a phenomenon at this point and the religious leaders were too clever to risk capturing him in public and the possible uproar that would accompany any abuse of this teacher many were calling the Messiah.  So they were seeking to come up with a plan where they could arrest him while he was in the area, but do so without anyone really knowing about it.  It was a major challenge and they needed outside help to pull it off.  Mark begins this account by mentioning these crooked religious leaders who were seeking to kill Jesus in secret.  At the close of this story—like the other book end—is the account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.  Verse 10 says, “Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him them.  And whey they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money.  And he sought an opportunity to betray him.  So on either end of this account of this woman’s great adoration of Jesus are two other groups of people who are planning to do him great harm.

           

          Think about these bookends that make up the surrounding context of this story and see the sovereignty of God displayed as Mark reveals it here.  On a human level, these two evil forces—the chief priests who want to kill Jesus and Judas who has the power to hand him over to them—when they come together—that’s checkmate for Jesus.  In human terms, his fate is sealed the moment Judas decides to go to the chief priests.  All the necessary pieces required to kill Jesus are now in place—it’s just a matter of how it will be done.  From a purely human perspective—Jesus appears at this point to be the helpless Victim —seemingly at the mercy of religious leaders who want him dead and a treasonous disciple who is willing to sell him into their hands.

          But in the middle of this account—in between these two bookends, Mark reveals Jesus as the Sovereign King reigning over all of this.  The crucial verse in this regard is in verse eight after this woman anoints Jesus.  He says, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.”  Here we have Jesus, before Judas even makes his final decision to betray him and before the Scribes have any idea about how to capture Jesus.  At this point, there is no plan—no scheme—no betrayal—no transaction—no details and certainly no assurance that Jesus will even be captured, much less killed.  Yet, in the midst of all this human scheming aimed at Jesus, Mark clearly reveals Jesus is not only not the victim, he is clearly the one in control.  No one but Jesus knows that after his entrance into Jerusalem the following day, events will unfold with amazing speed, culminating in his crucifixion in only six days.  But Jesus knows all of that and here he is—this seeming “victim”—reclining at the table at this gathering with friends in Bethany and when this woman pours this expensive oil on him, he immediately places it within the context of his coming death.

          He is within a week of being killed and buried and in God’s sovereign plan; this woman who is worshipping Jesus anoints him with expensive perfume.  His response is gratitude because this woman, unbeknownst to her, but in God’s sovereign plan prepares his soon-to-be-dead-body for burial.  Think about this. At this moment, as the Scribes are crossing their fingers, hoping to somehow get hold of this man who had proven to be so hard to destroy—as Judas has not yet even made his final decision to betray his Master, Jesus is calmly, matter-of-factly speaking of this incident as a preparation for his burial.  You must wonder what the disciples were thinking.  Jesus had been talking about his upcoming death for some time, but now he is getting eerily specific and at a time when Jesus is at the very peak of his popularity.  He has just raised Lazarus from the dead and is at an all time high as he comes into Jerusalem.  This woman openly worships him with this extravagant gift— pouring exorbitantly expensive oil over him and he interprets that in this triumphant context as her anointing his body for burial.  Imagine you’re at a dinner party in your honor and during dessert someone comes in and gives you a $20,000 suit of clothes.  The others attending openly wonder about what kind of use you have for this, but you reassure them by telling that your death is imminent and this outfit will be on your dead body as you lie in your coffin.  That would tend to throw cold water on the party!  We mustn’t miss what Mark is communicating here.  That is—in the midst of the wicked plans of these evil men who think they are calling the shots in their plan to kill Jesus—Jesus is calmly speaking of his burial because these wicked men are only lackeys carrying out their evil role within God’s plan of redemption.

          Another verse where God’s sovereignty is put on display in the midst of this is verse nine where Jesus says, “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”  Jesus is not fixated on his death at this point; he is looking well beyond that to the global kingdom harvest his death will initiate.  First, he says to all attending that the gospel about him will be proclaimed to the whole world.  That alone would have given a headache to everyone in the room.  Although the Old Testament is replete with references to God being known among the nations, it’s also clear from the New Testament that the Jews were not at all ready for the Gentiles to be included in God’s plan of salvation.  But here, even before his death that will purchase these nations for God, Jesus prophesies that the gospel about him will be globally proclaimed and not only that, but this event that has just occurred will be part of that proclamation. 

One application for us is simply--if Jesus was right in his unlikely prediction about this perfume being an anointing for burial, he is surely just as accurate about this story being told “in the whole world.”  This is a glorious promise for those eager to see the more than 16,000 unreached people groups around this world hear and respond to the gospel.  When Jesus said that the expensive perfume would prepare his body for burial, that surely seemed an unlikely outcome.  Today, it’s hard in human terms to believe that the 2.74 billion people who have never heard the gospel will one day hear it in a way they can respond to it and hear this story in Mark 14 to boot.[1] 

But the same Jesus who, in his sovereign majesty, rightly predicted that his body would be buried smelling of this perfume, also predicted that this story would be told in memory of this woman throughout the whole world!  That means that some day—without a doubt, the peoples in Northern India will hear this story and the peoples in Jordan and the peoples in Turkey and Japan and the peoples in Iraq and Kurdistan and Thailand and all those other people groups will hear this story and the gospel that accompanies it.  The reason is because the same One who predicted his own death while other fallen men were stumbling and fumbling about to bring that to pass, is the One who predicted the whole world will hear this story in the midst of the stumbling and fumbling we do to send workers to the unreached.  It will happen because Christ in his sovereign majesty said it would happen!  That doesn’t give us an excuse to not answer the call if it is given to us, but it does remind us that God is going to complete his plan for the nations no matter what.  Jesus is preeminent not only over the wicked people of his day, but also over Satan and his partners today who try to keep the gospel from going forward.  Jesus is not only preeminent over evil however. 

We see this in the second way this text displays his preeminence.  That is:  Jesus is preeminent over all things as we see his supremacy over all peoples and causes.  Jesus proclaims his preeminence over all people and causes in verses three through eight.  Mark writes,  3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.”

          Many of us know the story well but let me highlight some of the details.  Because this was a celebration meal, they were reclining at the table of Simon the leper.  Simon was certainly had been healed of his leprosy or all of them, including Jesus, would have been violating Mosaic law to eat with him.  They were all stretched out on pillows enjoying a leisurely meal. In John’s account, he tells us that his friends Mary and Martha were there and Lazarus, who had only recently been raised from the dead and was with Jesus reclining at the table.  John also tells us that Martha was the one serving—(no surprise) and Mary (also true to form) was the woman who worships Jesus in this gripping manner.  John also adds that Mary not only anointed his head with this perfume, but also his feet, which she wiped with her hair.  We know she had enough oil for this because John tells us that there was almost a pound of it.  Mary lets down her hair in public to wipe his feet. This was very seldom done by respectable women.  She is totally surrendering her dignity within the culture and powerfully ministers to Jesus.  She wasn’t just giving money, she was giving herself.

          Mark says the perfume was “pure nard.”  Nard comes from the root of the Nard plant that grew only in India.  This was imported and it was incredibly expensive.  All the gospel accounts emphasize its great cost, but Mark tells us this was valued at over 300 denarii.  That was equivalent to one year’s wages as paid to laborers who made up most of the work force.  This was the average family income for one year she is pouring out on Jesus’ head.  To put it in terms of purchasing power, this was enough money to feed a family of at least six for a year, in addition to clothing them and providing them adequate shelter.[2]  That means that this perfume represented enough money to purchase –figuring two meals a day—over 4000 individual meals.  In a day and a culture where there was no welfare and no government assistance, this perfume could have been used to purchase one meal for at least 4000 people if it had been sold and given to the poor.  In addition to the food, this money could have (conservatively estimated) clothed a family of six for a year and given shelter to a family for a year.  I want us to see that to keep us from thinking what many people think about this text.

          That is—because it is Judas is the one who voiced this complaint in John’s gospel, we tend to discount this business about giving the money to the poor as the insincere rant of a greedy person—Judas is a thief and wants the money for himself.  But Mark tells us that it wasn’t only Judas who felt this way.  He says in verse four, “There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that?”  In verse five it says “they scolded her.”  Judas was not the only person in the room disgusted by this act of extravagant generosity.  The other weren’t motivated by greed like Judas was, but they had a social conscience and knew the Law of Moses’ command to feed the poor.  Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”

In light of that, this was a lot of money to pour on someone’s head.  We must feel that very real tension or we will miss the power of what Jesus says here. 

To make the gift even more exorbitant, Mark tells us that Mary broke the neck of the alabaster container it came in.  This was no clay jar this had been poured into—it was alabaster—which is what very expensive perfume was stored in.  It was placed in an expensive container for at least two reasons.  First, to signal that what was inside was not the kitchen grease drippings—don’t throw it out by mistake—it’s got expensive liquid in it.  Second, because people who could afford to buy a pound of nard, wouldn’t chafe at the cost of a fancy container.  This gift was such an expensive commodity and there is no indication that this woman was in any way wealthy.  That leads many scholars to believe that this perfume was probably a family heirloom that had been passed down to her—an utterly unique possession that she could never have afforded on her own and which would never be replaced once used.  It was almost certainly something like that because common people would never have a year’s wages just lying around and if they did, they wouldn’t buy perfume with it!

          Mary didn’t have to break the neck of the container.  It could have come out through the same opening it was poured in.  The point is—she wants to give it ALL to Jesus—holding nothing back—the perfume, the container—this woman is surrendering everything—her most valuable possession, her dignity within the culture—everything for Jesus—she gives everything she can and she does it freely, and clearly with great joy.  She is such an example to us as to how to love and worship Jesus.  Finally, this was a waste in human terms on another level.  Nard and other expensive perfumes were used to prepare bodies for burial for intensely practical reasons.  Strong, expensive perfumes were rubbed onto dead bodies to stifle the smell of decay.[3]  Though Jesus admits that this was done in preparation for his burial, he also was fully aware that the practical use for which this was done was perfectly unnecessary.  “[God] will not let his holy one see corruption.” [Psalm 16:10]  Jesus knew his body wasn’t going to rot or smell.  But Jesus doesn’t tell this woman, “Oh, please that won’t be necessary” because she wasn’t doing it for that purpose anyway.  She was just loving Jesus.  Jesus says the poor are here all the time—I am only here for a short time.  If the choice is between doing something for the poor and doing something for me, do it for me.  If this comes from the lips of any other human being, it would have been egomaniacal.

If this sacrificial gift had been given to anyone else, from a Biblical point of view, it would have been a colossal waste.  From a Biblical worldview, this would have been a tremendous waste of money and should have been used to help out people less fortunate.  That was clearly THE Biblical use for this money and the disgust the disciples felt would not have been misplaced in the least…if it had been anyone else receiving this.  But this was for Jesus.  He is preeminent over all people and all causes.  The One who came to preach the gospel to the poor proclaims himself to be more important than the poor or any other social cause.  Bob Stein rightly observes, “In placing himself above concern for the poor, Jesus is placing himself above the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself.”[4] 

This is why it is so shallow and frankly sub-Christian for a believer to minister to the poor with the notion, “We are loving people with the love of Jesus by feeding the poor, but we don’t feel like we are supposed to preach the gospel to them.”  Jesus, who loved the poor more than anyone says to that—you’ve missed it—you’re trying to carry out the Great Commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, but you’ve cut it off from its root because you’ve separated it from loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Loving your neighbor Biblically always flows out of our love for God.  That truth in no way releases us from our responsibility to feed the poor, but it does help us to know that that should never be our sole or even primary purpose for doing it.  The Lausanne Covenant is right when it says, “…in the church’s mission of sacrificial service evangelism is primary.”[5]  That’s utterly consistent with this statement of Jesus. 

According to Jesus, this woman did “a beautiful thing” for him.  She did what she could.  What transforms “waste” into worship is the object to which it is directed—Jesus.  Nothing is too extravagant in our love for Jesus because he is preeminent over all.  At the heart of every legitimate ministry that bears the name of Christ is an intense, overt love for Jesus. What a contrast this woman sets up with Judas.  Again, Stein is eloquent here as he speaks of this woman, “Whereas for her faith she sacrifices money, Judas…sacrifices his faith for money.”[6]  Ministry that claims to be Christian but is detached from a love for Christ is simply do-gooderism.  People are certainly helped and that is good, but there is nothing distinctively Christian about it. 

One point of application to this is—whatever you do for Christ—go all out—rooted in your love of Jesus.  Mary wasn’t giving Jesus her leftovers.  She gave him the most valuable thing she owned because she knew he was worth it and her love for Christ compelled her.  We know from John’s gospel, this event comes right after Jesus raised her beloved Lazarus from the dead.  She was intensely grateful to Jesus and from that gratitude flowed a wellspring of sacrificial love—nothing was too good for Jesus.  When you find yourself not loving Jesus very much, think deeply and long about all that he has done for you in the gospel.  If you are in Christ, you have spiritually been raised from the dead and your body will also be raised, never to die again.  Thinking through the glories of the gospel and what that means to you on an eternal level will prime the pump for your love for Jesus. 

As we more and more understand God’s extravagant, scandalous love for us in the gospel, we will be more and more compelled to respond in kind like Mary did.  So often, we give Jesus our leftovers—our leftover money after we have spent the rest on ourselves—our leftover time and energy after we have given it to our employer where we seldom think about Jesus and the kingdom.  On the job, we may be intense and focused—a wonder of multi-tasking productivity—giving our employer almost 24/7 access to us.  And Jesus gets what little time and energy is left over after we have finished serving man.  We find ourselves fighting off sleep in our quiet times (if we have them at all) because we’re spent, having given our best to corporate America or maybe a hobby or pastime we love.  What Mary gave is what Jesus wants—she gave her heart.  He wants our hearts and when he has them, he will get our best.  If we are consistently giving him our leftovers, the plain and simple truth is-- we don’t really love Jesus very much. 

            We only have so much to give in this life—only so much time and energy and strength and when we give it all, we are done.  At the end of my life, I want to be completely used up.  But I don’t want to be used up because I gave my best energies and time and strength to the things of this world.  The old hymn says,“Only one life to offer-Take it, dear Lord, I pray; Nothing from Thee withholding, Thy will I now obey (my Jesus); Thou who hast freely given, Thine all in all for me, Claim this life for Thine own, to be used, My Savior, ev'ry moment for Thee.”[7]  That was Mary.  May God give us the grace to give our all in all to our Savior who is preeminent over all things.


[1] http://www.joshuaproject.net/great-commission-statistics.php

[2] I used this number rather arbitrarily.  Many families were much larger than six and lived on this much money.  Jesus himself was one of at least seven children (nine total in the family)  See Mark 6:3

[3] D.A. Carson, Pillar Commentary series on John’s gospel, p.430.

[4] Stein, Baker Exegetical Series, Commentary on Mark’s gospel, p.

[5] As quoted in DeYoung and Kluck’s excellent book, “Why we Love the Church,” p. 48.

[6] Stein, p.

[7] "Only One Life” WORDS: Avis Marguerite Burgeson Christiansen(1895-1985)
MUSIC: Merrill Dunlop(1905-2002) © 1937. Renewed 1964 Merrill Dunlop. Assigned To Singspiration Music.All rights reserved. 

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