June 10, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Jesus Is Anointed
Someone once said that when you hang on to what you have, there is no room for you to receive more blessing. Wilson Johnson, the founder of Holiday Inn, tells this story, “When I was forty years old I worked in a sawmill. One morning the boss told me I was fired. Depressed and discouraged, I felt like world had caved in. When I told my wife what had happened, she asked me what I was going to do. I replied, ‘I’m going to mortgage our little home and go into the building business.’
“My first venture was the construction of two small buildings. Within five years, I was a multimillionaire! At the time it happened, I didn’t understand why I was fired. Later, I saw that it was God’s unerring and wondrous plan to get me into the way of His choosing.”
Johnson continues, “I guess it’s always easier to see it that way when you’re on the other side. When God is prying your fingers away from something you think is very special, it can really hurt. It’s not that we don’t want to give everything to the Lord; it’s just that doing it is so hard. It’s frightening to let go.”
“After all, most of us don’t have much. If we let go of what little we have, how do we know we’ll survive. How can you afford to invite someone to dinner when you barely have enough to feed yourself? When you don’t have many friends, how can you risk losing the ones you have to offer friendship to someone they don’t like? How can you lift your voice in support of the one everyone is angry at? You might lose everything if you obey that much. But then we need to let go, don’t we?”
In our scripture story today, a woman with an alabaster jar lets go of something very precious to her. It was expensive and it was probably all she had. Would you pray with me?
As you already know, Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Passover. It was the week in which he would be crucified. The week following Passover was a minor festival called the Feast of Unleavened Bread. The Passover not only commemorated the deliverance of the children of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, but it also marked the gathering in of the barley harvest.
Amidst all of this, the chief priests and scribes were looking for some way to arrest Jesus and kill him, especially after he destroyed the marketplace in the Court of the Gentiles at the Temple.
This beautiful story of the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume shows us how important it is for us to give God gifts that are proportional, personal, purposeful, and premeditated. As our scripture story opens, Jesus is in Bethany, not too far from Jerusalem, eating dinner in the home of a man called Simon the Leper. It is thought that Simon had probably been healed by Jesus and this was an appreciation dinner. In John’s Gospel, he writes that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were also at the dinner.
Now look at Christ’s assessment of the gift the woman, who is called Mary in another of the gospels, had to offer in our scripture story today. Jesus said, “This gift is so vital that wherever the gospel goes this story will be told.” That is high praise, isn’t it? Imagine, Jesus being so impressed with a gift that He praises it in such glowing terms. But, what about this woman’s gift so impressed Jesus? What was there about Mary’s gift that was so pleasing to Christ?
First, it was a proportional gift. Jesus says, “She did what she could.” See how simple it can be. She did what she could. We are all willing to do what we cannot do. I often hear people say, “I wish I had a million dollars to give to my church.” We can all be very generous with what we don’t have. We are responsible to God, however, for what we do have.
She did what she could. Don’t miss the power of those words. What is actually being said is that “she could not have done more.” “She did what she could” means “She did everything she could” and she couldn’t have done anymore!
Let’s say if my gift to the church is to be gold, silver and precious stones, then it must be a proportional gift. I cannot give as much as some of you. I can give more than some of you. Each of us is to give according to our measure of resources.
No matter where we set the amount some of us would not be able to reach up to it. And, at the same time, many people would not be challenged by that amount. They can give much more and a lesser average amount would not represent their best. Each person must give a proportional gift that represents the best of what they can do.
The Bible teaches percentage giving which we call the tithe. But beyond the tithe the Bible teaches proportional giving. That means that we are to give according to our ability to give. Don’t let a percentage limit what you give. Jesus taught proportional giving. He said, “Unto whom much is given, much is required.” Mary did what she could. Those with greater resources must do what they can.
Second, Mary’s gift was a personal gift. Bible scholars have often debated about how Mary could have possessed an item of such value. The costly ointment was worth the equivalent of a laborer’s annual wage. What was your annual wage last year? That’s what Mary’s gift was worth in terms of dollars. That begs the question, “How could Mary have possessed anything of such value?” The only reasonable answer is that this alabaster box of precious ointment represented Mary’s dowry.
Marriage to a Jewish maiden was of enormous importance and consequence. Jewish culture valued the marriage relationship, the home, and the family as life’s greatest treasures. The dowry was essential to marriage. Mary’s gift may very well have cost her the right to marry. This gift may very well have represented her dreams as far as husband, children, and family were concerned.
No wonder Jesus was impressed. Now we can understand the full import of the statement “she did what she could.” The value of her gift couldn’t be measured in dollars and cents. It could only be measured in terms of heart and soul and in terms of love and devotion. All our figuring and finagling to free up dollars and cents are reduced to wood, hay, and stubble when compared to the gold, silver, and precious stones of Mary’s great gift.
While we try to give in ways that cost us nothing, Mary’s gift cost her, not the rest of her life, but maybe the best of her life. While we try to find gifts that we will not miss, Mary’s gift was missed everyday for the rest of her life.
Mary’s gift was valuable not because of its dollar value but because of its personal value. It was a gift that mattered to her. If you and I are to give gifts of gold, silver, and precious stones then we must get beyond the dollars and cents. We must personalize our gifts. They must be from our hearts to a Heavenly Provider we love. We must get our noses out of our checkbooks and into our Bibles. We must talk to our CPA’s but also to God. We must become more concerned about how Christ will assess our gift than we are in the rise and fall of the stock market. Our gift must be a personal gift.
Third, Mary’s gift was a purposeful gift. In Mark’s account of the story when the disciples begin to criticize Mary, led by Judas, the disciples demand to know “To what purpose is this waste?” Jesus made a very strange comment about Mary’s gift. He said something that the other’s present could not have fully appreciated. Mark quotes it as “she poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.”
What appeared to the disciples as wasted without purpose, Jesus implied that there was a secret and significant purpose that was not yet apparent. The oil she poured on him was anointing for his burial. When we tell the Easter story we always tell about the women going to the tomb early on Sunday morning. Why were they going? They were going to anoint and prepare his body for the burial.
In the haste to get his body down from the cross and buried before the beginning of the Sabbath, his body had not been cleansed and properly anointed for burial. This was the job the women were going to do early that Easter morning. Did they do it? It was too late. He had risen. The only one to anoint his body was Mary. Hers was indeed a purposeful gift.
From before the foundation of the world God had a plan for the redemption of humankind. In the fullness of time Christ came and died for the sins of the world. He was buried and resurrected on the third day. But in that plan, God planned for an otherwise insignificant woman named Mary to pour out on Christ her most precious gift, oil that symbolically anointed him for burial. Her gift had a purpose.
Lastly, Mary’s gift was premeditated. This wonderful gift was not spontaneously given as a result of some surge of emotion. This was a gift that Mary had thought about and planned. How do I know that? Mark’s account of this incident tells us that it occurred not in Mary’s home but in the home of Simon the Leper.
Mary had brought this alabaster box with her to Simon’s house. She planned this. She knew what it would mean with regard to marriage and family. She had counted the cost. Surely Mary had contemplated the criticism that would come to her. It was socially inappropriate for a woman to take center stage the way she did when she offered her gift. She knew that some might consider it grandstanding. Some might consider it an attempt to purchase some good work or miracle from Christ.
But Mary knew the truth. Jesus had returned life to her deceased brother, Lazarus. Mary loved Jesus. Mary wanted to give. She gave a personally costly gift that represented the very best of what she could offer. She had planned and premeditated her gift. With her spiritual insight and sensitivity maybe she knew in advance that her gift would play an important purpose in God’s plan. She would anoint the body of Jesus for burial when his disciples were still trying to talk him out of dying!
Our gifts to the church, now the body of Christ, must be like Mary’s. Our gift must be proportional and represent a true measure of our ability to give. Our gift must be personal and represent something of true value to us. Our gift must be purposefully given to assist in the plan of God. Our gift must be premeditated, prayerfully and carefully considered. Brothers and Sisters in Christ, this is the right stuff! This is the plan of God. Now we need to join God in his plan.