I am going to mention the first phrase of a saying in a moment, but before I do I’ll add that I am offering prizes to those who accurately guess the remainder of the saying. First prize is an autographed copy of the sermon. Second prize is two autographed copies. Third prize is a sermon written specifically for you that I will preach to you at your home.
If all you have is a hammer…
Does anyone know how to complete that old saying?
If all you have is a hammer…everything would look like a nail. Have you heard that saying before?
As we continue our series of messages titled Having A Heart Like Jesus, we come to a passage of Scripture that takes place in the final days of the life of Jesus. It takes place sometime between the Triumphal Entry and the Last Supper.
Keep that saying about a hammer in mind as we read the Scripture passage for this morning. We’ll read the telling of the story from Mark’s gospel, but all four gospels tell the story. Not many stories are recorded in all four gospels, and I believe that because this story is in all four, its message must be very important.
1 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.
2 “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
3 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.
4 Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume?
5 It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6 “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.
7 The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.
8 She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
9 Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.
Did you notice the reaction of those present when the woman anoints Jesus with this ointment? There was an immediate rush to judgment against her. Does it ever seem to you that religion makes some people mean? Or is it that their meanness is made more intense and tragic because they believe they have received a divine mandate that enforces their attitudes and actions?
Mark, like Matthew, does not identify the woman who anoints Jesus. Luke identifies her as a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town (Luke 7:37). John tells us it is Mary (John 12:3). Isn’t it a shame that the first instinct of some of those gathered that day was to rush to judge her? Have you ever noticed that’s the default position for some religious people? The first response is not one of grace but to pull out that finger of judgment and start pointing it. And no words of grace were offered to her. No one said, you are doing a good thing. Jesus has done so much for us and given us so much it’s time someone did something for him.
If all you have is the hammer of judgment then everyone gets nailed with that hammer. And there were a lot of people in the day of Jesus carrying around that hammer of judgment. The heart of Jesus, however, was always expressed through grace.
Perhaps because of her past, alluded to by Luke – a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town – everyone believed they had her all figured out. Sometimes we can’t see beyond someone’s past.
I grew up in West Virginia, went to school in Tennessee, moved to Alabama, and then came to Kentucky. You know what was helpful about moving around? Every time you move you have the opportunity for a new beginning. Whatever people thought of me, when I moved I had a chance to reinvent myself and begin anew without the drag of my mistakes defining me in the eyes of other people.
Not so for Mary. People remembered her past, and were probably quick to point it out to her and to everyone else. They assumed she was the same old Mary. They couldn’t believe anything different about her.
Isn’t it amazing how we make judgments other people? I have, unfortunately, made judgments about people and found that I was totally wrong. I’ve too often kept my same interpretation of someone else when they had changed and become a far different person.
By offering the reminder that it was at the time of Passover, Mark is pointing out that, at a time of heightened spirituality, there were those who were not very in tune with the Spirit. When Mary anoints Jesus, she was strongly criticized. Those critics failed to see that she was responding to the grace of Jesus.
There is no shortage of Scripture passages that demonstrate how resistance many were to the theme of grace. For Jesus, grace was at the center of everything he said and did. Having a heart like Jesus means we are called to be people of grace, reflecting in our own lives one of the central themes of his life and ministry.
The woman who anoints Jesus with the ointment demonstrates that she “gets it.” Almost all of the stories we read in the gospels are ones that tell us about the grace, love, and kindness that Jesus demonstrates. In this story, we see someone who has understood his emphasis on these qualities and then demonstrates grace, love, and kindness back to Jesus. Jesus is most often the demonstrator of these gifts, but in this passage, he is also a recipient of them. In contrast, others fail to learn the lesson. Immediately after anointing Jesus, the woman is criticized for what she has done. Focusing on the value of the ointment, these critics immediately point out their perception that the woman wasted a valuable commodity. It would have been better, they claimed, if it had been sold and the proceeds of the sale given to the poor.
And don’t we recognize how people can be when we read the line some of those present were saying 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 (verse 5). I wonder if their concern for the poor extended to their own wallets? It’s very easy to be generous with someone else’s money, isn’t it? If they were so concerned about the poor, what were those people doing to alleviate their misery? If those critics were so interested in helping the poor, they simply could have done so. What were they willing to sell, or to give, in order to help the poor for whom they suddenly had such conviction? The reality is, they were more interested in judgment and criticism than they were love and grace. They were perfectly content to sit back and judge this woman who reflected the compassion and grace of Jesus. They allowed their righteous indignation to provide a mask for their indifference to the sufferings of others.
People often think someone else should be doing something, but don’t always stop to realize what they could be doing. From this group of people down to the skeptics who think God isn’t doing enough about the suffering in the world, it is part of the human condition to point a finger of blame or judgment while not raising a hand to offer any help. But it’s hard to offer a hand of compassion when that hand is so busy pointing a finger.
Jesus is not indifferent to poverty and is not shrugging off the importance of ministering to the physical needs of others. Not at all. He is reminding those in his presence they need to be concerned about the condition of humanity that would create poverty, a condition they seemed immune to while at the same time deciding how to spend someone else’s money.
So they rebuked her harshly, Mark says.
I wonder what that scene must have been like. What does it mean to rebuke someone harshly? Whatever they were saying, it got Jesus’ attention. Leave her alone, he commands. I’ve often wondered about the tone of his voice in that sentence. Was it one of sadness for their harsh judgmentalism or one of anger and frustration?
Mary pours out this perfume upon Jesus, and it is rather breathtaking to think of its value – equal to a year’s wages for most people. That’s a lot of money. I’ve often wondered what special ingredients are in perfume to make it so expensive. I’ve gone to get perfume for Tanya a few times over the years. I’m really out of my element in that section of a store, and I think it’s obvious to the people working in that area. I’ve choked a bit at the cost of a few ounces of perfume, but a bottle that would cost a year’s salary? That would buy a lot of guitars!
There is an element of love that does not count the cost. Love does not calculate expense. It does not hold back. Love offers everything, just as this woman gave all of the ointment, though not all would be necessary.
Interestingly, as Mark notes the words of Jesus that wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her (verse 9) the same is true of those who sat in judgment of the woman. While we are told of her grace and generosity, so are we told of the hardness of heart of those who sat in judgment. The lesson from this is that our actions, and our attitudes, are noted and remembered by others. Just as this act of grace and generosity is remembered, so is the lack of grace and generosity exhibited by the others who were present that day.
There is also another important point made by Jesus. When he says, in verse 7, you will not always have me, it is an important reminder to act while we can. There are opportunities to express love and grace that may not come again, so we must act while the moment is at hand. Have you known the sadness of allowing an opportunity to pass by, an opportunity that did not come again? Perhaps it was an opportunity to express your love to someone or an opportunity to exhibit grace. All of us, I would presume, are familiar with the regret of missing such a chance, and of living with the sadness of not acting while we had the chance.
Don’t live with that sadness, and don’t live without grace. Offer grace, and receive grace.