The Greatest Gift
A little old man was seen every Sunday morning walking to church. He was deaf. He could not hear a word of the sermon or any music or singing.
A scoffer asked him, ‘Why do you spend your Sundays in that church when you can’t hear a word?’
He replied simply, ‘I want my neighbours to know which side I’m on.’
John 12: 1-8 makes clear what side people are on and challenges us to make it clear to others whose side we are on.
Looking at the text, in verse one we see Jesus making his last journey to Jerusalem. He is going up for the most important Jewish festival, the Passover, which remembers the miraculous deliverance from death in Egypt.
This Passover, however, will be different. Jesus is to be the lamb offered. He will be the sacrifice made for the sins of others. He knows that this is what he will do, yet he still finds time to go and see some friends.
This was a special family. He gave them back a dead brother – Lazarus. In John 11, Lazarus was brought back to life, so I’m sure Jesus was always welcome in this home.
Is Jesus welcome in our homes? Do we thank Him over meals and praise Him for all He has done for us?
Jesus has done miracles for us too. Miracles of recovery from illness, of living in a land where no-one need go hungry, of the birth of children that we love. We have seen miracles of faith where we have said, ‘Yes Lord, I believe in you and will love you.’ Let us always welcome Jesus into our homes through faith.
In verse two we see whose side the family is on. A dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served while Mary honoured Jesus in her own way. Martha, ever the busy person, organized the meal. Martha loved Jesus just as much as Mary, yet she honoured Him in a different way; through humbly serving him at an evening meal.
Maybe you feel that your gifts of humble service to the Lord go un-noticed. Know that when you clean the church, but you are honouring Jesus. When you prepare the Communion resources, you are honouring Jesus. When you arrange the flowers, you are honouring Jesus. When you greet people at the door, when you take up an offering, when you sweep the carpark – you are honouring Jesus, much like Martha did.
In verse three Mary honours Jesus with a precious, costly possession, some treasured perfume. She pours it on his feet – unusual. Anointings were normally on the head, and were associated with joy and celebrations. Here is something much more humble; she anoints his feet.
Then Mary did what no Jewish woman would ever do in a public setting, especially in front of 14 men. She lets her hair down and wipes Jesus’ feet.
Only a woman’s husband would see this, so there is quite the possibility that there was some element of eroticism in what she was doing. Nevertheless, she did not care what people thought. None of what she did played to the gallery. She did not care what people thought, she just honoured Jesus generously with what she had. She honoured Jesus with her gift and action.
Do we honour Jesus like that? Do we honour Him with what we give? Our money? Our time? Our loyalty? Do we make sacrifices for Jesus’ sake that seem silly in the eyes of others? Do we rise above what others think when we honour Jesus by saying things like, ‘No we can’t do that today, church is on and Jesus matters more’? Do we love Jesus with Mary’s loving extravagance?
In verses four and five, Judas shows whose side he is on – his own. He is an apostle in name, but not in heart. He attacked Mary, implying that Jesus was not worth this extravagance. That this is criminal waste. Why not sell it if you are able to get rid of it and sell it for the poor?
John tells us in verse six that Judas was a thief, and so really wanted to get his hands on that money. The poor were far removed from his real care. As Malcolm Muggeridge said, ‘It is not at all surprising that the villain among the disciples should appear as the most socially concerned.’
Yet, at the same time, as C.S. Lewis points out, ‘It is those who are most committed to God who do most for this world.’ Out of this group of 12 disciples within a few years came offerings for the poor, care for the refugees, abandoned children and impoverished widows. So too in our own time.
Take a secular agency like Community Aid Abroad. It has no Christian content about it at all. Yet it was started forty years ago by a member of the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, Father Gerald Kennedy Tucker. Its goal was to help the poor to help themselves.
It is those who most focus upon Jesus who do most to change the world for good. Love for God leads to love for our neighbor.
In verse seven, Jesus comes to Mary’s defence. Jesus always defends His people. When the disciples are attacked for picking grain on the Sabbath, He defends them. When they get into a brawl on the night of His arrest, Jesus saves them. Never forget He is always on your side. Jesus is for you and not against you.
So Jesus tells Judas and the others, that while Mary may not know it, she is really preparing Him for His burial. She is anointing Him as though He were already a body to be anointed. In verse eight, Jesus acknowledges that the poor will always be with us, and he has spent most of his life among the poor: healing their blindness and deafness, raising their dead, and feeding their hungry.
Judas implies that receiving Mary’s gift means that Jesus has no interest in the poor, so imperceptive and blinded by evil is he. Jesus is the champion of the poor, as we are called to be also.
Yet He says, ‘you will not always have me with you’, that is physically present. Jesus is always spiritually present as the resurrected Lord, through the Holy Spirit. So this is one of the last things that anyone can do for him.
It was probably the most beautiful act of loving generosity He had experienced in the six days before He died. Soon, Judas’ friends would take over and drive Him to a cross. But for now, His friends could bless, love, feed and anoint Him.
Soon, He would pour out His own precious being. Instead of perfume, His very life, through His blood.
During a medieval battle, a king was saved by a soldier. After the victory, the king called for the soldier and presented him with his own prized cup covered in diamonds and rubies. Upon seeing the exquisite goblet, the soldier said, ‘This is too great a gift for me to receive.’ The king replied, ‘It may be too great a gift for you to receive, but it is not too great a gift for me to give.’
So with our Lord’s life, given for you and me. Too great to receive, but not too great for Him to give.
Martha gave her service, Mary her perfume. How will you respond? Whose side are you on? What will you give Jesus in exchange for His extravagant love?
Your very self is the greatest gift you can give him.
By George Robert Iles
– Golden Grove Uniting, 1995