Over the next six Wednesday evenings, we will consider the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion as we prepare for Holy Week. Together, these events are the Passion of Our Lord, His passion to save us from sin and death, what He endured to put our sin as far as the east is from the west. The intent is not to make us “feel bad about ourselves” but to make us “feel good” about Jesus and what He has done to save us and the whole world. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Tonight our focus is on to two figures – Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who is not named in Mark’s version of the Gospel, and Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus, one of the Twelve. They are in Bethany, in the house of a man known as Simon the Leper. As is so often the case, Jesus’ table companions are the outcasts of society, those who live on the fringes, the “untouchables” and unclean. Jesus, ever the friend of tax collectors and sinners, seeks table fellowship with the least and the lost. Those whom the religious called cursed, Jesus blesses with His presence. The town may have known Simon as “the Leper,” but he is known by Jesus as friend and table companion. You are invited to take your seat next to Simon.
During the meal, Mary approaches Jesus while Martha is serving. (John tells us these things). Once before she sat at Jesus’ feet, clinging to His every word. Now she breaks open a delicate alabaster vial of expensive, scented oil, and pours it on Jesus’ head. How Mary came into possession of such a treasure, we aren’t told. John tells us that the oil was worth about 300 denarii, a year’s wages for a common day laborer. At seven-fifty and hour for a twelve hour work day, that would be about $27,000. Regardless of the exact dollar amount, no cost was too great.
It’s a bit like that Mastercard commercial that runs on television. The cost of the meal at Bethany, maybe $50. Bread $5. Flowers and decorations $20. Fellowship with Jesus – priceless.. Mary’s devotion knows no cost. It goes beyond bookkeeping, tax-deductions, and questions of “can I afford it?” Devotion to Jesus knows no price, no practicalities or plausibilities. It’s irresponsible, reckless, outrageous.
“Such a waste! The money could have gone to the poor,” the disciples howl in protest. They are indignant, outraged over her lavish devotion, and they use the poor as an excuse. John tells us that Judas was leading the protest. He kept the moneybag and the books. He was also thief whose sticky fingers helped himself to the money. And he was the first and loudest to object to May’s costly devotion.
“The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus says. “You can help them whenever you wish.” If you are so concerned for the poor, go out and give to the poor. The disciples’ objection is hollow and faithless. I’m willing to guess that Mary was as generous toward the poor as she was toward Jesus. That’s usually the case. Those who are lavish with their offerings are also generous in the rest of their lives. They hold their meager assets with the dead hand of faith instead of the death grip of reasonableness and responsibility. You sometimes hear the same objection when churches build magnificent buildings or a beautiful pipe organ or they spend lavishly on worship. During the Thirty Years War in Germany in the 17th century, when towns were decimated and the people were poor, the congregations still maintained their instruments and paid their musicians because that was oil poured on their dear Savior’s head. They were also generous toward the poor and cared for each other in ways that would put our suburban comfort to shame.
“She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” Her gift, so lovingly and lavishly given, anticipated Jesus’ gift, even more lavishly given – His own body given into death. What is the price He paid to save you? What are you worth to God? No amount of gold or silver can cover the cost. Not a year’s wages, nor a century’s wages, nor the gross national product of our nation. Only the holy, precious blood of the Son of God, His innocent suffering and death can pay the price that frees you. And that price He paid entirely in His own dark death, that you may be His own. That’s how much your Baptism into Jesus’ death is worth. The life of Jesus. That’s how much the Body and Blood of the Lord’s Supper is worth . His own death on a cross. That’s what a human life, whether a tiny child yet unborn or a senior in a nursing home, is worth to God. What is the tag on your life? Priceless. Jesus, priceless treasure.
In contrast we have Judas, so concerned for the poor, so careful with the money. He cuts a deal to betray Jesus to the clergy. “How much is he worth to you,” Judas asks them. They offer thirty silver pieces, considerably less than what Mary poured on Jesus’ head. Thirty pieces of silver was the redemption price of a slave. It was the amount paid to Zechariah to get out of town, which he threw into the temple as a judgment. Thirty silver pieces to hand over the Savior, betray the Master to those who wanted to kill Him.
I wonder what Judas was thinking. Was he trying to scam the priests, thinking that Jesus would elude capture, and he’d be thirty silver pieces richer for it? Was he trying to push the messianic program along, forcing Jesus’ hand to be the military messiah everyone was expecting? If he was so disillusioned, why didn’t he just leave and find another to follow? Or start a movement of his own? Why betray Jesus? Why hand Him over for a slave’s price? All the gospel tells us is that Satan was at work, setting in motion the events that would ultimately be his own undoing.
We are both Mary and Judas, devoted to Him and at the same time betraying Him for a price. We offer Him our very best in worship, and then walk out o church to betray Him for considerably less. We give our costliest treasures, then sell Him out when He doesn’t rise to our expectations. We are Mary, opening alabaster flasks and heaping glorious praise on His head. We are Judas, numbered among the chosen, yet betraying Him and His Gospel in the marketplace of religion for a price. It will never sell in the streets, we say. We compromise the good news, file down the sharp edges, make Jesus marketable to the masses. We criticize the Mary’s among us, who pour out their treasures, heedless of the cost. “That’s irresponsible,” we say. It’s bad stewardship, not the prudent thing to do. We nod our heads soberly in agreement with Judas and the disciples who protest. It could have gone to a good cause.
Yet what cause is greater that the death of Jesus for the life of the world? What greater passion can there be than the Passion that embraced the world in death? What costlier devotion can there be that to lay down your life so that all might live in Him? Jesus didn’t come to put a bandage on poverty, oppression, violence, injustice. He didn’t come to reform the institutions of politics and religion. That He could have done from His throne in heaven with nothing more than a divine tweak of the economy and a slight adjustment in theology. He came to do justice to the underlying sin and death that drives poverty and oppression and violence. He came to embrace this world and our humanity in His death, and in so doing, to reconcile this world to God.
We might find it easy to accept the notion that Jesus died for Mary, so wonderfully devoted to Him, honoring Him, anointing Him, pouring her life out for Him. We would find it easy to accept the idea that He saves the salvageable, the devout, the redeemable, the good and religious like Mary or Simon the Leper. But we won’t begin to plumb the depths of God’s passion to save the sinner until we recognize that He died for all including Judas who betrayed Him, and that this act of betrayal for thirty silver pieces set in motion the death that swallowed up Death forever. Mary anointed Him for His death; Judas betrayed Him to death. And His death atones for us all.
In the name of Jesus,