“In Times of Conflict”
A message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church – UCC
based on the theme: Where Your Journey Meets Jesus
April 3, 2022
John 12:1-8 NRSV
1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Let’s be real. Everyone’s journey has some level of conflict in it. Writers know that conflict is what makes a story interesting. But most of the time we feel conflict is unpleasant, and sometimes it is destructive. If we are going to talk about where our journey meets Jesus we have to talk about times of conflict, or our faith is disconnected from our real lives. As people of faith, how do we “meet Jesus” in the middle of our journey when we face conflict?
In our story this morning, Jesus was invited to dinner at Mary and Martha’s. I suspect it was a celebration for Lazarus’ resurrection. A “thank you” to Jesus for bringing him back to life. This miracle was a foreshadowing of God’s power to raise Jesus from his own death. It had just taken place in the chapter before this. It is interesting that this amazing miracle is not recorded in any other gospel. I mean, turning water into wine, healing a blind man, even feeding 5000, or 10,000 people – those are pretty good miracles, but a resurrection that is an incredible miracle! And no one else mentions it.
So Jesus is at dinner at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. We don’t have a complete list of the guests but Judas is there. Mary takes a jar of expensive fragrant oil, breaks it open and begins to massage it into Jesus’ feet. Then she wipes his feet with her hair! Both of these acts are outrageous. In that time and in that culture a woman would never touch a single man, or uncover her hair, let alone use her hair to wipe up the massage oil. It was an incredibly intimate thing to do. Most scholars say that this kind of perfumed oil would have cost the equivalent of an average worker’s annual pay. Has anyone ever done something like that for you? Have you ever done something like that for someone else? Who spends a whole year’s salary on a gift for someone? I guess that might be like buying a new car, with cash, as a gift. Even the jewelry industry only recommends spending the equivalent of two months’ salary on an engagement ring.
Judas is apparently shocked. Not because Mary does something contrary to social customs in anointing or touching Jesus but because she has wasted so much money on this act of love. His comment certainly makes sense from an economic point of view. That much money could have been a big help providing for the needs of the disciples or others. But the writer of the gospel makes it clear Judas doesn't really care about the poor. In a parenthetical editorial comment, he says Judas was a thief who stole money from the common purse the disciples carried to provide for their needs and others. But Jesus doesn’t focus on Judas’ evil actions. He simply says, “leave her alone, what she has done she did to prepare me for burial.” Jesus also makes a comment about having the poor with us always, but not having him.
Here's the challenge – there is the conflict within the story and then there is the conflict we may be dealing with as we try to understand all this. Beyond the conflict between Judas, Mary, and Jesus in the story, we may have conflicting thoughts and feelings about why Mary was doing this, why John tells us the story, why Jesus let her do it and most of all why did Jesus say that stuff about the poor? If we are going to talk about meeting Jesus on our journey when we face conflict it is hard to decide which of these conflicts or questions matter most.
The question that always drives me as a starting point is, “Why did the Gospel writer tell this story?” They wrote their gospels to communicate theological truths about God. They did not randomly jot down every event just to report on it. Each of the Gospels builds a case for why Jesus is the Christ, the son of God, the Savior. Each story in the Gospels serves as a piece of that claim. What Jesus says, does, or doesn’t say or do all help us understand just who Jesus was and is. So as much as I want to get distracted by Mary and Martha and Judas, and especially Lazarus [how often do you get to talk to a person who was a resuscitated corpse? ], the point I believe that is most important is what John is trying to tell us about Jesus.
Jesus has been facing conflict from the moment of his birth. King Herod wanted to kill Jesus because some wizards from the Far East had stopped by asking about a new king being born. Herod felt threatened. Jesus and his parents had to flee to Egypt. Jesus started his life as an illegal immigrant. He began his ministry and the religious leaders criticized him for everything – for eating and drinking, for touching lepers and welcoming women and foreigners and people of questionable ethics like tax collectors. People wanted to proclaim him Messiah and the whole “King of the Jews” thing came back up and both the religious leaders and the politically powerful took notice. John tells us that when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the leaders decided to put out a hit on Jesus and Lazarus. Like a scene out of “The Godfather,” the religious leaders decided both of them must die and the plot began.
As he sat at that dinner party, Jesus was taking a small respite before he entered into Jerusalem for his final days. It was supposed to be a quiet blessing. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet was a beautiful act of love and devotion, an act of gratitude for Jesus giving them their brother back, alive. But conflict can come even in the middle of a quiet dinner with family and friends, right? Judas questions the huge expenditure for the oil Mary used on Jesus. Jesus simply says, “leave her alone. She has done this for my impending burial.”
Now, let me pause and say a word about the next sentence John includes. He has Jesus saying, “You have the poor with you always, you won’t always have me.” Some think this means Christians shouldn’t bother with the poor, with missions or ministries that serve those in need. Anyone who read anything else that Jesus said, or did, would know this wasn’t what he meant. Those who dig deeper will find that, in a short-hand way, Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15. Verse 11 says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ Jesus is confirming that concern and action for the poor is indeed a commandment, not an option.
Here is Jesus right there in front of them and he won’t be there in the flesh much longer. Judas was right in front of them too, shouting for attention. To me part of this message tells me to be careful about what is right in front of me shouting for attention. It may not be worth my time. If someone in need is right there in front of me, that’s a far better use of time than someone shouting for attention for a fake reason, or a questionable purpose. Scripture says don’t ignore the real need, Mary has not ignored Jesus, but acted with compassion and devotion. At that moment that was the right choice.
Perhaps the best way to understand some meaning here, for our journey when we face conflict is to remember, life is short, the time is now to do the best we can. Rev. Cameron Trimble, Piloting Faith, March 31, 2022 shared this thought in an article this week from “writer Tim Urban, …about how we spend time in our lives. He created a graph with circles, each representing a week in the life of someone who would live to 90 years old. Urban says, “It often feels like we have countless weeks ahead of us. But actually, it’s just a few thousand — a small-enough number to fit neatly in a single image. Once you visualize the human life span, it becomes clear that so many parts of life we think of as ‘countless’ are in fact quite countable.”
For example, if I am almost 63 years old. I have roughly 1404 weeks left in my life, if I were to live to 90. Say I get together with my family once a year for holidays each year. This means that I will see my family 27 more times. If I spend 3 days together, that means I only have 81 days together as a family for the rest of my life.
Rev. Trimble suggests, “Seeing your life this way, every moment counts.” I wonder if using this time as a measurement helps makes our priorities clearer? At 63 years old, I have 1404 weeks left to live creatively. 1404 weeks “left to love my family deeply, serve my community and walk in the Ways of God. How might I best spend those precious weeks?”
How about we “do the math for your life as a spiritual exercise.” The poet Mary Oliver’s in her poem “A Summer Day,” asks this question:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Isn’t that “the most critical question?” There are plenty of conflicts we can spend our lives embroiled in. Do we waste our time on conflicts that don’t matter? That’s ultimately what Judas was doing. Is that worth a moment of your “wild and precious life?” Jesus’ end was coming, and soon. Ours will come sooner than we want, in most cases.
So how do we spend those wild, precious moments? Will we obey the commandments to do for those in need, to treat one another as we want to be treated, even if others treat us badly? Too often I catch myself lowering myself to the level of those I dislike. It never makes me look good. Anger and conflict lead us to places that can be like wrestling with pigs in the mud. No one comes out clean. I would rather spend time anointing the feet of the Savior with a fragrant oil or helping someone in need. That’s how I would rather be remembered. I want to be more loving and devoted to acts of love rather than acts of anger. After all… I only have this one wild and precious life. AMEN.