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Does Jesus Owe You Something?

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Our family has a birthday ritual called “birthday on the bed.” It started with my parents, and we have continued the tradition. At o-dark-thirty on the morning of someone’s birthday, we pile onto Laura’s and my bed for our bed so that the birthday boy or girl can open their gifts. Last Tuesday was Judson’s birthday, so at o-dark-thirty he bounced into our room for the fun. We set his gifts in the middle of our mattress, and he opened them. A basketball return from his older sister Adalyn. A small LEGO set from his younger sister Olivia. And then the big one, from Mom and Dad. He had been asking for it for months, and as he pulled back the paper he saw his heart’s desire. The unmistakable t-visor of the helmet of The Mandalorian. He immediately pulled the costume up over his pajamas, and three days later has barely taken it off. He has, in his mind and dress, become the Mandalorian.

Kids are like this. They can inhabit a story and long to find themselves in the characters. Halloween is a week away, but most kids don’t need an annual excuse to dress up and become a princess, a warrior, or a star quarterback. Kids are like this, but, really, grown-ups are like this too. We might need that annual Halloween excuse, but we too love to inhabit stories and identify ourselves with the characters in those stories.

In this episode of John’s Gospel that I like to call “the book of life,” John displays a cast of characters, and, just in time for Halloween, we can approach these characters with a sort of openness and possibility. The story invites us to become or warns us about becoming one of these figures in relation to Jesus.

Previously in the story: Jesus has just performed the crowing miracle of the “book of signs,” the governing council of Jewish life, the Sanhedrin had deliberated and decided to put Jesus to death (11:53). Thus transitions John’s narrating of the public teaching and miracle-making ministry of Jesus. “Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews but departed from there to the countryside near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and he stayed there with the disciples” (11:54). While John covers multiple years in the first eleven chapters (and even longer if you include the eternal perspective of the prologue, as Andreas Kostenberger notes), he slows his storyline to a crawl at the end of chapter 11. Here John narrates the last week of the life of Jesus, giving six chapters (13-18) to single evening. Some have called this half of the gospel “the book of glory,” because the passion week culminates in the cross, which is the “hour” of the glory of Christ.

The final week starts with one of dozens of Passovers in Jesus’s life and two specifically in John’s retelling. But here Jesus enters his final Passover, a unique Passover among the thousands celebrated before and since. At this Passover, Jesus will be the Lamb, the Lamb of God who would take the sins of the world away: “Now the Jewish Passover was near, and many went up to Jerusalem from the country to purify themselves before the Passover. They were looking for Jesus and asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? He won’t come to the festival, will he?’ The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should report it so that they could arrest him” (11:55-57).

The time had nearly arrived, and Jesus returns to see his friends in the wake of the great miracle. And as I have said, the story invites us to become or warns about becoming one of these figures in relation to Jesus. And, while John sketches five figures for us, he intentionally contrasts two of these, Mary and Judas, in particular. This contrast presents a question to us about deserving.

In your deepest heart, do you believe Jesus deserves all that you have, or that you deserve all that he has? 

This question can trick us, because Jesus so graciously and freely offers and gives us what he has. But our sinful hearts can pervert grace into merit, that Jesus somehow owes us something. This story, though, shows us the proper perspective, inviting us each to find our own story in the characters in this episode.

1. Lazarus

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead.” (12:1)

With the stank of fourth-day-death freshly washed from his resurrected body, Lazarus wants one thing: he wants to sit with Jesus. In 12:2 we see he was “reclining at the table with” Jesus, which indicated a meal of “unhurried celebration and freedom” (D.A. Carson) in which the diners relaxed “on thin mats around a low table. Each … leaning on his arm, usually the left; the feet radiat[ing] outward from the table” (Carson). And his mere presence testifies to the miracle-making might of Christ. He reclines at table as the center display in God’s trophy case of grace. Every breath from this former corpse witness to the life-giving power of Christ, and witness to the life not just that Christ gives but the life that Christ is. In an important sense, every Christian is Lazarus, breathing spiritual life instead of their previous spiritual death. Every Christian sits shelved, testifying as a trophy of the regenerating grace of God. Every Christian has experienced the life-giving power of Christ and witnesses to the life that Christ offers and the life that Christ is. Every Christian has a testimony, a story of what God has done and what only God could do. Some Christian lives testify to the grace of God that yanked them from the deeps of a pit they themselves had dug, pits of addiction, evil, crime, and public failure. Other Christian lives testify to the grace of God that fenced them in, protecting them from their own worst inclinations, saving them from those public failures but nevertheless saving them from the just-as-deep pockets of putrid pride or late-night lust. Hear the good news that God the Father sent God the Son to become a human being, to live life without sin, to offer his life as a sacrifice for sin (because the paycheck for sin is death), to be buried, and raised from the dead so that anyone who will turn from their sin and trust in Christ will be forgiven of their sin and given eternal life. As he called Lazarus to come out of the grace, in that gospel message the voice of Jesus calls your spiritually dead self from the grave. Lazarus, come out, and tell your Lazarus story.

2. Martha

"So they gave a dinner for him there; Martha was serving them, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him." (12:2)

Martha is a doer, active above all things. Martha plans great parties and hosts great dinners. Martha can’t sit still. Work compels her. Luke tells us a bit more about her and her passion to produce results. Martha gets things done. Martha initiates and leads. Our culture elevates Marthas. We love doers who get things done. Historically, Christian teachers have explained that Martha typifies the active life, a life of service an action. We despise dilettantes who fritter away their time. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt: “Do things; be sane; don't fritter away your time; create, act, take a place wherever you are and be somebody; get action.” We all love Marthas, because Marthas make our lives better. I know, because I’m married to a Martha named Laura. Marthas are superheroes, and maybe you’re a Martha. If so, you should work and serve and do what God has called you to do. But be careful, because Martha’s strength also tends to a specific shortcoming.

"While they were traveling, he entered a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who also sat at the Lord’s feet and was listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks, and she came up and asked, 'Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? So tell her to give me a hand.' The Lord answered her, 'Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has made the right choice, and it will not be taken away from her.'” (Luke 10:38-42)

In this passage in Luke, though, Martha’s serving has led to bitterness. Martha finds herself serving alone, while Mary just sits with Jesus, relaxing. In the midst of their acting, making, doing, producing, and accomplishing, Marthas can miss their moments with the Messiah. Their obsession to get stuff done distracts them from the one necessary thing, finding themselves in Christ. Martha, slow down and take some time with Jesus. The lawn or the laundry will wait. Martha, your accomplishments do not define you. Jesus loves you, this you know for the Bible tells you so. Jesus gave his life to save you because he loves you, because you’re you, not because of what you do.

Martha, take a breath, and breathe in the breath of Life, Christ himself.

3. Mary

"Then Mary took a pound of perfume, pure and expensive nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." (12:3)

Mary worships like no one is watching (or smelling). She loves Jesus, and she loves what Jesus has done for her. She can’t get herself low enough before him. She can’t spend enough or offer herself enough. She is all in for Christ and wants simply to be with him. Here John the narrator sets up the contrast at the heart of this passage between Mary’s worship and Judas’s thievery. Mary represents the way we should treat Jesus. We just saw in Luke 10 that Jesus says that Mary chooses the one necessary thing, the right choice, which no one can steal from her. Christ offers us life and we receive life in him. He loves us and we love him back, but that order matters. Martha can’t serve her way into salvation any more than Lazarus could have raised himself from his burial slab. We can sit at the feet of Christ, pouring out our best, because Christ is worth it. And all we have he first gave to us. “What do you have that you have not received?” (2 Cor. 4:7). We should see two things here in the extravagance of Mary’s sacrifice.

First, a tendency toward action (like Martha) can pull in tension with a tendency toward contemplation (like Mary). Historically, Christian teachers typified Martha as the active life and typified Mary as the contemplative life. Our culture exalts action but generally holds contemplation in contempt. A life of the mind, a quiet life of prayer and thought, wastes the opportunity to do something worth doing. The story of Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha requires us to question our values. We must reevaluate. We must revalue what Jesus holds up as a character we should imitate. The world and even Christians despise the apparent wastefulness of a life spent at the feet of Jesus. We all tend toward contemplation or action. We all tend toward either thinking or doing. We tend to be either Martha or Mary. As I said, I’m married to a Martha who has a nearly superhuman ability to multitask, act, and accomplish. I tend toward a Mary-like slower pace of the life of thought, reading, writing, and (sometimes) prayer. Now, Laura loves to sit and read, and I enjoy accomplishing tasks, but we tend in certain directions. We must recognize our own bent. Mary must make sure that contemplation does not devolve into sloth and Martha must make sure that action does not evolve into self-righteousness. Marthas can inspire Mary to act and Mary can call Martha to sit. The doers inspire the thinkers toward action and the thinkers inspire the doers toward contemplation.

Second, though, the main point of this story points us toward extravagant, sacrificial worship in response to what Jesus deserves. Mary worships sacrificially, humbly, personally, and obviously. Sacrificially, she pours out an annual salary’s worth of perfume. We’re talking tens of thousands of dollars spent in the space of a finger-snap. Just, gone, with no apparent return on investment. Humbly, she anoints the calloused and leathered feet of a man who walked everywhere he went on paths unpaved, in dust. She recognizes her place in relation to him. She cannot get herself low enough in the presence of the King whose footstool is the cosmos itself, whose beautiful feet bring good news (Is. 52:7). Personally, she uses her hair to spread the sacrifice across Christ’s feet. Her hair is a glory that she uses for scrubbing (1 Cor. 11:15). “The lowering of one’s hair in this could be a sign of extreme gratitude and an expression of humility” (Klink, 526). She approaches as closely and intimately as she could have possibly been. Not at the reach of her arm, but grazing her nose near his heels. Obviously, the fragrance fills the room. Everyone knows what she has done, and to those with the nose and the eyes of faith it was beautiful to smell and to see.

But not to everyone.

4. Judas

"Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him), said, 'Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii, and given to the poor?' He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money-bag and would steal part of what was put in it." (12:4-6)

Judas speaks with the indignance of one who protests too much. He calculates what this gift could have be used to accomplish. We could have done something with that money! He rebukes here both Mary and Jesus (Klink, 527). In reality, he blew smoke so that he could screen his greed. He would skim from the money bag, clearly because he believed he needed it or deserved it. Here John makes his point clear: Mary spends all she has because she believes Jesus deserves it while Judas skims from the group because he believes Judas deserves it. This confronts us: do we believe that Jesus deserves all that we have, or do we (even secretly) believe that he owes us something? This confronted me recently during our family dinner for our son Judson’s eighth birthday. He asked if I would grill burgers, and I gladly agreed. The week had been a rainy one, and Laura asked if it would interfere with the grilling. “No,” I said, “Unless it’s just absolutely pouring, it should be fine.”

It had been drizzling for hours, but at just the moment I went out to the grill to put the burgers on, God turned over a bucket from the heavens. Rain and wind poured across the grill, flooding the patio, my shoes and socked included. I had a talk with the Lord, because it made no sense to me. “God, don’t you owe me better weather?” The answer, of course, is “No.” All is grace, and if all is grace, then as much as God gives generously (and he does), he does not owe us anything.

We owe him everything.

Jesus announces his verdict on the situation:

"Jesus answered, 'Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.'” (12:7-8)

Scholar Craig Keener insightfully observes something here: “She may have intended the anointing as a royal anointing, which fits the following context”—when Jesus enters Jerusalem as the Hosanna’d King (12:12-15). “But,” Keener continues, “Jesus is enthroned king of the Jews on the cross”—“Pilate also had a sign made and put on the cross. It said: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19). The cross exalts Jesus as the crucified King, a King unlike any other, who has life in himself (John 5:26) yields to death. Keener concludes that “a royal anointing is inseparable from an anointing for burial.” The anointing of Jesus as King is the anointing of Jesus as crucified.

He is so worth all that he receives, and the time was short. He soon would go to the cross, and Mary did the the most urgent and the most important thing. When Judas protests for the poor, he disingenuously also misunderstand the nature of the moment. The poor would be there after the events of Holy Week. The poor should be there, with them in the same congregations. Too many congregations too often live like Jesus was lying when he said “you always have the poor with you.” But too often, we have socioeconomically same churches. Middle class churches, working class churches, wealthy churches. But we should have economically diverse churches. Here, as Aquinas said, “we are led to understand the fellowship the rich should have toward the poor" (Commentary on John). 

5. The Crowds and the Priests

"Then a large crowd of the Jews learned he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, the one he had raised from the dead. But the chief priests had decided to kill Lazarus also, because he was the reason many of the Jews were deserting them and believing in Jesus." (12:9-11)

Here we find the fence-sitters and outright enemies, spectators and haters, the crowds and the priests. Some want the spectacle, some want to end Jesus.

And which character are you?

If you opened the package like Judson on his birthday, which character would in the story would you identify with?

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