Discerning Church Learning to discern the movement of God's Spirit

Unexpected Directions

As I encounter this week’s lectionary text, I find myself questioning Jesus’ stance. Let me fill you in a bit. Jesus is on his way to the cross. He makes a stopover in the town of Bethany. You might remember this place; Lazarus was raised from the dead there. Jesus is revered in that town; it is likely that He also healed a man named Simon (who was a leper) in Bethany. So Simon decides to throw a party for Jesus. He invites his friends, family and maybe everyone in town to his dinner celebration.

Jesus, Lazarus and others are reclining at the table, enjoying the food and festivities. And all of a sudden, a strong fragrance fills the room. Mary (Lazarus’ and Martha’s sister) breaks a bottle of very expensive perfume/ointment and begins to spread it on Jesus’ feet/head. She has even let her hair down (Jewish women do not let their hair down in public) and is wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair. Her action is costly, perhaps even socially unacceptable.

The disciples are not happy. They complain that the perfume is too expensive to waste. Judas, the treasurer, suggests that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. How would Jesus respond? Would he celebrate Mary’s action or rebuke her outrageous behavior. Besides, Judas has a point. People are starving in the world and such extravagance seems irresponsible. But Jesus responds,

(John 12:7–8 NIV) “Leave her alone . . . [It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

What’s going on here? Doesn’t Jesus care about the poor? Why would He affirm such lavish behavior? Mary’s action does not seem appropriate. Yet Jesus accepts her gift. Jesus is on His way to the cross. While the town of Bethany celebrates His miracles, Jesus is preparing for a greater work. Jesus affirms Mary’s worship in light of the cross. And in doing so, Jesus holds Mary as a model for you and me. As we think about our task of discerning, we often hold to the most reasonable solution. Yet this story teaches us that God’s ways don’t always fit our way of thinking. May we continually be open to the leading of the Spirit, continually seeking God’s mission rather than our own.