We’re Here For Life: A Call To Compassion
Paul Sherer wrote: “Love is a spendthrift; it leaves its arithmetic at home. It is always in the red. And God is love.” The truth of those words is underscored in this story from John 12.
Jesus was the guest of honor at a dinner party in Bethany. I heard somewhere that more than eight invited guests constitutes a dinner party; less than eight is termed “having guests for dinner.” By that standard, this was a dinner party. It was held in the home of Simon the Leper in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethany. We know nothing about Simon except that he was probably a man whom Jesus had healed, and perhaps he was hosting this dinner party as an expression of gratitude to the Master. We do know who was on the guest list. Jesus’ disciples were there. And Jesus’ closest friends in Bethany were there as well. Martha was there—as always busy and bustling about. Lazarus was there—quite the center of attention now that he had been raised from the dead. And Mary was there—Mary, who would at that meal do something which the church still remembers with sweetness and with love.
I think it is nice to see Jesus gathered there with simple people. I always like to see Jesus with simple people—it gives me hope that folks like us might be able to spend time with Him. But we’re not concerned today with all of the guests at this dinner party, just with three of them: Mary and Judas and Jesus.
First, there was Mary.
Something happened at the table that night—we do not know exactly what—but perhaps Jesus uttered some perfect pearl of truth or told some riveting story, and Mary apparently decided that simply nodding in agreement or voicing a word of praise was not an adequate response. So she got up from the table and picked up a box of very costly ointment. (More than likely it was made from the oil of the pistachio nut, very costly and very fragrant.) She smashed the box and anointed Jesus’ feet with the oil. It was an act of extreme adoration.
Catch that, please! She smashed the box. She didn’t dip out a carefully measured teaspoonful of affection, she didn’t hold anything back. She gave it all. She broke the container and poured all of the oil over the feet of Jesus. It was an act of uninhibited devotion. It was an act of spendthrift love. It was an act of unabashed compassion. No matter the cost, she poured it out.
Now it’s clear from the story that Mary wasn’t thinking of herself at that moment. She was not giving for selfish reasons. There are some people who give in order to get something back for themselves even if it’s just to look good. Not Mary. She wasn’t doing something nice for Jesus in order to get something in return. She wasn’t thinking of herself at all. We know that’s true because we are told that Mary let down her hair and used it to wipe the oil on Jesus’ feet. Understand, please, that in those days for a woman to appear in public with her hair unbound was shameful. Only the women of the streets ever loosened their hair in public. So here’s Mary, not thinking of herself at all, so caught up in the abandon of the moment, she was oblivious to everyone and everything else. She just loosened her hair, let it fall, and used it to lovingly anoint the feet of her Lord. She didn’t hold anything back.
I think today about those who preceded us in this place—they didn’t hold anything back either. It has taken more than 116 years to build this church to what you see here today. Look around you and see the sacrificial service, the unreserved commitment, the unabashed compassion of many whose names you do not know but whose names are enshrined forever in the hallowed memory of God. I think of that great legion of people—those ministers who preceded me here, those elders who bore the burden and gave us this church, those people who over the years, in good times and in hard times, gave without counting the cost to make the ministry of this church possible. And I think of those who will come after us in this place. Are we going to be willing to risk anything for the Master, are we going to be willing to give ourselves in spendthrift love and compassion to reach for Christ the people of this city and this world?
The story appeared in the New York Times. A small boy was riding on the bus. He was seated next to a woman in a gray dress. As the bus moved through the streets, the little boy nestled closer and closer to this woman sitting next to him. People assumed the boy and the woman in the gray dress belonged together. As he snuggled up closer to her, he inadvertently put his feet on the back of the seat in front of him. The woman in the seat turned around and said to the lady in the gray dress: “Pardon me, but would you ask your little boy to take his feet off the back of my seat? His shoes are getting my dress dirty.” The woman in the gray dress replied: “He’s not my little boy. I’ve never seen him before.” The little boy burst into tears. He apologized to the lady for soiling her dress. She said it was all right and then she asked: “Are you riding this bus alone?” He explained that he always had to ride the bus alone. He said: “I don’t have a mommy or a daddy. I live with Aunt Clara and when she gets tired of me she sends me down to Aunt Mildred’s.” Then he added: “I sure hope she’s home today because it looks like rain. I don’t like to be out on the streets in the rain.” The lady who had complained about her dress now felt a lump in her throat. All she could think of to say was “You ought not to be traveling on this bus alone.” The little boy said: “It’s okay. Whenever I see someone I think I would like to belong to I sit real close to them. If they let me, I snuggle up and pretend I really do belong to them. I was pretending that I belonged to this lady when I got your dress dirty. I forgot about my feet!” The lady did a wonderful thing. She reached out and hugged him close and wished with all her heart that he could belong to her.
I can’t get the picture of that little boy out of my mind. I can’t get him out of my heart and I can’t get this city out of my heart. There are thousands of people here who need to belong to someone. We belong to Christ and they do, too. So we must find them and bring them into the family. When we say that “We’re here for life–we’re here to win people to the abundant life in Jesus Christ—we mean it! We in this church, motivated by nothing other than a crazy, spendthrift love for Jesus Christ are willing to say: This is what Jesus Christ has to say to the world, and I’ll say it no matter the price. This is what Jesus Christ wants us to do with our lives, and we’ll do it whatever the cost!”
Of course it does always cost. We see this in the story, particularly in the second person in the story.
I refer of course to Judas.
There at the dinner party in Bethany, as soon as Mary entered into her act of spendthrift compassionate love, Judas said (and you can almost hear the whine in his voice): “Lord, couldn’t this perfume have been sold and the money given to the poor?” Now realize, please, that Judas had not been giving anything to the poor. Judas had demonstrated no spendthrift love, no generous giving, no significant expression of commitment to Christ in his life, so why did he say what he did? Could it have been that Mary’s act of generosity shamed his own greed, his own indifference toward Jesus? Do you remember what Alcibiades said to Socrates on one occasion? He said: “Socrates, I hate you because when I am with you I discover what I really am.” Was that Judas’ problem? Was it that Mary’s act of generous love so clearly revealed his own smallness of heart that he couldn’t deny it, and so in a pathetic effort to defend himself, he criticized her? Was he just too small a man to be able to understand this big of a commitment to Jesus Christ?
I think here of the fellow who went to work at the Volkswagen factory. The boss showed him around the plant and then took him to the place where he would be working on the assembly line. The boss said: “Now this job is yours. But I want to warn you about something. We are building Volkswagens here so if I ever catch you thinking big, I’ll fire you!” As I contemplate the church sometimes it seems to me that it’s crowded with people who are scared to death to think anything big. Mary pours herself into a gigantic, spendthrift act of love for Jesus Christ, and Judas tries to drag her down with criticism.
I have been in the ministry for twenty-five years now and if I have learned anything at all it is this: for every one person who says “I will”, there are a dozen people who say ” I won’t.” For every one person willing to think big and to risk a lot for the sake of Jesus Christ, there are a dozen people who become cramped, cautious, carping critics. Every great dreamer for the faith in our time has to contend with those whose theology is from the seventeenth century, whose hymns are from the eighteenth century, whose ideas for church architecture are from the nineteenth century, and whose faith is nothing but a collection of twentieth century cliches. For every Mary in the church, there is always a Judas in the church as well.
That is why I have always found it helpful to remember that once Dwight L. Moody was being attacked by a man who took exception to Moody’s evangelistic methods. When the tongue-lashing was done, Moody said to the man: “Sir, I guess it all comes down to this: I like more what I’m doing than what you’re not doing.” I think that’s what Jesus said to Judas in the story.
Jesus, of course, is the third person in this story.
You see, this act of loving commitment on the part of Mary meant a lot to Jesus. He was just days away from the cross. The opposition to Him was already plotting His arrest. The weight of a whole world’s sin was settling on His shoulders. And this act of love was going to shine like a star through all the darkness that was ahead. So Jesus turned to Judas and said: “Judas, I like what Mary is doing better than I like what you are not doing.”
That’s a word I need to hear. You see, we have a great dream in this church. We intend to build a church for God here at the heart of this city—and we intend to do it as an act of unabashed love for Jesus Christ. And there are those who have said to us: “This is not a time for building the church—the church is in retreat all over America. In fact, the only place in the world where the church isn’t growing is the U.S.A.” Or they have said: “Shouldn’t you stop your church from growing and just give the money to the poor?” Or they have said: “You’re being foolish. In uncertain economic times people will not be moved to generous giving.” But my beloved, I hear Jesus saying to us: “I like what you are doing more than I like what others are not doing.”
Jesus knew the power of unrestrained, unreserved, spendthrift love. In His own life, He pitted that kind of love against political power, against earthly authority, against disease, against sin, against all the forces of evil in the world. He wasn’t very careful about choosing His friends. He never allied Himself with any special interest or political action groups. He broke one petty rule after another. He embraced all kinds and sorts of people. He loved those who were unlovable. He touched those who were untouchable. He accepted those who had been rejected. He lifted up those who had been knocked down. And because He moved through life with such compassionate love, there were those who tried to break Him. Finally they tried to rid themselves of Him. And what happened? Well, instead of being a dead Christ crossed off the world, He became a living, loving Christ turned loose in the world. He set to work breaking down the walls people build to keep love out. He didn’t always win. He still doesn’t. But every once in a while He manages to unlock the door to someone’s heart. Every once in a while he entices someone out into Kingdom living and Kingdom loving in our world. Every once in a while he inspires in someone an uninhibited devotion, an unabashed compassion, an unreserved commitment. Every once in a while it happens. But it happens often enough to keep me preaching. It happens often enough to keep this church growing and going. It happens often enough for us to know this world and this city and this church and your life and mine are in His loving hands—and there we shall remain.
Well, that’s where the story ends.
Except for one little sentence in the story which jumps off the page and grips my heart. It says that “the whole house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Maybe John included that just because it was a fact. Or maybe he included it to say symbolically that the whole memory of the church, twenty centuries of believing Christians, has been sweetened by the redolent perfume of Mary’s act of unreserved commitment and compassion. For what she did for Jesus one night at a dinner party forever calls us to live with the greatest love and the deepest commitment, at whatever the cost, no matter how foolish it may seem to some, and to do it all for the sake of Jesus.
Albert Schweitzer fell exhausted into a chair one night at his jungle hospital in Lambarene and he said: “I must be some kind of idiot to spend my time and my life ministering to these people here.” And Joseph, his big, black orderly, said to him: “You is an idiot on earth, but not in heaven.” You want that in King James English? Try this. Paul, I Corinthians 4:10, “We are to be fools for Christ’s sake.”