Most of my sermons are preached at myself; perhaps this one even more than usual...
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
Mary Anoints Jesus
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (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.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Picture the scene if you will. There is a room full of men. Maybe, just maybe, there might have been a few women present too, but mainly this would have been men. They were surrounding Jesus, all reclining around a long table or two. The presence of the women would have probably have been in terms of those who had cooked and served the meal. Certainly that’s what John tells us happened with respect to Martha.
And then in walks Mary. Now you have to understand that although they were sisters, Mary and Martha were quite different people. Martha was hugely pragmatic. She focussed on the jobs which needed to be done. Mary was a visionary who could see the world differently. She had spiritual perception. Martha saw Jesus as someone whose needs should be taken care of in a practical sense. Mary somehow ‘saw’ that there was more going on.
So in walks Mary and you sense the room going quiet. She goes and kneels at the feet of Jesus and unbinds her hair, something that a respectable woman would never have done in public, let alone in a room full of men. Then she takes out a large sealed glass pot of pure nard. Elsewhere we find that it was worth about three hundred denarii which is about three hundred days wages.
Put that into modern world terms and you are beginning to get a feel for the extravagance that is about to take place. I don’t know what you earn, but let’s say this is a jar of perfumed ointment worth about £18-25,000. Heaven only knows how long Mary has been saving in order to have that much money. Maybe it was the entire family fortune?
And can you imagine what must have been going through her mind when she went to the market in the middle of Jerusalem with all the money she had ever saved, and spent it all on one jar of perfumed ointment with the express intention of what she was about to do here? How long had she had to work herself up into doing this? How very nervous must she have been.
So the room is completely hushed now, and she puts her hands around the neck of the bottle and snaps it off - shattering the silence yet somehow deepening it further. There’s no going back now, and she begins to pour the perfumed ointment all over the feet of Jesus. And then she begins to wipe his feet with her hair. And then the room is in an uproar of disbelief at what they have just witnessed, Lazarus’s sister acting like a harlot, and wasting, in their minds, all of that money in one extravagant act.
Can you imagine the vulnerability of Mary? This was meant for Jesus, but the onlookers had completely misunderstood. Did she begin to crumple? I suspect so, but certainly Jesus immediately comes to her aid in telling them all to be quiet and leave her alone. She has given absolutely everything she ever had in one complete extravagant act of love and thanksgiving. She gave more than any of them could ever have contemplated.
Now contrast that with the reading we had from the last book in the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi, where God accuses the people of robbing him. What does that mean? Simply this. The people, by their law, were meant to give 10% of everything back to God through the temple. 10%... And they were not doing so. All God asked was 10%, yet that was too much.
Mary gave her all and her act of love demonstrated that she understood what it was that Christ was about to do. She recognised that he was going to die, and she recognised that his death was somehow vital. Somewhere on some level she had perceived the truth of what was taking place, and so she was moved to respond by an act of lavish love.
The people to whom Malachi was writing were not giving their all. They were not even giving their ten percent. They were withholding their offering from God and he told them that they were robbing him, and it was just ten percent.
So now let us ask the hard question which you have probably seen coming. Mary demonstrated her love for Jesus and her gratitude to him with a lavish display of love, care and understanding, and the heart of God himself was moved by that love. At the other end of the spectrum, the Jews, by their law, were expected to give ten percent, ninety percent less than Mary gave, yet they didn’t, and God exclaimed that they were literally robbing him.
What are we giving? What percentage of our gifts does God get, and what percentage do we keep for ourselves? That ten percent is not just about money, but it certainly suggests that our giving should be influenced by the Jewish code of ten percent. How close to giving away ten percent of our net income are we? I’m not just talking about giving to the church here. What about charitable giving?
And then there’s the gifts and talents we naturally have. What percentage of the time we have for exercising those talents do we give to God? In a run of ten evenings, is just one of those devoted to doing something for God? Or not even that? Do we come anywhere close to the bare minimum in the Jewish law of tithing ten percent of all things? Or perhaps we consider ourselves above all of that, that the Jewish law doesn’t apply to us. Malachi 3:6 says, ‘I the Lord, do not change.’
I suspect that actually we struggle a great deal with this idea of giving ten percent? Yet Mary didn’t. Why? What did she have to move her that the Jews Malachi wrote to did not have? What was her inspiration? I suggest to you that it was this; Jesus was at the centre of her vision. So the question we have to ask ourselves is, if we are not inspired to give at least ten percent of all that we have, then it’s probably because we don’t feel the gratitude that she felt.
And I suspect that the reason for that is simply that in the grand scheme of things, our vision of life does not have the Lord at the centre. So I invite us all to think about this. Good Friday is coming up very soon and at the hour at the cross I will be asking us to consider this question of the centrality of the cross of Christ in our own lives.
When we sing words like ‘Be thou my vision’, do we really mean it? Is that truly what we want to see, the cross of Christ as our vision? Do we truly want that prayer answered? Because if the cross does become at the centre, then it will change our perspective considerably, and I would suggest to you that somehow, ten percent will seem very inadequate. Amen