John 12:8 has come up in discussion in previous posts. Jesus almost seems to be uncaring in his comment that
You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me. (NIV)
I am preaching through the gospel of John at the moment. I have found it a tricky book. Jesus’ words often go in directions I do not expect. I find myself asking why he said that in this place!
Recently I preached on 12:1-11. I confess, I did not major on verse 8. There was too much of the context to be able to give it much time. But the context is illuminating.
It is a warm setting. Friends are gathered together enjoying one another’s company. Perhaps they were telling stories, laughing together. In the midst of this, as events unfold, we find a contrast between two kinds of discipleship.
Firstly, we have Mary. She had been close to Jesus. She saw how much Jesus was affected by the plight of humanity. After all, Jesus wept in the face of the death of Lazarus. But she realised that Jesus was the only true hope for men and women. He was the resurrection and the life and she now knew it. She could have been like her sister and served at the table. What greater privilege could there be than to serve her Lord? Yet her desire was to do more for him.
Imagine being one of the disciples enjoying the social occasion. As you do so you become aware of a fragrance filling your nostrils. An exotic, expensive fragrance. Others notice it too, and a hush descends on the gathering. You become aware of something almost unseemly going on at Jesus’ feet. Mary has cracked open a jar of expensive perfume and is washing them in it with her hair. Wow! Shouldn’t someone say something?
Nard was used sparingly, in times of death in the family. It was probably an heirloom, handed down from parents. It was expensive, brought from the Himalayas. Now Mary had blown it all.
Mary only had eyes for Jesus. Her devotion was absolute. She would do anything for him as long as it was for him.
Such devotion can appear reckless and wasteful. This was true of Judas Iscariot. In him we see a second kind of discipleship. On the face of it we see someone concerned about others. He was concerned about the waste. Why not sell it and give the proceeds to the poor? He may even have got angry about it. After all, people die for lack of food. Don’t you get angry?
None of the disciples at the time gainsayed Judas. He had a point, didn’t he? The poor are hungry and we could have helped, they think. But later, as the disciples and the gospel writers reflected on these things they realised that in Judas other motives were in play. He wanted some of the money for himself.
The interesting thing about Judas is that he was so close to Jesus. He could not be distinguished from the others by outward appearance (except by Jesus himself, of course). But eventually the state of his heart was revealed in his actions. He had no true devotion to Jesus. Only an outward appearance of it.
The significance of all this for us? There is of course a simple answer: have a heart like Mary, not Judas. But this would be mere moralising.
There is a more difficult answer, the implications of which are more radical. You see, though the poor exist, and they must be attended to in a godly society (Jesus does not deny this need), there is one thing that is most important which takes precedence over every other concern – that of absolute and utter, selfless and sacrificial devotion to Jesus Christ and his kingdom. The balm applied to Jesus’ feet heralds his imminent death, a death necessary for the overcoming of the power of Satan and death itself in order that men and women may be drawn to to him. Jesus Christ solves the ultimate problem, the last and greatest enemy – death. He reverses the curse on Adam’s race and inaugurates a new kingdom, a new creation. In his resurrection he was the first fruits of that full harvest of which his people are part. It was into this that Mary was drawn. To call others to this reality is the desire of all true disciples. It takes precedence over all else.
In Judas we see that this concern was absent, for all his outward appearances. Though his outward concern for the poor is laudable, in one sense, we see the tragedy of his life and it fills us with great sadness. Likewise, when we see men and women today seeking to put concern for the poor as a top priority we warm to it – to a degree. Yet without seeing a concern to submit to Jesus’ lordship, there is greater sadness. When there is concern for the poor without submission to the Lord we naturally remember tragic Judas.