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3. The Sense of Value

The Sense of Value

Mark 14:3-9 (Also Matt. 26:6-13)

3rd in a series of synoptic sermons on “Spiritual Direction” by Pastor Eric H. H. Chang. This message was delivered at Chinese Gospel Church in Montreal, PQ, Canada, on January10, 1982.

“And, truly, I say to you, wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:9

The importance of this passage comes to us in this last verse. This woman has done something of such significance that it would be permanently attached to the preaching of the Gospel in memory of her. There is no other passage in which a particular action of a person is specifically said by the Lord to be included as part of the preaching of the Gospel. Yet, in all my life as a Christian, I do not recall any clear message being expounded on this passage. I wonder whether it be not a symptom of the problem of the spiritual life of the Church today.

I don’t want to go into too many technicalities on this particular passage. Mark tells us that the feast took place in the house of Simon the leper. He was no longer suffering from leprosy, otherwise no one would meet in his house. Now Simon invited the Lord Jesus to this meal, as well as others, including Lazarus and his sister Martha (John 12:1-8 tells us), and of course, all of the Lord’s disciples. It was held in Bethany, which is just across the valley from Jerusalem, around the Mount of Olives.

Mary Receives Reproach for Her Act of Devotion

Now, we know from John (12:1-8) that this woman is Mary, the sister of Lazarus. During the meal, Mary produced an alabaster jar of very valuable ointment. It is given as being worth 300 days’ or ten months’ pay of the average working man. Having produced this jar, she broke it, literally smashed it. The word is a strong word for “break”. It is a word for “crush”, or “smash”, expressing a certain determination, without hesitation. She poured out the ointment upon Jesus’ head and feet. Now, when she had done this, it brought forth not applause, but indignation and reproach from the guests and, sad to say, from the disciples as well. We see from John 12 that Judas Iscariot, the traitor, was the one who led the choir of reproach among the disciples. But the Lord Jesus spoke out on her behalf and said that she has done something beautiful, something excellent, something very significant, and that she had prepared His body for the burial.

One thing about this passage disturbs me. It disturbs me because from time to time, I feel an echo. I find myself almost agreeing that what Mary did was a waste.

What is Our Sense of Value?

This is our third study and meditation on spiritual direction. In talking about spiritual direction, nothing is so important as understanding spiritual values, which govern those directions. That is to say, whatever is valuable to you is what you will direct your life to. Right? If money, status, social standing or prestige is important to you, then clearly you will direct your life to these goals. But on the other hand, if spiritual things are of value to you, then you will direct your life to spiritual goals. So the question is: what are your values?

Now, anything you do not regard as valuable, you tend to treat lightly or to reject. On the other hand, things you do value, but which you do not regard as being properly used, you will consider as being wasted. Your definition of waste depends on what is your definition of value. They regarded the ointment as wasted. To them, giving this ointment to Jesus, pouring it all out on His head and feet was a waste and, therefore, unnecessary. It would have been better to give it to the poor. Is that what you think? Is it necessary? Why not modestly pour a little bit on Jesus? See how much I love Him? Why smash this beautiful jar and pour it all out? It is excessive. We must be reasonable.

How Much is the Gospel worth to us?

I found myself tending to agree. Do you not? It, however, reveals something to me about my sense of values. I don’t wonder that this passage is not preached today when the Gospel is preached. You see, a whole set of spiritual values is embodied in this action of Mary’s. How much the Gospel is worth to you depends on your sense of values. It may be worth a bit. It may be useful on the social level. In Liverpool, we had to have a bus to pick up children for Sunday School because the parents were happy to send their children away to learn some good manners, but they themselves did not want to become Christians. They valued the Gospel only on a social level.

What is your concept of the Gospel? Do you go to Church because there are nice people who will stand by you when you get into a jam? I wonder what is our sense of values. Why do people serve the Lord? Is it always because of a spiritual reason? I often suspect there are less than spiritual reasons for serving the Lord. No wonder, a preacher can’t preach this passage without feeling the sword of the Word of God stabbing right into himself and exposing him.

Our Gratitude to the Lord

When we read this passage, we immediately ask ourselves, “What is our sense of values?” Why did Mary do this? Well, Mary’s life had obviously been utterly transformed by her contact with the Lord Jesus. She was once in the grip of sin, and is now freed. Her life which was once in darkness so that she knew not where she was going, now had spiritual direction. Her life was touched by the fragrance of Jesus. So clearly, it was out of a deep sense of unspeakable gratitude that she poured out this extremely expensive ointment. To her, it was no waste, no sacrifice. Such was her profound sense of burning thankfulness and gratitude. Now, unless you can feel this kind of gratitude, of course, you can’t understand what Mary was doing. Clearly, you cannot have this sense of gratitude unless you also experience what Mary experienced. Did Jesus at any time touch your life in such a way that you can feel this kind of thankfulness? Or do you approach Jesus with the ‘chained door’ policy, allowing your life to open to Him only as much as the chain allows. This is limited Christianity.

The Lord says in v. 6 that she did a beautiful thing. The Greek word translated ‘beautiful’ does mean ‘beautiful’ when referring to outward appearance. But when referring to quality, we don’t translate it as ‘beautiful”. Here the reference is clearly to the quality of the action. So the word would be better translated as ‘excellent, precious or useful’. All this is expressed in her act of devotion. It is praiseworthy insofar as it expresses a profound gratitude. I don’t see this kind of gratitude among Christians. It shows you the level of your spiritual life. If you really believe, as you say you believe, that Jesus died for you in such a way as to redeem you from eternal destruction and give you eternal life, and that you are set free from the bondage of sin, where is your gratitude for this? No wonder the world does not believe our confession.

Our Spiritual Direction - Carnal or Spiritual

Do you know what eternal life is? Can you grasp the value of this incredible gift? We don’t perceive and therefore spiritual reality is non-reality to us. The apostle Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:18

“While we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

Paul has grasped the spiritual value of those things. If you don’t have any sense of spiritual values, then you have no spiritual direction. There are only two possible directions in your life. It is either spiritual or it is carnal. There is no third alternative. Carnal means you are living for the world and for the enjoyment of your flesh, which is going to pass away.

How is it possible that we come to a belief in which the things which are not seen are in fact the real things? How can we arrive at this? It is only possible through the death of Christ. It is that contact with His life and His death which does something in us - it transforms us. Spiritual things now become a reality. As you go on, they will become the only significant reality.

Preparation for Jesus’ Burial

Moved by gratitude, Mary did something of great spiritual significance. It does not mean that she herself understood the full spiritual significance of what she did. The value of an action does not depend upon your understanding its full significance. So long as it is done with a totality of devotion. The prophets themselves did not necessarily understand the full significance of what they prophesied. But that does not diminish the value of their prophecy.

Mary did an excellent thing, something praiseworthy. The Lord says that she had prepared His body for the burial. It is unlikely that she herself knew that she was preparing Jesus’ body for burial. Jesus rose from the dead before they could embalm His body. In those days, the practice was that when a person died, ointment was poured all over him to help preserve the body. But as you know in the circumstances of Jesus’ death, He was taken down from the cross immediately before sundown. After the sundown was the Sabbath, during which no one was permitted to do any work. On the first day of the week, they came to anoint His body, but He had already risen. Therefore, Mary’s anointing was the only one that He was ever to get.

The name ‘Christ’ (‘Christ’ in Greek; ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew) means someone who is anointed. In the Old Testament, prophets, priests and kings were anointed. Jesus, by being called the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, indicates that He is prophet, priest and king. However, Jesus was never anointed until this incident. Anointing was normally carried out either by a prophet or priest. Mary was neither prophet nor priest. Yet at this moment, she became both a prophetess and a priestess, in her act of devotion, doing something of the greatest spiritual significance.

Act of Total Commitment

In the Bible, the body is spoken of as a vessel (e.g. 2 Tim 2:20,21). The breaking of a vessel symbolizes death, particularly in the breaking and the pouring out of its contents (Phil. 2:17). Therefore the breaking of this alabaster jar and the pouring out of its contents symbolizes the death and self-giving. This was exactly what the Lord Jesus was about to do, being a sacrifice for our salvation. Mary acted out a parable of Jesus’ death in that incident. Jesus gave Himself totally to us, and in turn we give ourselves for Him. Therefore the breaking of the jar and the pouring out of its contents is a picture of total commitment. Yet for this action of total commitment to Jesus, she is reproached by God’s people - the Jews, including the Lord’s disciples. It shows that even the Church can have a doubtful sense of spiritual values and therefore the spiritual direction of the Church could very quickly be in trouble as Church history tells us. Jesus poured Himself in total commitment for our salvation. Is it too much to pour out the ointment for Him?

A Vietnamese brother gave up his studies at Cambridge University when the Lord made it clear to him that he was to leave Cambridge. You know who criticized him? The Christians, saying that it was excessive and unnecessary. “What a waste!” He said to me, “I can’t understand why the things of this world are so important to Christians. They profess to have spiritual values, yet when it comes to the test, they show their hypocrisy.” What is your sense of values? I beg of you to search your heart truthfully.

Let’s close briefly with five points, as we analyze the matter a little more closely.

1. Rarity of Total Commitment

This kind of total commitment that does not see anything too valuable to give to Jesus is so rare in the Church. We talk about total commitment but our commitment is very much less than total. Therefore our spiritual direction is going to be very uncertain.

2. Excess in Devotion

Though we speak about total commitment, yet when put to the test in relation to something we love, our commitment becomes much less than total. The things we are prepared to give are not valuable to us. We’re willing to give up our time provided it is our spare tine. Reading the Bible is not giving something to Jesus, but it is for our own benefit. The same applies to prayer. Are our prayers not mostly for ourselves? We have given almost nothing to Jesus, perhaps just a few drops of ointment.

Is it possible to be excessive in devotion, in what we give to Jesus? We may give misguidedly by giving what He doesn’t want. For example, some people beat themselves until blood runs or starve themselves when fasting. Fasting is good for self-discipline, but do not think we have given to Him anything. The Lord does not take pleasure in seeing us beaten or starved. So sometimes our devotion may be misguided.

But can we talk about “total” and yet have excess? What is an excess of a total? That is a contradiction in terms Again, we reveal our hypocrisy and our lack of a sense of spiritual values.

3. Confusion in Spiritual Values

Spiritual things become confused when our sense of values is confused. It is strange how the disciples should criticize Mary for excess when they themselves have given up their own profession to follow Jesus. If they were so concerned about the poor, why did they not stay in fishing and donate their fish to the poor? It shows them to be utterly illogical unless their motive for following Jesus was impure. Those who study the Gospels are ready to concede that the motives might have been less than pure at first, at least in the case of some of the disciples. In the case of Judas, it was always impure, right to the end.

4. Criticism of Total Commitment - Self Defense

We speak of Jesus as Lord, yet in practice we lord it over others by our criticism. Mary gave what was hers, her private possession, and had every right to do what she did. Yet, they thought they had the right to criticize. What right do I have to criticize you for what you do with what is yours? If a person decides to give up his profession, why do I criticize him? It is his life. Do we have the right to criticize? But it makes us feel uncomfortable when we see somebody breaking their alabaster jar. It makes us feel that we may have to break our own alabaster jar. We don’t want to break it, so we defend ourselves by saying that the action is unworthy and not desirable of imitation. We say that it is excessive and unnecessary. These are the ways in which we defend ourselves.

5. Self-Justification through Spiritual Sounding Reasons

Often, we cover up our real reason with a spiritual-sounding reason. John 12 tells us that Judas criticized Mary, not because he was actually concerned about the poor, but that he loved money. He justified himself by making it sound as though he was concerned about the poor. Time and again, we justify ourselves with a spiritual-sounding reason, when in fact that is not really our reason. Thus we become caught in the most dangerous mess of self-deceit. When you decide not to serve the Lord, it is your business, and nobody has the right to criticize you. But do not give it spiritual-sounding reason to cover it up. Just honestly admit you are not able to express this kind of devotion or that you are not ready. Do not say, for example, “I was going to serve the Lord but the Lord doesn’t want me to do this.” I have yet to come across anything like this in the Bible. God may send you to serve in a different place or in a different way. Yet, I have not yet heard of God rejecting someone when he comes to Him with a sincere commitment to serve Him. Be honest to say that our spiritual devotion is not adequate.

Every time we read this passage, does the feeling of waste come back? Let us ask ourselves: What is my sense of spiritual values? What is my commitment? What is my spiritual direction?

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church