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In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society a young English master at a New England Prep School is portrayed pointing out photos of past students to his class. ‘They’re all dead now,’ he says. ‘Carpe diem, seize the day,’ he advises. ‘Seize the opportunities you have before it’s too late.’
Moving from his report of the events surrounding Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44) and the ensuing plot of the Jewish religious leaders to kill Jesus (11:45-57), John the Gospel-writer records that some six days before the Passover Jesus and his followers went to Bethany – which is roughly 3kms (2miles) outside Jerusalem. There Jesus dined with his friends, Martha and Mary, and their brother Lazarus (12:1-8).
During the course of the meal prepared by Martha, where Jesus was guest of honor with Lazarus, Mary opened a jar of very expensive perfume, oil of pure nard from Northern India, and poured it over Jesus’ feet. Diners at that time reclined on couches around a dining table, typically leaning on their left elbow with their feet curled out behind them.
Extravagant devotion. Mary, who had wept and said to Jesus when Lazarus died, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’ (11:32f), now not only anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume, valued at more than a year’s income, but also wiped them with her hair. Against the norms of polite society, she would have let down her hair to do this (12:3). Her act was one of humility for she anointed Jesus’ feet, not his head. She had seized the moment to thank Jesus with a most generous and extravagant devotion.
However Judas, one of the disciples, was unimpressed. John tells us that Judas’s comment was not, ‘How thoughtful,’ or even ‘What a mess’, but ‘What a waste’. ‘Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor?’ he had asked (12:4-5). John comments that Judas said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief,… (12:6).
Hypocrisy and betrayal. Judas’ concern for the poor was nothing but hypocrisy. Underneath, Judas was greedy. And that’s why, in the end, his love for Jesus proved to be conditional. Indeed, all four Gospel writers report that Judas negotiated a deal with the Jewish leadership to betray Jesus (see, Mark 14:10f, Luke 22:4-6).
It’s said that everyone has their price, and this was certainly the case with Judas. Matthew’s Gospel tersely tells us that Judas asked the religious leaders, “How much will you give me if I betray him?” (Matthew 26:15)
Judas’s kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:47-48) turned out to be a treacherous kiss, for he was the kind of follower who supported Jesus as long as he thought there was something in it for him. When he realized Jesus was not fulfilling his expectations, he cast him off. How money and material things can deceive us.
Seizing the moment can be used for both ill and for good.
Anointing for burial. How different is Jesus’ response to Mary’s extravagance: ‘Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me’ (12:7-8).
Jesus’ words about his burial and the fact that he would not always be with his disciples, echo a deeper theme he introduced in his conversation with Nicodemus. A time would come when he must be lifted up – an allusion to the cross (3:14-15).
As John’s Gospel unfolds it is increasingly evident that those who believe see that Jesus is not only the Son of God incarnate (1:14) but also God’s king. Mary’s anointing of him shows that she understood this. Jesus’ comment that the anointing is for his burial reveals the deeper theme – that before he could take up his kingship, he would first be laid in a tomb. Humanly speaking, his death would be brought about by Judas.
There is something else behind Jesus’ commendation of Mary’s action. She understood the meaning of the first commandment: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5).
Yes, Jesus implies, the poor need to be cared for. But to fulfill the meaning and practice of the second commandment – love your neighbor – we need first to love the Lord, which is what Mary was doing.
Seize the day. Mary seized the opportunity to express in an extravagant way her heart-felt devotion to Jesus. She awakens us to the vital and intimate love and joy we can experience with Jesus.
Luke, in his Gospel tells us of on another occasion when Jesus was dining with Martha, Mary and Lazarus: Mary chose to sit at Jesus’ feet listening to him. And when Martha who was in the kitchen burst in on the gathering asking for Mary’s help, he responded: ‘Mary has chosen the better portion’ (Luke 10:41-42).
How often do we seize the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet, reading and reflecting on the Words of Scripture? How often do we pause to pray, asking his Spirit to draw us into Jesus’ presence? How often do we go to church forgetting that we gather, first and foremost, to come into the Lord’s presence as his people? How often do we go out from church with no sense of having met with him, unchanged from the attitudes that we took in?
Let me suggest that before going to bed tonight, read John 12:1-8 and pray over it, asking the Lord to draw you afresh into the riches of his love. Seize the time to offer or re-offer your life in heart-felt devotion, love and loyalty, as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to the Lord. Seize the day while there is time.
A prayer. We beseech you, almighty God, to look in mercy on your people; that by your overwhelming goodness we may be governed and preserved evermore; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason
You may want to listen to Christ Our Hope in Life and Death from Keith & Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa.