The “Wasteful” Woman

Mark 14:3-9: And while [Jesus] was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

 

To my mind, this story is asking us to consider our values as Christians. It reveals a conflict of priorities which Jesus places in a proper perspective. As we read this story I invite us to ask: What ought we to value highly, and how does that influence the way we live?

As the story begins, we find Jesus resting at Simon’s home, where an anonymous woman anoints him with some very expensive ointment. Unless she is very wealthy, which seems unlikely, considering she is the guest of a leper, her acquisition of this ointment had probably taken years of saving. This is a substance which only had practical use for the very rich and for kings. And she takes it and uses it all on a poor man from Nazareth. It is gone in a moment. Clearly, she thought that this was a good use for it, but the other guests in the house thought otherwise.

They start muttering to each other under their breath. How can this woman be so wasteful? Why would she pour this out on Jesus when it would obviously have been better to trade it for money to give to the poor? How can she live with herself knowing there are starving people on the street? Then they lay all these criticisms on her.

But Jesus has a different opinion. He doesn’t have any problem with the woman’s action; in fact, he commends it. He reasons with the guests that “’You always have the poor with you. . . but you will not always have me.’”

Jesus is implying that spending great wealth simply to give him honor in this moment is more important than helping the poor. Does Jesus really think that he is more important than helping people in need? Has Jesus become vain in his popularity? Is Jesus merely praising the woman because she has fed his pride as a miracle worker?

This might cast a bad light on Jesus, except for one critical truth which transforms how we see the world. Jesus is the Son of God, who was very soon to die for the salvation of the world and reign with power in heaven. This woman is seemingly the only one in the room who recognizes Jesus for who he truly is, and she honors him by giving him a burial ointment fit for a king, acknowledging him as her savior who dies for her, and as the king of heaven and earth. Far from being wasteful, this woman is the only one to give Jesus the honor and thanks that was really due him. For this, Jesus proclaims that she would be remembered for her gesture wherever the gospel is preached.

So, with Christ’s high praise of this gesture, why ought we to remember this story today? I think it can be observed that the conflict between the woman and the other house guests is still going on in the church today, and this story can help us move towards a proper orientation of how we view Christ and serve him.

Have you ever heard anyone express a negative opinion about a church for not focusing on the “right” kinds of ministry, like for being too oriented on spiritual matters? For example, a church may be criticized for not doing enough in its community, like helping the poor or supporting various causes. Many of these churches are instead more focused on sharing the gospel with others, and teach and preach with no greater end than to bring church members into deeper personal fellowship with Christ. Conversely, these churches may accuse their critics of being too focused on life here and now, and of having missed the central message of the gospel.

How does scripture sort out these mutual accusations? As can be seen in the house guests in this story, there clearly is a danger of becoming so focused on doing good works that Christ himself is overlooked even if he is present in the very same room! As much good as it does to care for the needy here and now, proclaiming and living out the message of forgiveness of sins in Christ, reconciliation with the Father, and the life to come is a greater good that ought to not be neglected.

We have seen that the woman’s “wasteful” gesture with the ointment was not wasteful at all to Jesus, but rather a beautiful and honoring confession of him as God’s Son and her king. Even in a life full of good works, it is important to keep Christ Jesus and salvation in him central.

On the other hand, focus on Christ and spiritual health should not be to the neglect of good works. Jesus assumes that when he is no longer present with his disciples, they will help the poor. Indeed, a necessary consequence of faith in Christ is a desire to serve him and our neighbors with good works. Or as James puts it in his epistle, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26b).

Jesus’ point in this story concerns our perspective and priorities, and how they affect the way we live out our lives. Like the anonymous woman, we are to worship God as our king in costly ways that honor Him alone and deepen our faith, but we are also to serve Him by sharing the gospel and doing things to help the needy in their lives here and now. In that way, I hope that the anonymous woman’s deed continues to live on in the memory of the church.

God is in Korea

As we enter the Summer months, my last day in Korea is speedily approaching. It is fitting, I think, that one of my final impressions here has been a fuller manifestation of one of my first. In truth, it has been a theme developing throughout the year. One of the striking features of my experiences has been learning to understand that God is in Korea. This seems obvious, but coming to understand this has been a profound lesson for me.

I came to reflect on this again this past weekend which we spent on a retreat with the Hannam University church. We spent the time getting to know, worshipping with, and praying with the university students and other church members. The pastor leading the retreat pointed out at one moment how special the opportunity was to worship together and share the faith with people from a different culture like America. This led me to think conversely how neat it was that people from a different culture like Korea share the faith with me.

God has been demonstrating all year how the gospel transcends all barriers of culture and language. Starting with attending the World Council of Churches conference last Autumn, where we worshipped and studied the Word with Christians from all over the globe, I have been becoming more deeply moved by God’s presence all year. I have been moved by the light of Christ in people I have met from Korea, America, Canada, Hungary, England, the Philippines, and Pakistan, who are all here in Korea to serve the Lord In various ways.

It is very powerful when I meet someone who was born on the other side of the globe from me, with a totally different culture and language, yet we still have a unity beyond what words can adequately express in our confession of Christ as Savior and commitment to him as Lord. Even as the manifestation of faith in Christ is radically different in various cultures, the presence and message of God Himself in what I’ve seen of the world is profoundly constant. The gospel is truly a message for the entire world. Apprehending this has indeed increased my awe and wonder at our God, and I confess with His servant David in saying,

“Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there!  If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10)

Wealth and Sacrifice

Mark 10:17-31: And as [Jesus] was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

 

In these words Mark gives us another example of Jesus completely reorienting the way we see the world. It results from a rich man’s rather discouraging encounter with Jesus. The man has seemingly good intentions, but they are thrown back in his face.

He runs up to Jesus with flattery on his lips, calling him “good teacher.” Jesus doesn’t really answer his question, just says in effect, “You know what to do, keep the commandments.” To this the man confidently replies that he has kept them, his whole life long. So Jesus tells him that in order to make his obedience complete, he must sell all he owns, and follow Jesus. Being wealthy, the man leaves, despairing of his ability to achieve that.

This encounter, and Jesus’ subsequent comments, causes the disciples to despairingly ask, “Then who can be saved?” At this point, Jesus turns the whole world on its head, saying, “’With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.’”

This statement floods our minds with light, illuminating a crucial aspect of our relationship with God, and how we as fallen human beings, misunderstand and distort that aspect. The way we do so is clearly shown in Jesus’ encounter with the rich man. Let us look at it again in the context of Jesus’ teaching here.

Right off the bat, the man comes to Jesus with a misguided question: “’What must I do to inherit eternal life?’” He believes that by living the right way, and by following the right set of rules, that he can overcome the curse of death on himself. This belief had made him, surely, into a great, upright man, seemingly blessed by God. He had a problem, though. The belief he had based his life on was a lie. Indeed, this lie is rampant all over the world and throughout history, namely, that living a good and moral life can bring us into fellowship with God. Jesus completely shuts this idea down, saying of salvation, “’With man it is impossible.’” He doesn’t say that it is merely difficult, or that it requires great dedication. It is impossible.

This man has come to Jesus maybe as a disciple would have approached Buddha or Confucius, looking for a program or set of guidelines to follow that would lead him to eternal life. He certainly does not approach him as God, hence Jesus’ rebuke at being called “good,” since it is not in reference to his divine nature. This rich man simply saw Jesus as a wise teacher.

It is no wonder then, that he received from Jesus a rather unexpected answer. Perhaps he came looking for his ethically-lived life to be validated by another wise man, or maybe he felt that his dedication to the Law really wasn’t enough, and wanted some direction as to what he had overlooked. Either way, he was only seeking another way to – painlessly and without cost – show his devotion to God. In light of the news that to have treasure in heaven, he needed to sell all he had, his lifelong efforts to obey the Law suddenly seemed to be worthless.

If we approach Jesus this way, if we come to him simply looking for advice from a wise teacher, we will walk away disheartened and sorrowful just like the rich man. This is especially true for modern Americans. Even many of the less well off of us are rich compared to much of the world. Are you willing to sell all that you own to follow Christ? Looking at it this way, we may be tempted to say, as the apostles did, “Then who can be saved?”

Where does our hope for life and salvation lie? What is the proper way to approach Jesus? He gives us the answer in Mark 10:15, saying, “’Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’” Do you approach God like a child? What does that mean?

Children are totally dependent on their parents: for existence, food, shelter, transportation, and, well, basically everything. We must accept the kingdom of God as a gift from our heavenly Father, because, like children, we can do nothing for ourselves. Who makes the crops grow, or the sun shine, but God? We ought not to approach Christ toting our good deeds to earn eternal life, but rather knowing that he can give us what we cannot accomplish ourselves.

How do we know that this is true? What can give us a deep trust in Christ to approach him in this way? Look at his commandment given to the rich man: “’Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’” Why is this Jesus’ instruction? It is far from arbitrary. Our hope in Christ comes from the fact that he had already fulfilled this commandment better than any human ever could.

In his letter to the Philippian church, the apostle Paul explains the beautiful and perfect sacrifice that Jesus made: “[Jesus], though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).

Jesus gave up his glorious, heavenly home, and all of its benefits, to be born as a poor man, suffer, and die for the sake of fallen human beings like us. So Jesus’ statement, “’All things are possible with God,’” is not just a nice sentiment, but Jesus himself is a testament of that truth! Jesus gave up everything he had for poor, underserving people, and accomplished what is impossible for man! Here is the good news of the gospel. We can approach Christ knowing that he loves us enough to give up all he possessed for our sakes.

And that is not all. After Paul speaks of Christ’s sacrifice, he goes on to say about him, “Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). Jesus is the perfect model of his own teaching, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Jesus’ perfect sacrifice exalted him, and elevated those who believe in him to share in his unique Sonship as adopted sons and daughters of God, (John 1:12-13) and future participants in his glory.

Because Jesus made a perfect sacrifice for our sake, we can now make sacrifices for the sake of Christ, because we can be confident that we have a share of the eternal life and glory of the kingdom of God. May we all approach God as children, and may what Christ has already accomplished enable us to follow him, no matter where that may be.

God’s Gift

Mark 7:24-30, “And from there [Jesus] arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ And he said to her, ‘For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.’ And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.”

I have been realizing more and more that Mark the gospel writer was a master of the understatement. Buried in his seemingly disconnected, simple stories are profound truths that blast apart the mistaken conceptions of fallen humanity and point crystal clearly to Jesus. Take, for example, the curious story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman. It is an exorcism story preceded by a baffling interchange between this woman and Jesus. What is this story’s purpose?

It begins with Jesus retreating from the huge crowd that had been following him, in vain as it turns out. A woman, whose daughter was suffering from a demon, had heard about Jesus’ amazing miracles. Discovering that he happened to be nearby her, she goes to him and immediately falls at his feet.

Now, she didn’t have a lot of things going for her, at least from the ancient Jewish perspective. First of all, she had been born a woman; then Mark tells us that she is a Gentile. She probably didn’t have much of a chance getting a Jewish authority to help her, but maybe this Jesus would help if she humbled herself enough. So, immediately upon finding Jesus, she drops any pretense of dignity, and begs for her daughter’s healing.

Despite this, Jesus seems to have no sympathy for her plight. He says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” These were not very encouraging words. Children, here, presumably refers to the people of Israel, while the “dogs” to Gentiles just like this woman.

Was Jesus justified in making this statement? Was he really saying that the Jews were somehow better than the Gentiles? This grates against modern sensibilities, the belief that one culture or race is inherently superior to another, but let’s see if Jesus’ harsh statement was really fair or not. Jesus was the Messiah. Specifically, the Messiah sent to the Jews, foreseen by the prophets of old. The Jews were indeed special, called out of the world by the one true and living God, rescued from brutal slavery in Egypt, sustained in the wilderness, given a clear expression of God’s character and rules for living in the holy Law. . . . the list goes on and on. The Jew’s were God’s chosen people.

On the other hand, non-Jews did not have this special calling and Law. God did not call them and teach them appropriate forms of worship. They indulged in sexual immorality and in worshipping false gods.

Because of Israel’s special calling, despite its people being commanded to treat foreigners the same as they would native Jews (see Leviticus 19:33-34), non-Jews were often treated with contempt. So, Jesus’ statement is simply the difficult, yet true, situation that the Jews were God’s people, and this woman, a Gentile, was not a part of them.

Perhaps an expected response from this woman would be to this would be to get upset or angry. We may get upset ourselves simply reading this story. How could God be so prejudiced against this woman? But she doesn’t have this reaction. She does the amazing thing of humbling herself even further before Jesus, and confessing that she indeed was not worthy of receiving Christ’s compassion and mercy.

But that’s not all. Instead of making a further appeal to Jesus by speaking of her great need, she appeals to God’s generous mercy. In saying “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” she is confessing both her unworthiness before Christ, and His abundance of mercy and love.

She had faith that, just as in a wealthy family, the extra food is freely fed to the dogs, God’s mercy was so abundant that it would spill out from the Jews to bless the entire world. For this appeal and show of faith, Jesus then heals the woman’s daughter.

So, in effect, Mark overturns the whole scheme of a geographical nation chosen by God. The system of national Israel was ousted by the kingdom of heaven, the members of which are those who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior, the one true way to God.

In this story, the walls of cultural barriers begin to be struck down, and the gospel is offered to everyone who will believe. No one Receives God’s grace by helping others, living in a certain country, being wealthy, going to church a lot, or even because we are desperately in need of His grace. Rather, we receive it because of God’s generous mercy and love for us.

In what ways does this story speak to us today? In fact, it speaks to us in many ways. Take this application, for instance. For those deeply rooted in a specific Christian tradition, whether it be Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or otherwise, there is a danger of becoming overly comfortable in our familiar traditions, and lose sight of God. We can be tempted to think that our tradition is the best, the most faithful to the scriptures, the one that brings people closest to God, and that those believers in another tradition are not really serving and worshipping God in an appropriate way.

But this is to lose sight of the fact that it is not a liturgical tradition, or a method of Biblical interpretation, that makes anyone right with God. It is, entirely, God’s endless grace, lovingly given to us through His Son and holy Spirit, that transforms us and brings us into communion with Him.

We tend to be like the Jews, and claim a superiority in our specific way we live to God, but we ought to humble ourselves and confess, with the Syrophoenician woman, that we don’t really deserve grace, and we receive it by God’s abundant mercy, which is freely offered to all who will believe.

Just a Face in the Crowd?

Mark 5:24b-34, “And a great crowd followed [Jesus] and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.

“She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, ‘If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.’ And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my garments?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, “Who touched me?”’ And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth.

“And he said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”

 

Have you ever looked at the starry sky on a clear night and felt very small? When you were a child, and you complained about having to eat lima beans or some other unappetizing thing, did your parents ever give you the argument that “We ought to appreciate our food, since there are lots of children all over the world who are going without it”? In contemplating such a huge world, full of suffering and hunger, our daily struggles may begin to seem insignificant.

God seems to have a lot on his plate these days. This can be discouraging for our prayer life. Amidst the multitudes of the persecuted and starving, why or how would God take the time to listen or respond to our questions or requests?

Mark gives us a wonderful story to answer this very question. To set the stage, a man had just come to Jesus and urgently told him that his daughter was dying, asking him to come and heal her before It was too late. So they immediately set off for the man’s house. Our story occurs while Jesus is on this urgent mission to save her.

Jesus and the disciples had to weave their way through a massive crowd to get where they were going. There were people everywhere, squeezing past and bumping into each other. The disciples were probably struggling to keep up with Jesus as he quickly moved towards his destination.

In the midst of this crowd, there was a diseased woman. She had heard about Jesus, and the miracles of healing he had performed, and was hoping for him to heal her, too. Jesus was an important man, though, and he seemed to be going somewhere urgently. But, since she had so much faith in Jesus, she reasoned that by just touching his clothes she would be healed.

So, essentially, she brushed passed him, just like any other person in the crowd. But on brushing his clothes, she was immediately healed of her disease. There was no fanfare or hooplah. This healing was only known by the woman and Christ. Then Jesus did something unexpected. He didn’t just continue on in his urgent task, and let the healed woman continue her life, but he stopped, and turned around.

He demanded to know who had touched his clothes. The disciples thought this a ridiculous question. Jesus had been bumped and jostled by dozens of people! Why was this person significant? Why was Jesus stopping when he needed to be going to help that dying girl? Jesus continued looking for the woman until she came forward and explained her story. Then he commended her for her faith, and sent her on her way.

Why did Jesus draw the woman out of the crowd? Was not her miraculous healing justification enough for her faith? Didn’t Jesus have an urgent need to heal the dying girl?

In spite of Jesus being on an urgent mission to save the young girl, in spite of a huge, pressing crowd, he stopped and gave personal attention to a woman whose name we don’t even know, encouraging her in her faith. What a demonstration of God’s love and compassion! If this woman’s story is any indication, God will treat our prayers in the same way as this woman’s.

Despite the millions of prayers lifted up daily, from the simple to the desperate, God takes the time to stop and give each of us personal attention whenever we call on his name. What an honor for us to receive the personal attention of the almighty God!