One of the more poignant moments in the life of Jesus was that day in Bethany when a woman came into the house where he was having dinner with friends and anointed his head and feet with expensive perfume. You’ll remember that his disciples were offended by what they considered a wasteful use of precious ointment. They offered the crass suggestion that it would’ve been better to sell it give the money to the poor. I am quite sure that Jesus looked them straight in the eye as he asked, ”Why are you criticizing this woman for such a beautiful expression of devotion?” (Matt 26:10). Then he explained to them that by her anointing him with ointment she had prepared him for burial. What she had done was so significant that it would be told as a memorial to her wherever the message of his death and resurrection was proclaimed.
What exactly was it that was so memorable in her action? It’s true that the perfume was worth a year’s wages but Jesus saw something more important. Was it not the deeper significance of her devotion? As he shared with her the experience he was moved by the sincerity and affection of the noble act. The disciples saw nothing but a meaningless waste of valuable oil. Judas, the traitor, thought he had a better idea: Sell it!
What a different response by Jesus! Here was a woman with the quiet audacity to enter uninvited into a house where others were dining and to anoint their guest with precious ointment. Jesus understood the depth of love that moved her to take this unusual step. He shared with her the importance of the moment. While others saw the act, Jesus grasped what it meant to her and was one with her in that holy moment.
The significance of Jesus’ response on this occasion is important for those who want to live as Christ did. It is quite clear that it calls to look beyond whatever the act itself may be. Those who live on the surface enjoy their noninvolvement because it provides them time to pursue their own interests. Jesus was constantly considering what was happening in the life of the other. Her devotion touched him at a profound level. He valued her by identifying what she had just done as “a beautiful expression of devotion.”
The model for us is clear. Things are not what they may appear to be on the surface. It is beneath the surface that we find reality. A flower on her birthday is, well, far more than a flower; it is an expression of love. Acts reveal what is going on but what they mean must be discovered on a deeper level. Like Jesus, may we pay less attention to what others may do or say and focus more on what their word or act reveals at a deeper level
The Passover meal had been prepared and Jesus was in the upper room with his disciples. Just prior to the meal Jesus rose from the table, removed his robe, took a basin of water and began to wash his disciples’ feet. He explained that what he had done was what they should do for one another. It was by taking the role of a servant that they would enjoy the blessing of God (John 13:1-20).
By this one act (recorded only in John) Jesus established forever the basic principle of Christian conduct, that is, serve the other. Contrary to our nature as fallen human beings, we are to take the role of servant in all our relations with one another. That’s it! Were we to carry out this one fundamental principle everything would be changed dramatically. Imagine a local congregation where each member adopted as their basic rule for living the simple question, “How may I be of help to you?”
Impossible, you say. Probably, but isn’t that the nature of ethical norms? I remember doing an article on the Sermon on the Mount and learning the various ways that Christian thinkers have tried to explain the unattainable level of conduct it recommends. One answer is that it isn’t relevant to our current situation because it was intended for the “Kingdom age.” Another is that the high ethical standards intend to make us feel guilty so that in desperation we will turn to God pleading his mercy. My conclusion was that “impossible goals” were not meant to discourage us but to continually hold before us the perfect example as a continuing guide for living.
What would it be like to always take the servant’s role? In almost every situation in life there is the opportunity of serving the other. The servant steps aside when he and someone else arrive simultaneously at the same door. The servant with more than he needs responds to the one in need. The servant puts the best interpretation on a story that could make the other look bad. The servant husband begins his day asking how he can make his wife’s day more enjoyable. I doubt if there is a single moment in the day when it isn’t possible to serve someone else. Even if a person is alone on a desert island, it is always possible to pray.
So, as Jesus arose from the table and took upon himself the lowly task of a servant, you and I can get up from our comfortable seat of self-centeredness and find some “feet” that need washing.
One day during his final week in Jerusalem, Jesus sat down near the temple in the court of the women to watch as people dropped money into the treasury chest. That Jesus paid attention to what was going on around him was intentional. The rich came by and with a flourish deposited their coins. Then a poor widow approached and quietly dropped in two little copper coins (worth about a penny). Jesus called his disciples over and made the point that the widow had given more than all the others because unlike those who gave what they could spare, she gave what she needed to live on (Mark 12:41-44 and parallel in Luke 21).
Obviously, there is the lesson that a gift is valued not by its monetary worth but by what it “cost” the giver, but what strikes me is the attention that Jesus gave to the activity itself. He was interested in what people were doing. If we had been there we would have noticed a certain amount of pride in how the affluent carried out their giving. By way of contrast, we would watch the poor widow as she quietly slipped the two little coins into the box. Jesus was aware of all that was going on and he wanted his disciples to be sensitive to the simple incident that demonstrated such an important point. Great lessons are often mirrored in minor acts.
What can we learn from this? One thing is that to live like Jesus is to be sensitive to all that is going on around us. Life is not a solitary journey but a communal experience. It can be as rich as we choose to make it by cultivating a conscious awareness of those who travel with us. Fixation on one’s self narrows the experience. It rules out that fullness that comes when others play a significant role in the adventure. But more importantly, a strong sense of what is going on in the lives of others alerts us to needs that we may be able to take care of. Life is as rewarding as we allow it to be by maintaining a constant awareness of others who travel the same road. Jesus chose to fix his attention on others, not himself.
There is a story about a person who always played nothing but one note on his violin. When asked about that rather strange custom he said, “I’ve found my note, others are still looking.” The application is that by concentrating on how Jesus lived (rather than on what he taught) we seem always to end up noticing his concern for others. That was his “note” and the more we hear it the more important it becomes. It seems true that Christ-like living is, in a rather large sense, giving attention to how we can help others in their journey through life.
During the final period of his ministry, Jesus spent each day preaching in the outer court of the temple. It was there that he continued to teach “the people,” the laos, (not the ochloi, the crowds). However, each evening he would leave the city and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, probably in the village of Bethany with his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Since the religious authorities were watching him closely, looking for some excuse to arrest him, his departure each evening was probably due the need for the quiet atmosphere of a friendly home. In any case, each morning he would return to the city and people would flock to hear him teach.
That he left the city each evening suggests that he needed regular breaks in order to restore both body and inner self. Teaching such important issues to such large groups –from dawn to dusk and in the open air – had to be emotionally draining. Jesus took those quiet hours to allow his Father to restore and redirect his energies. We know from the recent Olympics that you can’t run a 10 K meter race as if it were a sprint. Energy must be carefully allocated so it isn’t missing in the final lap when it’s so crucial. We’ve all heard of ministerial “burn-out.” My feeling is that rather than being a sign of success it may well be an indication of failure, the failure to schedule times for renewal. It seems clear that God wouldn’t assign spiritual responsibilities impossible to carry out. Could the zeal we display in trying to do the job better than its ever been done be an expression of pride? I tend to believe that “burn-out” in the world of pastoral ministry is an indication not of achievement but of failure. Every evening Jesus left the place of activity and went “home” to be with friends and his Father. Should that not be our model?
It is hard to admit that spiritual progress is something that we as mortals cannot achieve. But the natural cannot perform supernaturally and spiritual progress is not something that we as mortals can do. Our sole responsibility is to open ourselves so that he can work through us. God’s power “is made perfect in [our] weakness” (2 Corin.12:9). So, like Jesus, we need regular periods of refreshment. No one but you can make that decision in your life.
In this column we have watched how Jesus lived rather than what he taught. We’ve been trying to clarify what it means to live as Christ did. In the course of writing I have come to see that included in this category are those insights that come from his demeanor under various situations as well as perspectives he held on different issues. They are not a part of what we would normally refer to as his teaching but they certainly provide an example for us to emulate. Today’s piece is one.
Jesus, along with Peter, James, John and Andrew, had gone up the Mount of Olives and, looking back, they saw the beautiful temple. This prompted them to ask him when all the things he had promised would happen. Jesus warned them about charlatans who would come, claiming to be the Christ. They would insist that the end was already here. “But before the end,” said Jesus, “there will be war, earthquakes and terrible signs in the sky” (Matt. 23:3-8 and parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 28). What Jesus “did” was to inform the disciples of the danger of false teachers.
Theological error exists wherever theological truth is proclaimed. Many of the problems of that sort in today’s church existed in the early days of Christianity. For example, Arianism got its start (and name) with Arius, an Egyptian priest who lived and taught in Alexandria in the third century A. D. It taught that Jesus was not the eternal Son but was created by the Father and therefore not divine. That doctrine is still alive in the more liberal wing of Protestant Christianity.
If Jesus were with us today I believe, from his response to the disciples regarding end times (see above), that he would “warn us about charlatans (i.e., liberal preachers and teachers) who would lead us astray” (Luke 21:8 in JIHOW, p. 206). Should we not do the same? One of the difficulties in being a biblical Christian is to unashamedly proclaim as true all that Jesus said was true. He warned his followers against those who perverted the truth, usually for some sort of personal benefit. Divisive? Yes, in a certain way. But truth needs to set free from all its perverted forms. Error is always a twisting of truth.
So the fact that Jesus warned his disciples about those who would come with a message that was not quite true, our responsibility is to know what is true and to being willing to die for it if necessary. That’s exactly what happened to Jesus on the cross!
The story about giving Caesar what belongs to Caesar (see former post) closes with “taken back by my answer, they fell silent and slipped away” (Luke 20:26. All quotations are from Jesus, In His Own Words). On the same day, Jesus answered another question, this one having to do with life after the resurrection, adding that the Sadducees “didn’t have the courage to ask me anything else” (Luke 20:40). Then, after answering a question posed by the Pharisees, Jesus noted, “From that point on no one had the courage to ask me any more questions” (Mark 12:34). Finally, Jesus took a question asked by some Pharisees and turned it back on them; and, since no one was able to answer, said, “From that day on no one dared to question me further” (Matt. 22:46). These four consecutive encounters (and Jesus’ response in each) yield an important insight as to how Jesus lived out his life: Fully informed he spoke with clarity about every issue. So much so that his adversaries were left with mouths wide open and afraid to pursue the discussion.
Did this unique ability belong to Jesus alone or should it be characteristic of us as well? As you would know from my posts, I believe that the incarnate Jesus was fully human and did not live out his life by resorting to the use of his divine nature. If he did, the charge to live like Jesus would be preposterous. But he lived among us as one of us and we are to live as he did. What does that imply?
One thing is that he was fully informed. No one was able to ask him a question he couldn’t answer. I believe that every believer should make scripture the fundamental book for life. We need to know how Yahweh dealt with his people prior to the coming of Christ. We need to be able to answer any question about how Jesus lived, what he taught, how he died for our sins, and how he will return. We ought to be able to turn immediately to relevant verses for answers to every basic problem of life
One result of a thorough knowledge of scripture is the ability to answer relevant questions with clarity and certainty. The believer should approach all of life in a way that mirrors his Master. Tough call? Yes, but we follow the example of one who was able to combine certainty with compassion.
The Pharisees were desperate to trap Jesus in his speech so they’d have grounds for turning him over to Roman governor. So one day, feigning sincerity, they asked Jesus whether it was proper to pay the poll tax to Caesar or not (Matt. 22:17). A Yes would get him in trouble with the people and a No would make him a threat to the government. So Jesus requested a coin and, receiving it, asked whose image and name was on it. When they acknowledged it was Caesar’s, he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” It was a straightforward question, but it left them unable to respond.
So what did Jesus accomplish in this encounter? I believe he made his point by simplifying the issue. He could have gone into a long discussion about the relationship of religion and government, or addressed the ethical problem facing the Jewish people by virtue of the dilemma between their faith and their moral responsibility to Roman overlords. Instead, he said, Give Caesar what belongs to him and to God what belongs to him. In clarifying the issue he used a principle quite similar to what is known as KISS, “Keep it simple stupid” (Note: no comma, as Kelly Johnson, the aircraft engineer stated it originally). Jesus took what could have become an exceedingly complicated issue and made it simple. Advance in every intellectual discipline is the triumph of simplicity over complexity.
Simplicity has become the goal in many areas of life. Japanese art forms, such as painting, theater, and flower arrangement, all reflect the beauty of simplicity. Karl Barth, the famous German theologian, summarized a lifetime of scholarly research with the words, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so.” John Calvin praised “lucid clarity” as the goal for writing. Take almost any sentence you have written and remove every word that isn’t absolutely necessary and you will be surprised how much better it reads. Simplicity has a remarkable charm and strength.
So, as Jesus simplified the issue of where to give what, we would probably do well to remove from our lives the unnecessary clutter of stuff. Issues are complicated only when sufficient time hasn’t been given to thinking them through. Lives become complicated with too many unclassified responsibilities. Jesus became incarnate to solve the complexity of mankind’s moral history. He did it by dying and rising again. Simple, clear, and powerful! Our Savior’s life recommends that we adopt what might be called Christian minimalism. When you get right down to it, some things are so vitally important that other things must be set aside. KISS.
On one occasion Jesus told a parable about a landowner who leased his vineyard to some vine growers and left on a long journey. Upon returning he sent some servants to collect his share of the profit. The tenants seized the servants, beat some and killed others. So the owner sent a larger group of servants and they were treated the same way. Finally he sent his only son and the tenants, thinking they would inherit the vineyard, killed the son. Jesus asked the religious leaders how they thought the owner would respond and they were sure that he would “put those scoundrels to a miserable death” (Matt. 21:41). Then as the conversation continued, the Pharisees “began to realize that he was talking about them.” Caught in their own trap, they didn’t follow through with their plan to take him in custody because they were afraid of the crowds who regarded Jesus as a prophet.
The Greek text says that Jesus was talking pros autous, which would normally be normally translated “to them” but the preposition is understood in a number of ways depending on context. Of the several possibilities it could mean “in reference to” or “against,“ either of which would offend the religious legalist. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to understand that their religious practices were morally unacceptable. Interestingly enough, he didn’t just tell them but led them down a path where they came to that conclusion themselves.
Here’s my question: What can we learn from Jesus’ decision to tell this parable even though he knew if would offend a portion of his audience? What does it imply as to how we are to live as he did? If Jesus is our mentor then we ought to be reflecting more and more those ways of thinking and acting that he displayed. That he wasn’t afraid to speak his mind is clear (obviously he did it in the right way.) That he was concerned to correct religious hypocrisy is also true. What else? Read the account in Mark 3:1-6 (or in Matthew 12 or Luke 6) and let me know what you think. Are we actually to be like Jesus when he exposes the unacceptable view of the religious leaders?