When we should trust others…and when we shouldn’t – Jeremiah 40-41

Blog Note: If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that we are in a series through the Gospel of John. Most weeks, I blog the sermons I preach at Faith Church, breaking each sermon into five posts, a kind of daily devotional, Monday through Friday. You haven’t seen any posts so far this week because this past Sunday we had a guest speaker from Church World Service. Normally when we have a guest speaker who isn’t continuing the current sermon series, I pause the blog for a week. But this week I’m adding a midweek devotional. I started writing these every week for Faith Church during the Covid shutdown in 2020. People appreciated them, so I’ve continued. As you’ll see below, in the midweek devotionals, I’ve been studying the life of the prophet Jeremiah, already having covered chapters 1-39. Who was Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in Jerusalem during the period of final kings of Judah. He was called by God to prophesy about Jerusalem’s coming destruction if the people of Judah persisted living in rebellion to God. Well, the Judahites ignored Jeremiah’s warning, and in chapter 39, Babylon destroyed the city.

Sometimes my wife and I disagree with one another. Maybe you have a spouse, relative or friend with whom you disagree, and you know the feeling. We disagree because we have differing opinions about a situation. I think I know best, and she thinks she knows best. In some of those disagreements, she will say, “Trust my gut.” What she means is that she has a sense about the situation that I don’t have, and I should take her gut feeling seriously. I will often balk at this suggestion because it insinuates that I don’t have the capability to evaluate the situation properly. I think I do have the capability to evaluate the situation. I want to trust my gut, not hers. I want to believe that I am smart, intuitive and discerning, all on my own. But if I simply trust my gut, I will be making a grave mistake. Today we learn about someone who made that mistake.

The person we’re learning about is an obscure biblical character mentioned in Jeremiah chapters 39-41. The story takes place in the immediate aftermath of the Babylonian devastation of Jerusalem in chapter 39.  Babylon’s military exiled most of the people of Judah back to Babylon. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, commanded that only a remnant of Israelites would remain in the land. He appointed a Jewish governor of the remnant, Gedaliah.

In Jeremiah 40 verses 7-10, Governor Gedaliah speaks to the remnant, encouraging them to settle down in the land and serve the Babylonians.  In his speech to the people, Gedaliah says, “Do not be afraid to serve the Babylonians,” as there were still Babylonian soldiers patrolling the remnant.

Imagine being those Jews in the remnant.  The only reason they are allowed to remain in Judah is because the Babylonians deemed them unworthy to be exiled because they were poor.  The Babylonians are basically saying, “We think so little of you that we don’t want to bring you back to our country.”  These Jews, who are already accustomed to the difficulties of being marginalized and looked down upon because of their poverty, could easily be thinking, “We’re worthless.”  They could be very fearful that the powerful Babylonians could change their minds and destroy them. 

But they had one thing going for them.  The land.  The land of Judah at that time had bountiful farms and vineyards which the Babylonians wanted to profit from. So Gedaliah encourages the people to take heart and submit to serving the Babylonians by farming the land.  In so doing, they need not fear.  As we will see, though, not everyone agrees with Gedaliah’s approach to the situation.

The narrative continues, and word of the survival of a remnant in Judah makes it to some surrounding nations (Moab, Ammon, and Edom) where other communities of Jews lived.  We read in verses 11-12 that at least some of those Jews now return to the land of Judah and helped with the harvest.  It seems that after awful suffering at the hands of Babylon, a new time of blessing is underway.  Jews are reuniting to work the land, and the land produces abundantly. 

Just like that, the story takes a negative turn.  In verses 13-16, one of the remnant, Johanan, informs Gedaliah that the king of the Ammonites has marshaled one of the other Jews, Ishmael, to take Gedaliah’s life.  Clearly, this was a wild west era.  The Babylonians had swept in, destroyed the city, carted off nearly all the Jews to exile in Babylon, leaving only a tiny group of disestablished people to work the land under the leadership of governor Gedaliah.  Most of the Babylonian army returns to Babylon, posting behind a much smaller force to stay and monitor the remnant in Judah.  In that power vacuum, Ammon sees an opportunity to capitalize on Babylon’s weakness and vulnerability.  All Ammon believes it needs to do is assassinate the governor, and Ammon could take control.  What will Gedaliah do in response?

He could alert the Babylonian soldiers still there.  He could ask Johanan how he learned about the plot.  Gedaliah could take all kinds of precautions.  But nope.  He does nothing.  He says he does not believe that the plot is real.  Imagine being Johanan at this point.  You’ve heard about the plot.  You know it is real.  But the governor just dismisses it.  The governor doesn’t believe you.  What does Johanan do now?

Johanan asks Gedaliah for permission to preemptively strike, killing the assassin, Ishmael, who is also a Jew in the remnant.  Gedaliah, however, refuses believe the threat is valid.  Their conversation in verses 13-16 gives the impression that Gedaliah believes he knows something of Ishmael, and he cannot fathom that Ishmael would do something so evil.  Why is Gedaliah insisting on not taking Johanan seriously?

Some personalities are low on trust, some are high on trust.  There are people who instantly believe others until they have a reason not to.  There are people who start with caution, only trusting others until those others have earned the right to be trusted.  At best, Gedaliah seems to be a very trusting person.  At worst, he is naïve or arrogant.  How will it work out?

In chapter 41, verses 1-3, we learn that Gedaliah’s trust in Ishmael is misplaced.  Ishmael gathers ten men, and not only do they kill Gedaliah, but they also kill the Jews and the Babylonian soldiers in the town of Mizpah where Gedaliah ruled from.  Why would they massacre the governor, other Jews and do something so provocative as to even kill Babylonian soldiers?  Wouldn’t the Babylonians find out?  Wouldn’t they return in force and further destroy Judah?  This was a seriously risky move.

We already read in verse 40:13 that the King of neighboring Ammon is behind this.  We also just read in 41:1 that Ishmael has a connection to the royal house of Judah.  Ishmael, it seems, is family with King Zedekiah whom Babylon previously captured when they destroyed Jerusalem (see 39:5-7). It could be that Ishmael and his cohort believe Gedaliah was a traitor, submitting to be a puppet leader of the remnant for Babylon. It appears that Ammon and the Jewish royalists are in cahoots to rebel against Babylon.  But how far are they going to take this?  What is their end goal?  As we’ve learned in 41:1-3, thus far Ishmael and his gang have been very successful.  Furthermore, by killing the leaders and soldiers in Mizpah with Gedaliah, there’s little chance word will get out.

The next day, we read in verses 4-9 that no one yet knows about the mass killing in Mizpah.  In the meantime, 80 other Jewish men from the remnant perform a ritual of mourning and sacrifice, which seems sincere, since their capital city and people have been devastated by Babylon. Again, it is important to remember that the 80 men have no idea about Ismael’s killing of Gedaliah.  So Ishmael falls in with the men, fake weeping and lying to them about going to meet with Gedaliah, who the 80 men do not yet know is dead.  At Mizpah, Ishmael and his mercenaries then slaughter the men, except for ten who promise to disclose the location of hidden grain, oil and honey.  Ishmael’s wicked success is mounting.  What is his end game? 

Next in verses 10-15, we learn that Ishmael captures the rest of the people in Mizpah, taking them captive, moving them out to cross the border into the land of the Ammonites.  Now we have a clue to what Ishmael is trying to accomplish.  He is in league with Ammon, and he is hoping to bring a bunch of captive Jews there, perhaps thinking they will be safe.

Word of Ishmael’s many crimes could not be contained for long, though, and Johanan finds out.  Remember him?  We met him in 40:13. Johanan is the man who attempted to warn Gedaliah about Ishmael.  Now Johanan and the army officers with him intervene, attacking Ishmael and his mercenaries before they make it to Ammon.  In the battle, all the captives are freed, but Ishmael and 8 of his men safely flee to Ammon.

Johanan and the people now head to Egypt.  We read in verses 16-18 that they believe Babylon will seek retribution for Ishmael’s crimes.  They are probably right.  Ishmael not only slaughtered Babylon’s appointed ruler of the remnant, Gedaliah, but he also killed Babylonian soldiers and tried to steal away many Jews. So Johanan and the people evacuate, believing Egypt to be a safe haven. In chapter 41, however, they only make it as far as Bethlehem.  Why?  We’ll find out next week. 

For now, what can we learn about this story?  Gedaliah trusted himself, and it got Gedaliah killed.  Does that mean we should never trust ourselves?  I’m not saying that.  Trust is the basis for all relationships.  Without trust we have nothing.  We must trust in God, in ourselves and others.  When I recently traveled to India, I trusted that the airline’s computer system would arrange my flights.  When I arrived at the airport in Delhi, I had nothing but an email to vouch for me.  I had never talked to a person, and I had no paper tickets.  The guard at the door scanned my email, and at first it didn’t seem to work.  But he checked my passport, read my email, and waved me through.  I arrived at the check-in desk, and sure enough, there I got my boarding passes.

Broken or misplaced trust that can happen to any of us. But I do not believe that those instances of broken trust should lead us to conclude that it is always unwise to trust others.  We are wise, however, to be cautious, to place boundaries, to use the powers of reasoning and evaluation that God has given us.  I am not, therefore, advocating for blind trust. 

Gedaliah should have listened to Johanan to at least inquire of the basis for Johanan’s concern.  Where Gedaliah was so wrong was his unwillingness to conceive of a possibility that he himself hadn’t thought of.  I suppose we could accuse Gedaliah of being arrogant.  Or maybe he was just lazy.  He should have known that Johanan was of a quality that Johanan’s word was important.  We can think too highly of ourselves and our ability to assess a situation.  It seems Gedaliah fell prey to an inflated sense of his own powers.  Instead, we need to be teachable, humble, eager to say, “I might be wrong about this situation,” eager to learn more.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash


Why and How to be more Generous – John 11:46-12:11, Part 5

Does the Bible tell us the goal of generosity to the poor?  It does.  In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul taught something that is not mentioned enough.  One of the subplots of Paul’s missionary journeys is that he was asking the churches across the Roman Empire to give money to help the mother church in Jerusalem.  Generally speaking, the Christians in Jerusalem were struggling with poverty, and the Christians throughout the Roman Empire had wealth.  In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians to give to this fundraising effort.  In his ask, Paul says that the Corinthian Christians should be like the Macedonia Christians located to their north.  Listen to how Paul describes the Macedonian Christians:

“Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.”

In other words, just like Mary in our blog series this week, the Macedonian Christians, were extravagantly generous!  To the point of sacrifice.  So what is the purpose of this generosity?  Paul goes on to say this.

“Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality.”

Equality is the goal.  Rich Christians are to give generously to impoverished Christians so that there might be financial equality.  And if you’re like me, the question on your mind is: “How much should I impoverish my life in order to lift up those who are currently impoverished?”  Paul clearly says that the principle we should adhere to is equality.  There should be financial equality among Christians.   

To further support this principle, in the next chapter, 2 Corinthians 9, Paul writes “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and…your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”

We should be extravagantly generous so that there might equality.  If you are good at earning money, if you’ve made wise investment choices, if you have received a large inheritance, or even if you worked really hard and lived very simply to build a bank account or investment account, see it as God’s gift to you so that you can be generous to others.  It is a good thing for Christians to build wealth, but only if we love God more and are willing to part with our money in order to serve God’s Kingdom.  To nurture that heart for God and not for money, it will almost certainly mean that nearly all of us, if we want to follow biblical teaching, will need to change our style of living. 

American evangelical Christianity in the late 20th century and now in the early 21st century has very, very few examples of how to have a proper heart about money.

That brings us back to Mary’s extravagant generosity.  Jesus affirmed Mary because her heart was in the right place, loving him, worshiping him.

So let’s remember that heart motivation is the foundation of this entire story and thus what we need to apply to our lives, as we think about our relationship with money.  We do not want to be like Judas who had a heart of control over the money because he really wanted to use it for himself.  We must examine our hearts when it comes to money.

Frankly, I do not believe that we should assume that we can trust ourselves to examine our hearts, especially given how much access and ability nearly all of us have for generating wealth.  If left to ourselves, we will almost always assume that we are capable of managing our money, including giving generously.  Yet, American Christians on average give only 2.5% of their income.  By way of comparison, during the Great Depression, Christians gave 3.3%.

My guess is that hardly any of us would publicly admit that our hearts are stingy to God’s Kingdom, stingy to the poor, and that we are extravagantly generous to ourselves.  We almost certainly believe that we have generous hearts toward God.  I’m suggesting that there is a self-perception problem among many American Christians when it comes to our hearts.  How many of us think we are generous, when actually we are not?

That’s why I suggest that we are not the people who should be evaluating our generosity.  Don’t believe me?  Think about how you reacted earlier in the story in this post. Did you agree with Judas’ logic that Mary was wasteful, that the perfume could have been sold and given to the poor? Perhaps that’s a telltale sign that maybe you should be cautious about your ability to evaluate your heart and your practice of generosity. 

Instead, I encourage you to take what might seem like a radical step and submit your entire financial data to an unbiased third party. It’s financial accountability. Someone or a group that can help you be more generous.  Seek out someone who already has a proven track record of a heart of love for God, and who is extravagantly generous, and submit your life to them. 

Yes, that means your life will almost certainly be different.  Your property, hobbies, collections, vacations, purchases, and entertainment might need to change so that you can stop using God’s money extravagantly on yourself, thus freeing it up to give extravagantly so that the poor might have equality. 

But does this apply to everyone?  What about the people who don’t have the means to give extravagantly?  Let me be clear.  If you have to choose between paying your electric bill and giving to the Kingdom of God, pay your electric bill.  It’s not ethical, in my opinion, to give to God, and let your bills go past due unpaid. 

For most of us, though, it is already possible, right now, to live more simply, more frugally, so that we can faithfully pay our bills, and give with extravagant generosity to the Kingdom of Jesus. 

How we treat people in poverty speaks volumes about our faith.  In other words, we can evaluate the quality of our faith by examining how extravagantly we give to those in poverty.

Go to Jesus asking his Spirit to examine your heart.  What does a heart of extravagant generosity and love for Jesus look like when someone asks you for money?  I’ll admit that I can have a hard time with this.  I can struggle when people or organizations ask me to consider giving money.  I should take this to the Lord, because that’s a heart issue for me. 

Volunteer your time to work with those who are in poverty or in difficult situations.  So often we think we know about poverty, but we don’t.  Participate in a poverty simulation, like this one.

Learn. Do not assume that you already know the best way to help people. When Helping Hurts and The Poor Will Be Glad are two excellent books.. Read them!

Ask God to give you a heart like his heart, like Mary’s heart, a heart of extravagant generosity. Let’s ask Jesus to help us evaluate this.  May we be more like Mary.  May we be more in love with Jesus, who gave himself extravagantly to us.

Photo by Nina Strehl on Unsplash

What Jesus meant when he said, “You will always have the poor among you” – John 11:46-12:11, Part 4

What does extravagant generosity to Jesus look like in our day? In John 12:1-11, Mary dumped $70K worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. While Jesus doesn’t expect us to do precisely what Mary did, he does expect us to be extravagantly generous. Why doesn’t he expect us to do what Mary did?

Mary lived, for a short time at least, with Jesus right there with her.  We don’t live in that situation.  In fact, that’s what Jesus is getting at when he makes one of his most curious statements in John 12, verse 8.  “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” 

This is one of Jesus’ most frequently misinterpreted and misapplied teachings.  I’ve heard people use it as if Jesus was being negative or callous about poverty.  I’ve heard people use it as a justification to ignore poverty because there will always be poor people.  I’ve heard people use it to support the idea that Jesus really wants us to preach the words of the Gospel and not preach the Gospel by deeds such as caring for the poor.  

Jesus is not communicating anything of the sort. 

Instead, Jesus is only saying that his time was limited.  Given what he said in verse 7, about his burial, there is a sense that he is cluing them in to the real possibility that his time is very short, that his burial is near.  You and I know from hindsight that his death and burial was only a week away.  Very near. 

Jesus, therefore, is not referring to all poor people for all time.  He is saying that it was right for Mary to use the perfume that day because his time with them was limited.  Likewise, they would have plenty of time to care for the poor.  Meaning that they should care for the poor.

We know this because Jesus is actually quoting the Old Testament Law here, Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 is a powerful teaching about God’s heart for the poor.  In that chapter God says that where his people live there should be no one in poverty because God’s people will be so generous.  Starting in verse 7, we read this:

“If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brother. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward your needy brother and give him nothing. He may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

Rightly interpreted, then, Jesus is actually making a case for his disciples to be very generous to those in poverty.  There is also a possible textual connection between Mary’s extravagant gift and ministry to the poor.  Because Jesus was there, it was more appropriate for Mary to give extravagantly to worship Jesus, preparing him for burial.  Likewise, because Jesus is no longer here in the flesh with us, it is now appropriate for us to give extravagantly to the poor. 

And because Jesus also taught in Matthew 25 that when we help those in need, we are helping him.  So if we are as extravagantly generous to the poor as Mary was to Jesus, we are being extravagantly generous to Jesus!

I want us to think further about ministry to the poor, but first let’s finish the story.  The passage concludes with a bit more context to the story of the testy relationship between Jesus and the religious leaders. 

“Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.”

Now let’s return to what we can learn from this passage.  In this passage we see a demonstration of sacrificial extravagance.  Mary worships Jesus, from a loving heart, sacrificially and extravagantly. 

My concern is that many of us give far more extravagantly to ourselves and our loved ones, who probably don’t need our generosity, than we give to those in poverty.  We’ve talked about this a lot over the years.  When this topic comes up in my church family, the regular question that I hear is “But what about the beggar?  Should I just give them money?  How do I know they’ll use it wisely and not wastefully?  After all, I am supposed to be a good steward of God’s money.”

Those are good questions.  There is no doubt about it, sometimes our helping hurts.  In fact there’s a book by that same name, and it has much wisdom for how to be generous in a way that helps people. 

We do need to see our money as God’s money that should be used how he wants us to use it.  We don’t want to use God’s money in a way that will hurt people in the long run.  What often happens, then, is we get frustrated and just do nothing. 

So what should we do? In our final post in this five-part series on John 11:46-12:11 we attempt to make some applications to guide us in practicing extravagant generosity.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

Why we set up four essential oil diffusers in our worship service – John 11:46-12:11, Part 3

What will Jesus say when Mary love bombs by dumping $70K of perfume on his feet, and his disciple Judas Iscariot is angry, saying that perfume could have been sold to help the poor? Will Jesus agree with Mary or Judas?

Here’s how Jesus responds to Judas in John 12, verses 7-8,

“’Leave her alone,’ Jesus replied. ‘It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me’.”

I love that Jesus immediately comes to Mary’s defense.  He knows her heart.  He knows that she was not being wasteful.  Think about the contrast between Mary and Judas.  Mary is giving sacrificially to Jesus because she loves him.  Judas sounds very concerned about the poor, but is actually being controlling.  Jesus knows the difference in their hearts, and he rightly defends Mary. 

But even if Judas has evil, selfish, controlling motivations, we still need to face the fact that he makes what appears to be a very good point.  How is Mary not being wasteful?  Jesus comments that the perfume is somehow connected to his burial.  What a strange statement.  How was this act connected to his burial?

Remember the story in John 11 about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead?  Remember how Jesus showed up when Lazarus had already been dead four days? You can read about it starting here. Scan back to John chapter 11 verse 39, and you can read the conversation that Jesus and Martha have about this.  Lazarus’ body had been deteriorating for four days, so the smell would have been awful.  In Jewish culture of that day, they did not embalm.  Instead they used perfumes and spices to cover the bad smell.  Almost like an ancient Febreze.  So Jesus is saying that this expensive perfume is for Jesus’ burial.

That makes sense, except for the obvious fact that Jesus wasn’t dead.  And now the perfume is gone.  It is mindboggling, for me at least, to think about dumping 70 grand worth of perfume on a dead body.  But he wasn’t even dead!  How, then, does Jesus think that mentioning his burial helps explain Mary’s action?

Jesus is saying that Mary’s act is prophetic; it is speaking about a reality that will come to pass.  Whether or not she intended it, Mary’s act had great significance in laying an emotional foundation for what was soon to come.  Jesus’ death and burial was only about one week away. 

For her part, I suspect Mary was just worshiping Jesus, giving Jesus her all from a heart of love.  I suspect she was celebrating the glory of God that she had recently seen unleashed in the life of her brother Lazarus, when Jesus raised him from the dead.  I suspect Mary was simply saying, “Jesus is worth it.”  And he is.  Jesus is worth everything.  It is as though Mary understood Jesus’ teaching that his disciples are people who deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.  Just as he gives up everything for us, we disciples are people who give up everything for him. 

Mary gives up what could have been a significant insurance policy in her life.  Even if she sold it and gave half of the proceeds to the poor, that would still have been a massive gift on her part.  But no, she dumps it all out on Jesus.  Mary’s act is extravagant, and yet let’s not write it off as unnecessary or wasteful or extravagant in the negative sense.  Instead, Jesus wants us to see that Mary’s act is correct.  Her heart and act represent a right response of worship.  Jesus is saying that we should normalize Mary’s act in our hearts and minds.  Mary worships sacrificially and extravagantly.  Her heart is all in.

Maybe you’re having a hard time with that.  If you’re thinking, “But, Joel, even if Judas’ heart was wrong, his point is well-taken.  Mary’s act of love just seems so wasteful.  Purposeless.  That $70,000 could have done so much good.”  My response is that we should examine our own lives. 

How often do we spend the money God has given us on luxury items that are unnecessary?  By the way, you don’t have to be wealthy to spend luxuriously.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  Luxury is any item, expensive or inexpensive that we do not need.  When we purchase a luxury item most often we are doing so for our benefit.

So let’s not point the finger at Mary, because Jesus didn’t.  Instead let’s be extravagant, not on ourselves and our comforts and our entertainment, but let’s be like Mary and be extravagantly generous to Jesus. 

What does that look like, extravagant generosity to Jesus?  Permit me to get hyper-literal for a moment.  We Christians could just do what Mary did.  Buy perfume and pour it out during worship services.  Maybe Jesus was saying that he wants his followers to observe the sacrament of perfume dumping.  I looked it up, and there are plenty of ultra expensive perfumes. 

  • First there’s Creed Les Royales Exclusives Jardin d’Amalfi Fragrance.  In fact, you can get it right now on sale, 23% off, for $871!  But that’s nothing compared to the cost of other options.
  • Baccarat Les Larmes Sacrees de Thebes is $6800.  But we’re not anywhere near $70,000.  Get ready.  The price is about to jump.
  • Clive Christian No 1 Imperial Majesty is $215,000. 
  • Then there is the ultimate.  The world’s most expensive scent, Shumukh, has a price tag of $1.29 million.

Based on my very limited research, Mary’s perfume is about the fifth most expensive in the world.  When I preached this sermon at Faith Church, I asked a woman from our congregation to help with a very literal demonstration. She placed four essential oil diffusers around our sanctuary, and they filled the air with the essential oil Spikenard, which is a version of the same thing Mary poured on Jesus.  But she did not spend $70,000 on it! 

In case you are wondering, Jesus does not intend for to be so literal. It’s nice to have fragrance in the air during worship, but we don’t have to. 

That brings us back to Mary’s heart.

Mary gave that perfume as an extravagant act of worship to Jesus.  What, then, does extravagant generosity to Jesus look like in our day?

We’ll attempt at least a beginning of an answer to that question in the next post.

Photo by Fulvio Ciccolo on Unsplash

The time someone wasted $70K on Jesus? – John 11:46-12:11, Part 2

This week we’re studying John 11:46-12:11, but our focus in on chapter 12, verses 1-11. In the previous post, we studied John 11:46-12:2, which sets up the story. After hiding from the watchful eye of the Jewish leaders, Jesus travels to the town of Bethany, just two miles outside the city of Jerusalem. In Bethany he attends a dinner held in his honor. Also in attendance are his close friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, the same Lazarus whom Jesus had recently risen from the dead. So this dinner is a celebration. Then something unique happens at the dinner.  Look at verse 3.

“Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

How many times have you heard this story over the years?  If you have heard it before, you’re probably feeling familiar with it, and thus it seems normal.  What we just read is NOT normal.   How are we to understand Mary’s act of pouring out expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and then wiping it with her hair?  We should be asking, “What in the world is that all about?”  As we keep reading the story, we hear some people in the story explain their views of Mary’s act. 

First, we hear from the villain in the group of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot.  Look at verses 4-6. 

“But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.’ He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.”

Very interesting, right?  I have to admit that Judas’ viewpoint on Mary’s act makes a LOT of sense to me.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if Judas’ viewpoint makes sense to as well. Many people know the value of pinching pennies, getting deals, or to spiritualize it, being good stewards of God’s money. 

So what is Judas’ viewpoint?  What is Judas’ heart desire?  As we seek to understand Mary’s act, we need to look at the heart motivation. Jesus is concerned about our hearts.  Our desires, our motivations.  Not outward adherence to ritual.  The heart that produces the action is always most important to Jesus.

Judas says, “What a wasteful use the perfume!”  I hear you, Judas.  That was some expensive perfume.  Worth a year’s wages.  I searched online, “What is the median income for East Lampeter Township?” because that’s where I live. Here’s what it said,

“The median household income for East Lampeter township is US $70,882 (in 2021 dollars) as of 2017-2021.”

So basically, if that perfume was valued in our day, it would be worth about $70,000.  And Mary poured it out on Jesus’ feet.  70 Grand, gone.  Just like that.  It made Jesus’ feet smell good for a few hours.  Mary’s hair smelled good for a few hours.  And the smell filled the house for a few hours.  That’s it.  $70,000 for a few hours of good smell?  Is it worth it?

Years ago when my second son was in high school, we would always know it when one of my son’s friends was over or had already been over and was now gone.  We could taste it in our mouth.  Too much cologne!  We’d say, “Someone needs to teach him how to put on cologne.”  When people put on too much perfume or cologne, it’s usually so overpowering, that it has the opposite effect, right? 

Anyone else know someone who lays on the cologne or perfume way too thick?  Well Mary dumped out the whole contents on Jesus.  That smell might have blown everyone away.  It could not have been pleasant, so we might not even be able to say that Jesus’ feet, Mary’s hair and the house smelled good for a few hours.  Instead the smell might have ruined dinner.  People could be choking, spitting, putting a scarf over their nose.  Complaining, “Geez, Mary, that’s awful.  Why did you do that?”

That is the question, isn’t it?  Why?  Why would she do this?  When Judas said it was a waste, he doesn’t really comment on why she did it.  But he does say what many of us are thinking.  I bet you didn’t think you’d have anything in common with one of the most sinister villians of all history, did you? 

This helps us get a glimpse into Judas’ heart.  He wasn’t concerned about Mary’s heart motivation.  He wanted the $70 grand in the money bag, which he controlled, and which he would dip into for personal reasons, which is a fancy way of saying, “He stole from it.” 

If we’re honest, though, I suspect many of us might partially agree with Judas.  This act of Mary seems like a massive waste, as it could have been used for something so much more productive. In fact, I wonder how many of us would turn to Jesus thinking, “Jesus, confront her, condemn her.  You know how that perfume could have been sold to help so many people.” 

We might actually be upset at Jesus for not condemning Mary.  But he doesn’t.  What does he say?  What he says gets to the heart of why Mary did this. We’ll study Jesus’ response in the next post.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

Jesus’ bold move when he has a target on his back – John 11:46-12:11, Part 1

Our study of the Gospel of John, is now back on track. We studied John 11:1-45 Easter week, starting here, in which we learned the story of Jesus miraculously raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.  In verse 45, we read that as a result of the miracle, many people put their faith in Jesus.  Unfortunately not everyone who was there when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead responded with belief.  Let’s read verse 46.

“But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.”

What is the Sanhedrin?  The Sanhedrin was a council of the most powerful and influential Jews, and with a few important exceptions (matters of life and death punishment, military action and taxation), the Romans let the Sanhedrin govern. 

In Jewish culture at that time, it doesn’t get any more serious than the Sanhedrin.  If the Sanhedrin is talking about you, especially if they are feeling threatened by you, that is a very bad place to be in.  So how does the Sanhedrin talk about Jesus?  Look at the middle of verse 47, and we’ll read through verse 53.

“‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.”

Notice that the Sanhedrin’s discussion of what to do about Jesus is connected to their concerns about the Romans.  They believe that there is a larger issue at hand.  In that time, though the Romans were in control of Palestine, the Jewish people were living in their land, able to worship at their own temple.  The Sanhedrin is saying that if they do not take action to stop Jesus, they believe his rising popularity will incite Rome to take such devastating military action that the nation of Israel will be no more. 

Better that one man, Jesus, dies than Rome decimate Israel, Jerusalem and the temple.  That is the logic of the Sanhedrin, and they are not wrong in their evaluation of the possible ramifications of the Jesus situation. 

Jesus sure has had a lot of conflict, hasn’t he?  Yes, he has, but this is different.  This is the top level of Jewish leadership in that day.  No longer are we talking about theological squabbles.  Though the Pharisees have long wanted to take Jesus down, now in verse 53 we learned so does the top leadership group of the Jews.  Jesus has a serious target on his back.  What will he do?  Look at verse 54:

“Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples.”

Jesus essentially lays low, under the radar.  But the authorities are watching.  Take a look at verses 55-57. 

“When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple area they asked one another, ‘What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the Feast at all?’ But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him.”

There is tension in the air!  How will Jesus respond from his hideout in the remote desert town of Ephraim?  Look at chapter 12, verses 1-2.

“Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.”

Bethany is just outside the city of Jerusalem, only about two miles.  That means Jesus is only a half hour walk from the very city where the religious leaders are on high alert.  A rider on horseback could alert the Sanhedrin in minutes, if they wanted to. 

But Jesus is back in Bethany anyway, and he joins his friends, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus, at a dinner party in his honor.  When I studied this passage, I thought, “Do they know how desperate the religious leaders are to arrest Jesus?  Do they know the Sanhedrin has been talking about Jesus?  Is this a secret dinner?  Are they taking any precautions?  Or are they oblivious?” 

Reading this passage, I don’t get a sense of concern.  Instead, I get a sense that the dinner party has a celebratory mood. Why?  Because it wasn’t all that long ago that Jesus had risen Lazarus from the dead, which is an obvious cause for celebration.  Lazarus had been dead four days!  Jesus brings him back to life, and now Lazarus is sitting at the table at a dinner party.  It had to be an amazing sight to behold.  Then something else happens at the dinner that has me thinking this was a celebration.

We’ll learn about that in the next post. 

Photo by Ricardo Arce on Unsplash

Would Jesus agree with a love bomb? – John 11:46-12:11, Preview

Have you heard of a “love bomb”?  I just learned the term this past week while watching the most recent episode (4/26/23) of the Apple+ show Ted Lasso.  In this episode one character expresses their love for another character by giving them extravagant gifts.  That’s a love bomb. One gift is a signed first edition of the Jane Austen novel, Sense and Sensibility. Another gift is a room full of vases of fresh flowers.  Another is a very public proclamation of love.

Have you ever love bombed someone?  Have you ever been love bombed?  It’s probably a good idea to try it out on your loved one every so often. But love bombs also have a shadow side.

Maybe you feel uneasy about this idea.  The person doing the love bombing in the Ted Lasso episode is wealthy, and therefore they don’t have to worry about whether they can afford it.  You, however, might not be able to love bomb someone because you can’t afford it, at least if the love bomb you’re envisioning is an expensive gift, like the ones I mentioned above.  You might wish you were wealthy and think that if you were, you’d be dropping love bombs all the time. Or maybe love bombs can be manipulative and wrong?

You might be reading this thinking, “I don’t know if I agree with this ‘love bomb’ idea.  What a poor use of money!  Does showing love have to include extravagant expense?”  Whether you can afford it or not, you might find it to be an unwise financial decision.  After all, there are plenty of other ways to show love, right?

My question is “How would Jesus respond to a love bomb?”  This week on the blog, we’ll find out.  In John 11:45-12:11, he gets a major love bomb dropped right on top of him.  Is it a romantic gesture?  Is it an unwise use of money?  Or is it one of those extravagant expressions of love that should inspire us to do likewise?

We get started in the next post.

The real choice about Jesus – John 10:22-42, Part 5

The Jewish religious leaders have stones in their hands, ready to launch them at Jesus. They believe they have caught him in the act of sin. As we learned in the previous post, though, Jesus asks them a question, “But what about my miracles? Don’t they prove that I and God the Father are one?” Look at how they respond to him in John 10, verse 33:

“We are not stoning you for any of [your miracles],” replied the Jews, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”

Nope.  Jesus hasn’t convince them.  The religious leaders are fixated on their viewpoint that he is a mere man, and therefore they believe they are justified in executing him.  They are unwilling to have even a sliver of humility or teachability. Not even his miraculous works penetrate their cold hearts.

It just goes to show how stubborn we humans can be.  We can be especially stubborn about anything that might require us to change.  If Jesus is who he said he was, those religious leaders would have to admit, “Okay, Jesus, you’re right, we are wrong, and we have been wrong for a long time.  We have treated you sinfully, and we confess our horrible behavior to you.”  That kind of confession and repentance takes a lot of maturity, maturity that many people simply don’t have.  The religious leaders certainly didn’t have it.  

So with stones still in their hands, how will Jesus respond?  If the leaders wouldn’t believe in his miracles, what would they believe?  Jesus now tries a different angle.  Look at verses 34-38.

“Jesus answered them, ‘Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and the Scripture cannot be broken— what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father’.”

Do you see the new tactic Jesus uses to try to convince the religious leaders to put down their stones and believe in him?  He goes to the Bible for proof.  He refers to a line in Psalm 82 in which God called people “gods.”  Jesus’ point is that if God the Father called some people “gods,” then why is it so difficult for the religious leaders to believe in the idea that the Chosen One, the Messiah, is God who has taken on human flesh?

Further, Jesus says again, the miracles he has done authenticate him.  The miracles are unbreakable evidence that he and the Father are one, or as he says it in verse 38, “the Father is in him, and he is in the Father.” 

With nearly 2000 years of hindsight, perhaps you and I hear Jesus say this, and we don’t have a hard time believing him, “Yes! Jesus, that is exactly right.”  Jesus is 100% man and 100% God.  Jesus is not just human.  He is not just some special version of humanity.  He is 100% human like you and I, and he is also 100% God.  He is both.  Fully both.  As a result, we are right to sing his praises at Christmas and Easter, and all throughout the year.  We are right to give our lives to serve him.

But the religious leaders were not convinced.  Look at verse 39.

“Again they tried to seize him, but he escaped their grasp.”

I don’t know how he did it.  Had to be a miracle how he got away, and there would be no execution that day.  Instead, Jesus returns to his ministry.  Look at verses 40-42:

“Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. Here he stayed and many people came to him. They said, ‘Though John never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about this man was true.’ And in that place many believed in Jesus.”

Over and over throughout our study of the Gospel of John, we have been presented with evidence for Jesus’ as God who took on flesh and is the Messiah, the savior of the World.  He himself claimed this.  John the Baptist said it was true about Jesus.  Jesus’ miracles provided even more evidence. 

The Gospel writer, John, is asking his readers, and that means us, “What are you going to do about Jesus?”  John has given us extensive evidence, and we have a choice.  The religious leaders refused to accept the evidence and believe in Jesus and follow him.  Belief in Jesus would necessitate change in their lives.  They knew that belief was not simply agreeing with ideas.  Of course, they refused even to believe the idea that Jesus was God. 

If it is even slightly true that we are like the religious leaders, a passage like this brings us to our knees in confession.  We have heard that Jesus is God, authenticated by his miracles, and therefore the right response is to believe in him by giving our lives to serve him.  That kind of belief will absolutely impact the choices we make in our lives.  How we spend our money, our time, and how we use our talents, how we talk about people, how we talk to people, how we interact with the world around us.  When we give our lives to Jesus, he wants to change us from the inside out. 

The religious leaders much preferred to go through the religious motions that they believed were correct, because their version of religion kept them in power.  Believing in Jesus, however, is something totally different than going through religious motions.  Believing in Jesus is a giving up of our rights, of our power in order to allow Jesus to enter our lives and make his home within us as we become the temple of the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit of Jesus then grows his Fruit of the Spirit in our lives, as we continually strive to empty ourselves, just like Jesus did for us.  As Paul would write in 1st Corinthians 9, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

The conclusion to all of this is quite serious.  How we think about Jesus is of utmost importance.  Then make your thoughts about Jesus a discussion about Jesus. Who are you talking with about the way you live your life?  Who are you talking with about the way Jesus lived his life? 

What we are learning about Jesus can become something we talk about.  None of us have Jesus and his way of life fully understood and put into practice.  So keep learning together with the other Jesus-followers in your life. In humility, learn together, talking and listening to one another.

If Jesus is who he says he is, then it is in everyone’s best interest to give our lives to not just believe in him, but show that our belief is real by becoming like him and serving his mission wherever we are. 

Photo by Small Group Network on Unsplash

How Jesus stayed his execution with a question – John 10:22-42, Part 4

In our study this week of John 10:22-42, we come to verse 30 which is Jesus’ big finish, referring back to the question originally posed to him by the religious leaders.  Remember the question?  It is the religious leaders’ question in verse 24: “Are you really the Messiah?”  In verse 30, Jesus does them one better.  He is not just the Messiah, he says, He and God the Father are one.

With that statement, Jesus has effectively dropped a theological bomb on the religious leaders.  Have you seen the meme where MMA commentators have a really big reaction to a turn of events in the ring?  The commentators lose their minds, astounded by what they just saw.  Something like that must have happened to the religious leaders.  When Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” he is saying, “I’m not just the Messiah, I am God.”  And ka-bloom, the religious leaders had a huge reaction.  Look at verse 31.

“Again the Jews picked up stones to stone him,”

The Jewish religious leaders are tearing their hair out, pushing and shoving to try to find some baseball-sized rocks, because Jesus has just crossed the line…at least in their minds.  Notice that John, in this verse, writes the word, “Again.”  This is not the first time that the religious leaders wanted to stone him.  Back in chapter 8:59 they tried to seize Jesus when he said something similar, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  At that time the religious leaders knew that he was insinuating that he was equal with God, but now in chapter 10 verse 30, Jesus is blatant about his revealing his identity when he says, “I and the Father are one.”

So they take action to stone Jesus. Are they just angry?  No, they are following the Old Testament Law which says in Leviticus 24:16,

“Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death. The entire assembly must stone him. Whether an alien or native-born, when he blasphemes the Name, he must be put to death.”

The religious leaders are correctly interpreting the Law.  Jesus is claiming to be God, and if he were merely a human, they would have been right in charging him with the crime of blasphemy.  But they were also very wrong in two ways. 

First, they didn’t give Jesus due process of a trial, but instead they rushed to capital punishment.  Second, and this is the more important way they are wrong, Jesus is not merely a human. When he says, “I and the Father are One,” he is telling the truth.  Of course, though, the religious leaders didn’t believe him when he said he was the Messiah.  They didn’t believe the miracles proved he was the Messiah, and they are definitely not going to believe he is God.

In their very self-assured opinion, with no possibility that they are wrong, they have determined that Jesus is wrong, and that he must die, having committed blasphemy.  With stones in their hands, Jesus speaks to them.  Look at verse 32,

“But Jesus said to them, ‘I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?’”

Jesus makes a very wise move here, which is no surprise because he is Jesus.  His method for stopping them before they start launching stones is to ask them a question.  We have seen Jesus harness the power of asking questions many times (such as this post). Now he stays his own execution with a thought-provoking question.

What question would be so effective?  It is a question about his miracles. His question about miracles points the religious leaders back to something very compelling.  He is basically saying, “People, I am not just saying that I am the Messiah, that the Father and I are one.  Anyone can say anything they want.  But I have proof.  My miracles!  What about the miracles I have done?”  In other words, Jesus is saying that he should not be executed because his miracles prove he is who he says he is. 

Will this rationale win over the religious leaders? We’ll find out in the next post.

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

The time Jesus seems to condemn people, but actually isn’t – John 10:22-42, Part 3

In John 10, verse 26, Jesus makes a curious accusation to the religious leaders who are confronting him: “You don’t believe because you are not my sheep.” What does he mean? Is he condemning them forever?

No. We know that he cannot mean that it is impossible for them to be his sheep.  Why? Because some of the religious leaders actually did place their faith in Jesus.  One we learned about already way back in chapter 3, Nicodemus (see posts starting here).  There will be more, many more, religious leaders who believe in him.  So Jesus does not mean “It is impossible for you to believe in me.” 

I think it is far better to understand Jesus as trying to attack the religious leaders’ arrogance.  Almost as if he is using reverse psychology, telling them what they cannot be, and thus hoping to get them to imagine the opposite.  We do this with kids and with arrogant, overconfident people.  If you tell a person that they cannot do X, they will really want to do X, and they just might. 

For the most part, though, the religious leaders have made a vocal choice about not placing their faith in Jesus.  They have chosen to harden their hearts against him.  So he continues teaching.  In verses 27 and 28, he uses the sheep and shepherd metaphor that he had previously used in the earlier part of John 10.  Jesus describes his sheep, his disciples, as people who know his voice, who listen to this voice.  He also says that he knows his sheep.  There is a two-way relationship.  The sheep know him, and he knows them.  The result of this mutual relationship, Jesus says, is that the sheep follow him.

This is a picture of discipleship.  We are followers of Jesus.  A disciple is a follower, a learner from their leader.  We disciples of Jesus make it our practice to listen for the voice of Jesus, because we know he is good and wants good for us.  We do that by listening for his Spirit who lives in us.  We listen for his voice in his word, as we make it our practice to study his word.  We listen for his voice in our world.  We make space to listen, to be quiet and listen.  We listen for his voice in the words of his people, which means we intentionally and consistently place ourselves in a Christian community where we will hear other people speak into our lives, because we trust that God’s Spirit will speak through them.  This is why it is so important that we have people who disciple, mentor or coach us.  Spiritual directors.  Therapists.  Small groups.  Others who walk closely with God.  And we talk about it.  We don’t just have friends who walk closely with God, and then talk about sports, or our hobbies, we talk about our relationship with God.  Then when we hear the Spirit’s voice, we follow it. 

In verse 28, Jesus makes a comment that we have heard numerous times, that he gives his followers eternal life.  Notice the connection here to an important verse earlier in the chapter, verse 10.  Whenever we think about the life that Jesus wants to give us, we need to keep these two verses together.  In verse 10 he refers to abundant life, and here in verse 28, he refers to eternal life.  Both are important.  Jesus wants us to experience both eternal life one day after earthly death, and abundant life now while we are still living on earth. 

Jesus once told a parable about this. He said, think about God compared to a good earthly father.  An earthly father wants their children to have an earthly daily life where they know they are loved, supported and cared for.  Where they are guided with wisdom.  How much more does God want that for us because he is a good heavenly Father?

When it comes to eternal life, Jesus says two things.  First, we shall never perish.  We know that we humans will all die.  So Jesus clearly isn’t saying that his followers will never die a human death.   He is saying that in the eternal realm, we will never die, we will never be separate from him.  That’s eternal life. 

Second, he says that no one can snatch us from his hand. Here he is also speaking about our situation in the eternal realm.  Some have interpreted Jesus’ phrase as referring to Christians’ salvation status during our earthly life, that once we are saved, we will never stray.  I think it would be very odd for Jesus to be talking about our status of salvation during our earthly life, however, when the entire sentence is about eternal life after death. No, he is speaking entirely about the eternal realm, and he is saying that when we are in the eternal realm, we cannot and will not lose our lives. 

Jesus goes on in verse 29 to bolster his claim, saying it’s not just his strong hand that will protect us in the eternal realm, but it is his Father protecting us as well.  God the Father, who is greater than all, has given his followers to Jesus, and there is no way anyone can change that in the eternal realm. 

Then we come to verse 30 which is Jesus’ big finish, and we’ll talk about that massive statement in the next post.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash