In the village of Bethany, two days before the Passover, there is a man named Judas, part of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples. There is also a woman, who is not valued as highly in that culture simply because she is not a man like Judas. She isn’t an insider like Judas is. Mark doesn’t even tell us her name.
The man, Judas, is a clever, calculating, ambitious individual who is looking for a way to earn money. He’s an entrepreneur, of sorts. The woman is impulsive, irrational, and wasteful. She’s about to lose a lot of money and look like an idiot in the process.
Judas is about to make a lot of people very happy; he’s going to win the approval of a lot of prestigious men in high society. The woman is found in the house of a former leper, where she’s going to make a lot of people furious at her.
And while the woman anoints Jesus for burial, Judas digs his own grave. Judas’ actions will lead to eternal shame and his premature end, while the woman’s actions will lead to an eternal legacy. Why? Because Judas hates Jesus and is looking for a way to betray him, but the woman loves Jesus and remains fiercely loyal to him.
This is another one of Mark’s “sandwich stories.” As the author of this account of Jesus’ life, Mark will often begin by telling Story A, then interrupt it with Story B, then return to finish Story A. He does this because without Story B, you won’t understand the meaning of Story A the way that Mark wants you to understand it.
Story A is a story of conspiracy and betrayal. The “chief priests and scribes”—the political, social, and religious leaders of the Jews—want to arrest and kill Jesus. The problem is that Jesus is wildly popular, especially among his Galilean countrymen who have arrived in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. These leaders don’t want to incite the crowds into a riot, because they’re afraid of how the occupying Roman government will respond.
They catch their break when one of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples approaches them. Judas Iscariot, on his own initiative, offers to turn Jesus over to them. He knows where Jesus will be when the crowds aren’t around. The Jewish leaders are thrilled and promise to pay Judas for betraying his rabbi to them.
Interrupting this sinister turn of events is a beautiful story of devotion. Jesus is staying at the home of a former leper named Simon. Simon lives in a small village outside of Jerusalem named Bethany. As Jesus and his disciples are eating dinner, a woman enters the room—a major faux pas according to local custom! She hurries over to Jesus, carrying an expensive alabaster flask. She shatters the flask and pours its entire contents on Jesus’ head. The whole room is filled with the smell of nard, an insanely expensive perfume from India.
I’m sure that this would rank among the top five awkward moments in Jesus’ ministry. The dinner guests are in shock. As they realize what this woman has done, they begin to grow angry. “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” they begin to ask themselves. “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor!” A denarius was about how much money a Jewish laborer would have earned in for a day’s work. In other words, this jar of perfume was worth a year’s salary for the average Jewish man! It was probably a family heirloom—how else could this woman possess an object of such value?
And what a waste! Think of all the good things that could have been done with that money! It could have fed a colony of homeless and starving people. And yet this woman simply dumps it all out and even breaks the jar! What a foolish, impulsive thing to do!
They dinner guests lash out at the woman. They let her know what a stupid and wasteful thing she has done. And apparently the poor woman is reduced to tears, because Jesus jumps to her defense: “Leave her alone! Why do you trouble her?”
Here’s where the values of God’s kingdom and the values of the world are clashing with one another. “She has done a beautiful thing,” Jesus tells his disciples. “She has done what she could.” It is a good thing to be generous to the poor, but it is a better thing to lavish honour upon Jesus, because he won’t be with them for long. In fact, he tells them, “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” He is going to be killed as a criminal, and she is sparing him the shame of being buried as a criminal, in an unceremonial manner. And Jesus stuns his disciples by telling them, “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.”
This little speech was the final straw as far as Judas was concerned. That very night, he promises to betray Jesus to his enemies.
As evil as Judas’ behavior is, and as wonderful as the woman’s actions are, the story isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus. If Jesus is simply another man, a great teacher or a prophet, then the woman’s actions are stupid and wasteful, and he is a narcissist for praising her. That’s the way Judas sees it, because he doesn’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is God’s anointed King. He doesn’t believe that Jesus is worthy of the highest honour.
Make no mistake, Jesus deserves much more than an alabaster flask filled with perfume. He deserves our entire affection and allegiance. This woman gave it to him, and he praised her for it. In turn, he gave his whole life for her and for all who believe in him as Savior and Lord. He came not to receive honour but to be betrayed. That is why he is worthy of the highest honour we can give him.
I’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth.
When I say that, I don’t mean it literally—though I do prefer sweet food to salty. My sweet tooth is for a different sort of food. It’s for the food of entertainment. It usually takes the form of TV or movies or music or video games or YouTube videos or even many kinds of novels and blogs and Wikipedia articles—anything that gives me a quick fix for boredom with practically no effort required on my part. Now, in my case, I’m usually a sucker for Internet entertainment, though I do dabble in movies. (My interest in video games had ended by the time I finished my sophomore year of college.)
Entertainment is quick, easy, and addictive.
Solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
Have you ever gone for an entire day eating nothing but junk food or fast food? I avoid these kinds of food a lot more now than I did a few years back. For one thing, I’m more health conscious. I know that if I want to remain fit and healthy, I need to maintain a balanced diet. For another thing, I also know what it feels like to eat a lot of bad food. I wake up the next day feeling like crap. It’s not so much a feeling of nausea as a general feeling of being unwell; my body knows that something isn’t right, that I’ve been substituting good healthy meals with food that is quick, cheap, tasty, and terrible for me.
Junk food (and fast food) is like food entertainment. It takes no effort to prepare, is easy to eat, and satisfies your hunger cravings. And truth be told, there’s nothing wrong with it per se. It’s not a sin to eat a Twinkie. But if your every meal consists of a box of Twinkies, we’ve got a problem.
The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
You can spend hours of your free time on entertainment—TV or the Internet or video games or whatever. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things per se, depending on the content. The problem comes when you take in too much of them.
You consume information a lot like you consume food, though in this case it’s your mind doing the consuming, not your body. So naturally, the quality of “food” your mind consumes will determine its health. I find that if I spend hours entertaining myself, I begin to feel unwell. It’s almost exactly the same feeling that I get when I substitute junk food for healthy food. And it’s a feeling that doesn’t go away easily. Even if I spend the rest of the day doing productive things or studying my Bible, I still feel crappy until I wake up the next morning.
Here’s where the law fails us as Christians: there’s no good way to say that spending X hours on entertainment is wrong while spending Y hours is okay. You can’t just invent new laws out of thin air declaring TV watching to be immoral while saying that YouTube is okay. That’s called legalism, and it’s an attempt to usurp God’s place as the one who determines what’s good and bad for us.
Maybe a more helpful way of looking at the issue of entertainment is to think about it the way we think about our diet. It’s not wrong to eat a Cadbury Creme Egg. But if Cadbury Creme Eggs are the bulk of your diet, don’t be surprised if you feel crappy all the time. Don’t be surprised if you feel depressed and lethargic and unable to focus. Don’t be surprised if your body begins to fall apart. Don’t be surprised if you begin to crave food that’s bad for you and lose your ability to enjoy food that’s good for you.
If you indulge in entertainment for hours every day, don’t be surprised if you feel crappy all the time. Don’t be surprised if you feel depressed and lethargic and unable to focus. Don’t be surprised if your spiritual life—your relationship with God—begins to fall apart. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself craving more and more entertainment while the Bible seems dull and boring.
My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.
You need healthy food. If you’re going to watch movies, you need to watch ones that challenge your mind. You need to read good books, classics that have stood the test of time. And above all, you need the true food that comes down from heaven. You need Jesus Christ. And if you want him, you can find him in the Word of God, the Bible. You can abide in him by preoccupying yourself with the Bible, with prayer, with time spent helping and encouraging and learning from other disciples of Jesus Christ.
Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
—1 Peter 2:2–3
When you do these things, you’ll find your energy returning. You’ll find a closer relationship with God. You’ll find yourself developing a taste for what’s good.
Feed your body well, but don’t neglect to feed your soul. You need to keep a close watch on your spiritual diet.
After all, you are what you eat.
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than honey to my mouth!
Through your precepts I get understanding;
therefore I hate every false way.
Or how about a blind beggar? Did you grow up with a smelly blind beggar as your hero? Me neither.
Maybe we should reconsider our heroes.
I know it’s been a little while since my last post on Mark 10:32–45, but do you remember how two of Jesus’ disciples (James and John) were behaving? They were gunning for high positions in the kingdom that they were sure Jesus was about to set up. They wanted to be great, to be looked upon highly by others. Jesus told them that true greatness requires you to serve and to suffer; Jesus himself, as the greatest of all, would serve and suffer more than any man who ever lived.
So now that Jesus has shot holes in our grandiose ideas of what it means to be his disciples, we find ourselves confronted with a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, huddled in the roadside dust outside the city of Jericho. Now, this is a guy who knows he has a problem and isn’t ashamed to admit it. He hears that Jesus is about to walk past him, surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast. So Bartimaeus decides to make a nuisance of himself. He begins yelling, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Now, when he calls Jesus the Son of David, Bartimaeus is identifying him as the promised Messiah, the coming King descended from David. This pathetic beggar has the audacity to request help from the glorious King. Members of the crowd are annoyed by his boldness and his endless racket, so they start shouting back at him to shut up. But Bartimaeus just gets louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus decides to put a stop to the commotion. He says, “Call him,” and it’s like a switch is flipped in the crowd; they’re all smiles toward Bartimaeus and encourage him to come over. They suddenly realize that Jesus values useless people like this blind man. Bartimaeus leaps up and comes to Jesus, who asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Now, remember how James and John replied when Jesus asked them the same question. They said, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (v 37). They wanted great things for themselves. What does Bartimaeus want? “Rabbi, let me recover my sight,” he says. That’s all. He just wants to see.
So Jesus says, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Bartimaeus can see again. He leaves Jericho behind and begins following Jesus on the uphill way to Jerusalem.
The contrast couldn’t be greater between Bartimaeus and Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, the Twelve. They are confident in their abilities (see vv 38–39); he knows he is helpless. They want a promotion from Jesus; he just wants mercy. They want power and status; he just wants to see. They want authority to “lord it over” other people (v 42); he wants his sight back so that he can follow Jesus’ lead.
It’s funny how a blind man can see who Jesus is and understand his mission, while Jesus’ own disciples are still in the dark.
If what Jesus said is true—that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (v 45)—and if Jesus truly is the King of God’s kingdom, then this means that lowly people like Bartimaeus are the people who are most like Jesus. They’re the ones who have faith in Jesus, because they don’t have faith in themselves. They know they’re needy, so they place every ounce of trust on Jesus as the one who can rescue them from their helpless state.
So what are you trying to get out of Jesus?
Do you want him to turn you into a great person? Do you want him to fulfill your life dreams for you? At times, I catch myself wishing that I could become a very popular and influential pastor someday. What dreams of greatness do you wish that Jesus would grant?
Let’s shift our thinking. Instead of requesting greatness and self-actualization from Jesus, let’s just ask to see. Let’s start asking him to open our eyes, to see him as the Suffering Servant who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Let’s ask simply that we may know and understand him, so that we can follow him on the way. That’s all you and I need to be his disciples.
Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he? When his disciples want him to explain his teaching, hoping that he will add a few caveats, he only gets more extreme.
This is hard stuff. Anyone who has seen nasty marriages and family conflict must feel sympathy for people in those situations. How could anyone object to such a divorce? We all want our friends and family to escape suffering, don’t we?
This was the way Jesus’ countrymen thought as well. They turned to Deuteronomy 24:1–3 to demonstrate that God permitted divorce if a man “has found some indecency” in his wife. While some (more conservative) Jews argued that this meant adultery was the only ground for divorce, most agreed that these verses allowed divorce for any reason. Regardless, all agreed that divorce was permissible.
Some of these Pharisees must suspect that Jesus holds radical views on this issue (and boy, are they right). They want to undermine Jesus in some way, and they know that if he places any restrictions on the right to divorce, he’ll become unpopular with the crowds. So they ask him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Jesus replies, “What did Moses command you?” Of course, they refer him back to Deuteronomy.
Now, here’s where Jesus brings down the hammer. The Deuteronomy passage didn’t command divorce; it acted as damage control in case of divorce—which it assumed was already taking place. It prevented God’s people from being defiled by forbidden forms of remarriage. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.” In other words, Deuteronomy doesn’t reveal God’s ideal plan for marriage. God was being flexible with his stubborn people; but Jesus hates hardness of heart, and he holds his disciples to a higher standard. So he tells them what God really thinks of divorce.
In order to establish God’s original plan for marriage, Jesus goes back earlier than Deuteronomy. He goes all the way to the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. He reminds the Pharisees that “God made them [man] male and female” (Genesis 1:27). They were created incomplete; God intended for them to be paired together. “Therefore,” Jesus says, “a man will leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” He’s quoting Genesis 2:24 here and establishing it as the foundation for marriage. God created man and woman to be paired together, and marriage is what weaves them together. It’s an act of God’s creation. For this reason, Jesus warns, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
In other words, divorce is man’s attempt to undo God’s work of uniting husband and wife. It’s an attempt at uncreation, at tearing apart God’s created order. Jesus insists that divorce is an act of rebellion against God, an attempt to usurp divine authority. Jesus has come to serve and submit to God, so he is adamant that his disciples not participate in such a power play that stands in total conflict to his mission.
What makes this teaching so hard is that divorce doesn’t feel like rebellion; it doesn’t feel like a power play. It feels like a painful and desperate attempt to escape an awful situation. That’s why Jesus’ disciples question him afterward. They’re shocked by how radical and insensitive his teaching is. But Jesus only gets more extreme: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Apparently, divorce is not only an attempt to usurp divine authority, but it’s a failed attempt to usurp divine authority. God refuses to accept man’s efforts to undo his act of creation. From his perspective—the only one that matters—a “divorced” couple is still married. He will not permit man to be victorious over him.
As Christians argue about divorce, the debate often centers around possible “exception clauses” found in Matthew 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:15. These are important discussions. However, it’s easy to make the mistake the Pharisees made, to focus on finding a loophole to get out of a bad marriage. Jesus calls his disciples to be willing to suffer as he suffered. Divorce is an easier path, but Jesus has not called his followers to an easier path. He wants them to explore other options.
This may be the most difficult saying of Jesus for me to stomach. It seems cruel not only for people in bad marriages, but also for people who are already divorced. Are they doomed to remain lonely if they aren’t able to return to their previous spouses? The fallout from Jesus’ teaching is terrible. It would have been just as terrible in his day as it is now. Yet he said these words anyway.
This leads us, I think, to the question, “Would Jesus ask his followers to suffer for his sake?” Would he dare to ask them to suffer through painful marriages? Would he dare to ask them to remain single for the rest of their lives if need be? I think we can say that yes, he would.
Jesus wants disciples who, like him, will remain in suffering if that’s what it takes to follow him. “If anyone would come after me,” he says, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). He was willing to suffer if that’s what it took to submit to the will of God. If you join him, he will be glad to call you his own when he comes in glory.
Today’s passage overlaps a bit with the passage we studied last week, because really it’s all one long story that we’re examining a piece at a time. After eight chapters in which Jesus’ divine authority is on display, his disciples begin to understand what’s going on. Peter realizes, “You are the Christ!” So finally we’re getting somewhere. Jesus is the king, anointed by God, whom the prophets had said would come to rescue Israel.
Unfortunately for Peter’s dreams of a glorious political kingdom, Jesus announces that his mission is to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again. That doesn’t exactly fit into his disciples’ mindset of what glory looks like, so Peter takes him aside to rebuke him. But Jesus turns the tables on Peter and chews him out, calling him Satan and telling him, “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Now, I think most of us would agree that what Peter said was wrong. But why does Jesus come down so hard on him? Well, we’re about to find out, because Jesus won’t let this teaching moment slip by. There’s a crowd following him and his disciples, so he calls them all together and tells them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Apparently, Jesus isn’t trying to be Mr. Popular.
Remember from a while back that to be a disciple of Jesus means that you need to be with Jesus and you need to imitate him. To be with Jesus, you need to know who he is—that he’s the Messiah. To imitate him, you need to know his mission, and his mission is to fulfill all that God the Father has in store for him—his suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection. He has come to submit to God’s will. Now, Jesus is also calling his followers to submit. He tells them that they need to deny themselves; they don’t get to choose for themselves how they will live. Every disciple must “take up his cross.” This is a vivid and repulsive image in the mind of the crowd. They’ve seen crucifixions take place at the hand of their Roman overlords. The main point of crucifixion isn’t to torture a person to death; it’s to present that person as a public spectacle of what happens when you defy the might of Rome. A man going to his crucifixion would be led through crowded streets, bearing the crossbar of his own cross. On his public death march, he is no longer acting as a rebel; Rome has won, and he has submitted to its authority. In the same way, Jesus is telling his disciples, “If you want to follow me, you must join me, abandoning your old mindsets and old ways of life. You must come alongside me in absolute submission to God.”
Now, that’s a tough pill to swallow, so Jesus tells us why it’s necessary. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Counterintuitively, a disciple must give up his entire life to God in order to save it. Like the oil in the jar of the prophet’s widow (2 Kings 4:1–7), it can’t be renewed unless it’s entirely poured out. A disciple can’t hold back a few corners of his life for himself. He can’t play it safe. He must devote himself exclusively to his Lord, take risks for him, wear himself out with the Lord’s work. If he tries to hold back, he’ll give up the very life he’s been trying to keep for himself, because God will take it away from him.
You’ll lose your life if you try to keep it for yourself; you’ll save it if you let it go. Jesus explains this paradox: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” If you keep yourself back from God, it won’t be gain at all, even if you got all the approval and money and comfort and pleasure and self-esteem you could dream of. You’ll lose your soul, and you won’t be able to get it back. “For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus asks, and the answer is, “Nothing.” All that honor and luxury you’ve gained won’t be enough to buy it back.
Why can’t you buy back your soul? Jesus warns, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” You can’t buy your soul back because Jesus will be too embarrassed to be seen with you. He’ll be too ashamed to be around someone who prefers “this adulterous and sinful generation” to “the glory of his Father” and the presence of “the holy angels.” No amount of contaminated money or worthless prestige that you can offer will ever wallpaper over that shame. Jesus can’t be bribed.
But then, Jesus delivers a guarantee to the crowd. “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Jesus won’t allow you to buy your way into his kingdom; he offers it freely. And there are some in that crowd who will consider the cost and still choose to be his disciples. And three of them are about to catch a glimpse of the King with his veil removed and his glory revealed. This kingdom is of supreme worth, more valuable than any earthly kingdom.
So Jesus has come to submit himself to his Father’s will, and his disciples are called to do the same. If you tend to be a self-ambitious person, Jesus is warning you not to seek earthly glory but to submit to God, devote yourself to him, and in this way receive the glory of his kingdom. If you tend to be a lazy person, Jesus is warning you to stop holding back and to start pouring yourself out for God. Go all in. And then…then you’ll begin to see a radiant sliver of the glory that awaits you.