Sermon: The Right Thing at the Right Time

Jesus calls us to do the right thing at the right time as we seek to honor him with our lives.

The Right Thing At The Right Time
John 12:1-8 NIV

1Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then 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.

4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5″Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6He 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.

7″Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ” It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s All A Matter of Timing

Several years ago, friends of ours told this story about the pastor they served with.  This pastor was known for being rather abrupt, and was not the most subtle in conversation.  During a wedding at their church, the pastor was officiating, of course.  When the time came for the vows, the groom was rather nervous, as many grooms are.

The pastor began to read the vows —

“Do you, John, take Mary for your wife…”

At which point, the anxious groom interrupted by saying “I do.”  The pastor, obviously not finished with the entire reading of the vows, looked at him and said, “Not yet!”

The pastor started again, “And do you promise before God and these witnesses to to love her….”

Again, the groom jumped the gun, “I do.”

And again the pastor replied, “Not yet!”

Well this went on a couple more times until finally the pastor got to the last question —

“…and forsaking all others to keep thee only unto her so long as you both shall live?”

He paused and looked at the groom, who by now was so gun shy that he didn’t dare say a word.

After what seemed like an eternity, the pastor finally turned to him and said, “Now!”

To which the groom belatedly and sheepishly replied, “I do.”

Well, it’s all a matter of timing, I suppose, and that is exactly what Jesus is telling Judas in the passage we just read this morning.  We’re thinking today about “The Right Thing at the Right Time.”

A Cast of Characters

In this whole idea of “The Right Thing at the Right Time,” we only have a couple of real choices.  We’re not even going to discuss today doing the wrong thing, because there is never a right time to do the wrong thing.  No, we’re looking today at doing the right thing at the right time, which is more difficult than you might believe.

So, our choice is between doing the right thing at the wrong time, or doing the right thing at the right time.  Now that you’re clear on our two choices, (or thoroughly confused as the case may be), let’s look at this story we just read.

We are now in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  John tells us it is six days before the Passover, and the last meal Jesus will share with his disciples.  But in this story, the scene is different.

Jesus is in Bethany again, at the home of his friends — Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.

Lazarus is identified as the man Jesus raised from the dead.  Of course, everyone in Bethany knew that story.  They knew that Lazarus had been taken sick, and in a few days had died.  Jesus arrived four days after his death and burial.  And in a moment in which we get a glimpse into the love that Jesus had for this brother and his sisters, we are shown Jesus standing before the tomb of his now dead friend.  And Jesus’ response is described in the shortest and most poignant verse in all of scripture —

“Jesus wept.”

But that moment of genuine sorrow would turn to joy, as Jesus calls Lazarus to come out of the grave.  He does, they take the grave clothes off of him, and Lazarus lives!  We read that story, but can you imagine the impact that event had on the small village of Bethany?  So much so, that John reminds his readers again, writing a couple of decades after Jesus ascension into heaven, that this is the same Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead.  And he and Jesus are having dinner together again at his home in Bethany.

But there are other characters there, too.  I love what John says about Martha here —

“Martha served…”

Would you have expected anything else?  I mean, we are who we are, and Martha was the hostess of the home.  She made sure every detail was right, every dish was perfect, every guest was well-attended.  Of course Martha served, that’s what Martha did.

Even after that famous story where on a previous visit Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping get dinner ready.  Jesus mildly rebukes Martha then by saying that “Mary has chosen the better part…” But Martha is unfazed.  Martha is always fretting about what they’ll serve, who will be there, will they like it, can they get fresh vegetables, and on and on.

If you had been able to visit with my mother and dad when my mother was living, as we often did, as we were getting up from the table from either breakfast or lunch, my mother would invariably ask us, “What do you want for supper?”  She was a Martha, too, and thank God for Martha’s or we’d never have a decent meal!

Then, there was Mary.  Mary is the dreamer, Mary is the contemplative, Mary is a sponge for everything Jesus says. She hangs on his every word.  But at the grave of Lazarus, we hear the disappointment in Mary’s voice —

“If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And, for the first time Mary doubts Jesus.  She doubts his love for them, she doubts his friendship, she doubts his judgment, she doubts her own devotion to him.

Of course, those doubts are quickly put to rest as together they stand at the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, and as Lazarus comes forth, all Mary’s doubts vanish.  Jesus is everything she ever thought he was, and more.

So, on this night, after all these years of friendship, after all the dinners in their home, on this night they are honoring Jesus.  One wonders why now, why this night, why this dinner?  But I’m sure the whole idea was Mary’s.  It sounds so much like her.

I can hear the conversation now:

Mary:  I think we ought to honor Jesus in a very special way.  He’s not like anyone we’ve ever known before.  And, of course, Lazarus you owe your life to him, as we all do.

Martha:  I guess you’ll be expecting me to fix a fine meal for everyone, because if you invite Jesus you’ve got to invite that gang that follows him around all the time.

Mary:  Well, of course, and you always do such a wonderful job, Martha.  What do you think, Lazarus?

Lazarus:  I think we could do that, Mary.  Martha, get some help this time so you won’t be so stressed out.  We don’t want another melt-down over dinner, again.

So, let’s assume Mary is the instigator of this particular meal.  She obviously has something special in mind.  She herself is going to honor Jesus.  It’s Lazarus home and as head of the family, he’ll sit at the table with Jesus and tell all their guests about what a wonderful person Jesus is.

Martha, of course, will prepare a wonderful meal, arrange the dining area, and make sure all the details are in order.

All of that doesn’t leave much for Mary to do.  Except that Mary has her own idea.  She will do something extraordinary for Jesus.  She’ll anoint him with a costly perfume, reserved for royalty, to express her love, devotion, and faith in him.

Actually, we don’t know exactly what “nard” or “spikenard” is.  But John identifies it as costly, and we do know that it was used to give fragrance to King Solomon’s couch.  Kind of an Old Testament version of Fabreze, only a lot more expensive.

That brings us to the last character, Judas.  After Mary anoints Jesus’s feet with this rare and fragrant perfume, and the fragrance fills the entire house, Judas asks,

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”

Quickly, John tells us that Judas wasn’t really interested in the poor, but because Judas kept the common money bag for the disciples, and because Judas helped himself to its contents, he was always on the lookout for ways to enrich himself.

The Explanation

Here’s where we get the meaning of this entire incident.  Jesus says,

7″Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ” It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Now remember this is six days before the Passover and 7 days before Jesus crucifixion.  And you remember that they took Jesus body off the cross, but because it was so late in the day, and the Sabbath was coming at sundown, they did not have time to anoint his body for burial.  The custom of the day was that the body would be washed by relatives, covered with fragrant oils and perfumes, and then wrapped in the grave clothes for burial within 24 hours.

But in Jesus’s case, the Sabbath intervened.  You couldn’t perform those tasks on the Sabbath.  So, his body was placed in the grave, but early on Sunday morning the women come to the tomb to anoint him for proper burial.  That’s when they discover that Jesus has been raised from the dead.

So, if Mary doesn’t anoint Jesus here on this special night, no one will.  No one will honor his earthly body, no one will lovingly prepare it for burial, no one will perform the final rites of proper Jewish tradition for the dead.

But Judas is interested in cashing it in.  He wonders aloud why this wasn’t sold to help the poor.  Jesus has an interesting answer.

Rather than confront Judas, rather than reveal what was really in Judas heart (you remember that Judas received 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus), Jesus simply says —

7″Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ” It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Of course we just covered verse 7.  Verse 7 is a case of Mary doing the right thing at the right time.   Mary anointed Jesus’s body for burial, because no one else was going to.  She did the right thing, even if she did not fully comprehend the meaning of her devotion at the time.

But Jesus’s words to Judas are also about doing the right thing at the right time.

Jesus says, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

Devotion to Jesus Means Care for the Poor

In the first part of verse 8, Jesus is actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11 —

11 There will always be poor people in the land.”

But the verse doesn’t end there.  Here’s the rest of the quote —

“There will always be poor in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”

What does it mean to do the right thing at the right time?  Well, for Mary, doing the right thing at the right time meant that she anointed Jesus.  She expressed her love and devotion to him.  In doing so, she also unconsciously anointed his body for burial.  She didn’t know it at the time, but she did.  If it hadn’t been for Mary, no one would have shown respect and love for Jesus at his death in this traditional way.  She did the right thing at the right time.

But, Jesus said, “you will not always have me with you.”  While he was present, Mary did the right thing.  But now that Jesus is not present, how do we honor him?  After all this evening was for Jesus who was the guest of honor.

When Jesus is not physically present with us, we honor him by honoring the poor.

Most of the time when the words of Jesus are quoted here, “The poor you will always have with you,” we take that to mean that because the poor have always been and will always be here, we don’t have to do anything for them.

“Oh, the poor — nothing you can do about that.  Always have been poor people, always will be poor people.  Even Jesus didn’t tell Mary to take care of the poor.”

And of course, if we read Jesus’s words that way, we do violence to their meaning.  We twist the words of our Lord to mean something he never intended.

If you read Deuteronomy the 15th chapter, you will find instructions to the nation of Israel on how to help the poor.  First, those who are not poor, are to always have an “open hand” to the poor.  What’s the opposite of an open hand?  A clinched fist, of course.  A fist closed up so tightly that nothing can be forced out of it.

By contrast, an open hand is a generous hand.  An open hand is a hand of love, concern, and justice.

The passage in Deuteronomy talks about the year of Jubilee.  Every seventh year, all debts were cancelled and all indentured servants freed.  But in between, Israel was still to provide for the poor.  Why?  Because the poor don’t exist just one year out of seven, they exist all the time — the poor you will always have with you.

And, these aren’t the spiritually poor, these are the honest-to-goodness economically poor.

So, if we want to do the right thing at the right time this lenten season, we will honor Jesus just like Lazarus, Mary, and Martha did.  But, instead of a banquet, or anointing him with perfumed oil, we will take care of the poor.

That’s why we helped put a roof on the house of a man in our community.  That’s why we have helped provide groceries, and gas, and utility bills, and rent payments, and clothing, and medical care, and bus tickets.  Because we always have the poor with us, and because we honor Jesus when we help the poor.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between the “deserving” poor, or the “grateful” poor, or the poor who are “trying.”  No, he just says poor.  Because our responsibility is not to figure out excuses to keep from helping, our responsibility is to help.  We leave to God the right to judge the motives of those we help.  Of course, we don’t want to throw our help away, we don’t want to be stolen from or lied to, like Judas did to Jesus, because there are people who will do that.

But our guidelines are assurances of good stewardship, not excuses to avoid helping.

So, this lenten season, as we approach Palm Sunday and Easter, let’s remember that we too can honor Jesus.  We can’t do it by throwing a big banquet because he’s not here with us.  We can’t do it by anointing his body for burial because that’s already been done, and he’s not with us.

What we can do to honor Jesus is to care for the poor.  They are still with us, and we are to be as generous and open-handed to them as if they were Jesus himself.  Let’s continue to do the right thing because it is the right time.

34″Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37″Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’