"Our World of Contrasts"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - April 1, 2001

Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8

     This morning we are going to contrast the responses of two people who were very close to Jesus. We readily recognize the story in our lesson because it is one of the rare episodes in Jesus' ministry that is recorded in all four Gospels. The early evangelists found this experience of Jesus so compelling and filled with possible lessons that the circumstances of the story changed with each telling.

     Most preachers in every generation have tended to take a good story and bend it so that it fits the point they are trying to illustrate. We preachers have not changed in this respect through the centuries. We are all guilty. Listen how the same story was changed from what had been read for us this morning from John's Gospel.

     Both Matthew and Mark placed the setting of this story in the house of Simon who lived in Bethany. Who is Simon? We could easily think the Gospel writers were referring to Simon Peter. To find Simon's identity we have to read Luke's account of the story. There we discover that Simon was a Pharisee. We also learn from Luke that the woman applying the perfumed mixture to Jesus' feet was a prostitute. Simon said, "If Jesus is a prophet, he should know the kind of woman this is who is touching him."

     In John's account, the story takes on an entirely different meaning. John provides so much detail that there is a strong suggestion that what we are reading was being remembered by an eyewitness. Could it be that John's account of a story is the accurate one and perhaps the source of the others?

     In John's Gospel, the home where the story unfolds was not Simon's after all; it was the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. John recorded that the event took place six days before Passover. He described how a meal had been prepared by Martha. He named Mary as the woman who applied the perfumed compound to Jesus' feet. He described how Mary wiped them with her hair. The writer also wrote, "The sweet smell of the perfume filled the house." Why would he have recorded that unless he had been there?

     Now that the story has been given its appropriate setting, let us now examine how John methodically began his comparison of two people. John knew that Judas was the one who challenged Mary's generosity. Judas wanted to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. John revealed that as the treasurer of the group, Judas frequently helped himself to the disciples' money. He knew that in all likelihood, the money Judas wanted to give away would not have found its way to the poor. None of these insights into Judas' character are found in the other Gospels.

     In John's account, we have two contrasting responses to Jesus. Both responses came from people who were extremely close to Jesus. Mary knew very little about Jesus' ministry. She was not able to follow him while he preached, healed and challenged the authorities. However, she knew how her attitudes and behavior changed when she was around him. The one sermon Jesus preached repeatedly contained variations on who people can become when they love one another. Mary had internalized his message.

     Judas, on the other hand, saw the enormous power Jesus possessed.  He knew that Jesus had the "right stuff" to lead Israel to its former stature among the nations of the world. Any miracle worker who could confound the authorities with his words and rally crowds that numbered in the thousands, had to be the Messiah for which Israel had longed for centuries.

     Both Mary and Judas communicated what was inside of them.  Mary extended herself through an innocence that was timeless. Judas' communicated through his spirit the desired outcome he wanted more than anything else. His desires drove him and shaped his future.

     How does this drama translate into having meaning for us?  Khalil Gibran once wrote, "Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart." All of us are attracted to those who allow us to feel accepted just as we are. We are open to their guidance. We are influenced by their caring. We can be honest with them and know with confidence that we will never be abandoned in spite of our past or by the discovery of information that might disappoint others. All of us want to be surrounded by such people. Sometimes we forget that Jesus invited us to be one of them. Mary was one who did not forget.

     We have also known the experience of coming into contact with those who are absorbed with themselves. From them, we know the feeling of being misunderstood. We soon recognize that their observations are the ones that "have to be right." They do not hear us, nor do they understand the love we express. They hold out their love and support as rewards that must be earned. Judas did not recognize the source of Jesus' power. He only saw what he wanted and needed to see.

     The fact that both Mary and Judas knew Jesus well should give us pause. How could two people be in the presence of God's word made flesh and not experience the same thing? When we plan our lives around only what we want, we cease to see all else. Likewise, when we come among others as one who serves, we equally cease to see all else. We have to decide which spirit we would rather radiate. As we decide, we need to hear again the two most powerful words Jesus ever spoke, "Follow me!"


     Thank you, God, for the many guiding sign-posts in our lives. When we are faced with hostility, we may choose peace. When we meet human need, we may respond with generosity. When those who grieve enter our lives, we may offer compassion. When we see friends living with crossed purposes, we may offer counsel and advice. We thank you that every experience of life provides the setting that gives us choices to make. We have discovered that we are beings who can change and grow. Thank you for each opportunity to create a more improved version of who we are. Thank you for allowing Jesus to teach us how to change with two powerful words, "Follow me." Amen.


     Loving and always present God, our lives are so full and it is challenging to believe that we are beginning our fifth week in Lent. It is such a peaceful experience to come here and to focus our awareness on your love coming among us in a form we could see and understand.

     The world in which we live is filled with the stress from quotas, from traffic patterns, from inner-office competition, from long hours spent making those above us look good, from the concerns and demands of our families, and from our awareness that so little time is left to nurture the spirit that governs how and what we communicate.

     So this morning is a treat. We have time to pray. We have opportunities to sing. We can participate in a ten-century old sacrament that helps us remember the love that Jesus expressed throughout his ministry. Even from a cross he loved until his body could no longer contain his spirit. These moments of worship truly do help us decide with greater clarity who it is we want to be.

     Move us to communicate the same mercy we seek from you. Inspire us to radiate the truth Jesus taught -- To do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .