Posts filed under 'navigating extravagance'
Now to the part of the original question that was most assuredly the actual “meat” of the issue that was raised. If you haven’t read the first parts of the series, you may want to do so before proceeding. This subject, however, diverges in many ways from the crux of the issue as extravagant devotion translates into extravagant lifestyles, as I said in my last post on the subject. Mary of Bethany’s act of devotion was not the fruit of a random burst of emotion or wave of appreciation for Jesus. It was the fruit of years of attentiveness and connection to where the story of His life was headed. Her extravagant devotion in the moment, in other words, was the fruit of years of devotion and extravagance that culminated in the “memorial” that would forever honor her choices and her love.
Thus the issue of the day - how does one navigate extravagant expressions of devotion in the worship service?
Man looks at the outward appearance
It is noteworthy related to my paradigm of extravagance that I consider extravagant devotion to Jesus “showing up” and “not quitting”. Opening up one’s mouth to sing or pray most of the time counts, too, I would think. In other words, one cannot measure extravagance by outward appearance. This is how man judges, and God made clear to Samuel the prophet that the inward reality, or the heart of a man, is the far better measuring rod in the manner that we define extravagance.
Thus I am rarely moved by the outward, momentary burst of devotion unless it comes in context to the life of one who has a long history of perseverance and consistency in devotion to Jesus. The one who shouts and dances in the front for a few prayer meetings is neat, but I tend to watch for consistency. In other words, if “that guy” is still dancing ten years later with a heart filled with true joy, (meaning, “that guy” is truly joyful in other contexts of ministry and relationship) then I will be impressed.
This is a critical paradigm for me because of the manner in which some in the modern Charismatic stream today consider boisterous demonstrations of worship and praise the mark of a healthy meeting. If the congregation is subdued, some are troubled. Where is the noise, the activity, and the shouting? While I appreciate those things, and by no means have a heart to shut any of those expressions out of the worship mix (in fact, dancing, shouting, and clapping were accepted and encouraged parts of the Old Testament worship service), I can’t use those measures to gauge the “success” or effectiveness of a meeting. I have a heart to produce something different in someone’s life than outward exuberance.
Pray and do not lose heart
Luke 18:1, in my thinking, establishes the context for a life of faith: “men ought to pray always and not lose heart”. I define “always” in the same manner as Paul the Apostle: “without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). As E.M. Bounds once said, the man who prays stops sinning while the man who sins stops praying. Thus my goal is to walk in continual fellowship and communion with Christ by walking in the Spirit - if I do so Paul assures me that I will not fulfill the lust of the flesh. So many of the apostolic prayers of the New Testament are prayers for perseverance, endurance, and strength or grace from God for the journey we are on. The pursuit of righteousness fully expressed in my life demands an extravagant pursuit of God in the place of prayer and worship.
Thus extravagance in worship can be defined in a manner that transcends personality. The introvert and the extrovert, the right-brained and the left-brained, the creative and the logical can all enter in with equal footing into a pursuit of holiness and wholeheartedness that flows from the grace and power of God and not our will or personal exuberance. The definition shifts from hand-clapping, flag waving, shouting and tears to consistency, faith, hope, and love flowing from the deepest parts in a manner that translates into long-term obedience to the commands of God. Obedience is extravagant.
I don’t mind flag waving, by the way
I recognize flag-waving, shofar-blowing, shouting and clapping worship services for what they are: a place for like-minded personalities to gather and express their excitement for Jesus in a manner that fits their internal makeup. This truth, even more than doctrinal differences, tends to define how, why, and where people gather to worship together in different spiritual cultures. So much of our Christianity is cultural - more than we realize. Knit to our cultural expressions of love and devotion to Jesus is our natural propensity to believe that the way we do it, who we do it with, and where we do it is the best and most superior place for anyone to be.
Problems often arise in the collision of two or more spiritual cultures. Spiritual pride, religious opinions, or the error of “self-preference” can emerge by which we elevate in an unbiblical way cultural elements of worship. It is not helpful to magnify our expression of worship as the superior expression. Often there are no biblical restrictions to these expressions - yet neither is there a biblical mandate that all must worship in the manner they imagine is best. What is the answer? This is where humility, love, service, and 1 Corinthians 12-14 must come into the picture. Sometimes people who are excessively exuberant in a worship service express themselves in this manner because of the above factors working within their understanding.
Sometimes people don’t really think about what they are doing, and default to what they have always done. Rarely does someone from an exuberant worship culture lay aside their personal preference to consider the people around them. Yet it is equally as rare that someone responds negatively when asked to do so. I find that people do what they have always done until someone invites them into a better option, or as Paul put it, “a more excellent way”. This more excellent way (1 Cor. 13), in context, was about love for the corporate body in a worship gathering - and not just love in the general sense. Paul was using the biblical definition of love to establish a worship culture that majored on considering the big picture and the heart of God rather than exalting individual rights and personal preference.
A paradigm of serving rather than being served
This is why one would be hard-pressed to find flag-waving, shofar-blowing, distracting behavior in our prayer room on a day-to-day basis. In the collision of spiritual cultures, we must labor to find the expression of worship that is most conducive to long-term perseverance in prayer. The prayer meetings, in their primary function, exist to minister to the Lord. The worship aspect of the prayer meeting exists to enable the people to persevere longer in the place of prayer together. It’s not really mystical - it’s very practical in nature. It is important to keep in mind that components of the prayer meeting and the worship service are built to serve the people by facilitating “enjoyable prayer”. They are not a platform for anyone to come in and become the center of the meeting. God must be the central figure that dominates the meetings, not the individual.
In one sense, the Corinthian church was formed as much by their Greek culture as it was by biblical principles. Paul really didn’t have this kind of problem in the more Hebraic (and thus holistic and communal by nature) churches he planted. It wasn’t until he came to Greece via Macedonia (after being driven out of Berea) that he encountered the individualistic mindset that characterized the Corinthian church. It was every man (and woman) for himself, at times under the guise of the “unction of the Spirit”. Thus Paul had to introduce or reinforce biblical concepts that transcended their cultural understanding and proclivities; particularly in the manner in which they were disrupting corporate life.
In other words, the Corinthians had to learn to serve one another in love rather than looking to be served in the corporate meeting. Those that hammer the Charismatic church on the 1 Cor. 14:40 verse (”Let all things be done decently and in order.”) would do well to keep in mind that it took Paul three chapters and 84 verses to make his point related to sowing values patiently before stating his conclusion. Secondly, they would do well to keep in mind just how “out of order” these Corinthians were in the manner in which they disrupted the meetings self-centeredly without love. With that in mind, Paul was brought correction where needed (”the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets”, or, you really can govern the prophetic “unction” in a loving way that serves the big picture). He also brought vision where needed.
Where did it land? In my opinion, Paul was not against exuberant expressions of devotion in a worship gathering; he was looking to curtail unhelpful or uneccesarily distracting expressions of devotion. This is what we do at IHOP-KC, particularly related to our prayer meetings. If someone is behaving or worshiping in a manner that is making it difficult for the people around them to engage or participate in the prayer meeting, we will ask them (kindly) to move to the back of the room if they wish to continue. We invite them to consider the people around them in love related to the manner in which they are worshiping Jesus. Often, this is enough to help someone walk in a more excellent manner related to the people that populate our prayer meetings from all over the world - not just their corner of it.
I find that most are very sincere and very devoted to serving - and they truly had no idea that they were acting in a manner that was unhelpful to others. A few, who were looking for attention, often stop altogether when asked to go to the back (where no one is looking at them). Even fewer choose to buck against the system and press their rights - due to the manner in which they were looking to make a statement or a point in the first place. We kindly ask these folks to leave.
All are called to the place of extravagant pursuit of Jesus, in prayer, worship, and lifestyle. For this season of church history, there is no mandate that we do so in the same room.
March 21st, 2008
I’m still working through the question asked a few weeks back about navigating extravagant expressions of devotion. We looked at, in the first part of this accidental series, the high cost of extravagance as depicted through the lens of Mary of Bethany. After a bit of clarification, we looked at some of the factors that possibly hindered the disciples from expressing their devotion to Jesus in a similar manner. We then focused for a moment on how one might navigate the extravagant devotion of a fellow believer in the manner that love expresses itself through consistently radical lifestyle choices.
As I said last week, I feel that the dynamics of walking with a fellow believer who is making radical lifestyle choices are both clear-cut yet subtly difficult. “Clear-cut” in that one can biblically and logically conclude what our proper response should be regarding a brother who is giving themselves to Jesus with unusual devotion. “Subtly difficult” in that the heart, deceitfully wicked, often tugs at my sensibilities and my pride as I am tested in the midst of provocation. In regards to the original post, I would say that this context was what I originally had in mind.
Of course, the more precise application one can easily draw from the Mary of Bethany passage is directly related to extravagant expressions of worship rather than lifestyle. Thus the question one would naturally ask is, “how do we respond to extravagant expressions of devotion during the worship service?” (I am paraphrasing, of course) When I read the Mary of Bethany account, however, this is not what I tend to focus on. Mary seemed to make these kinds of choices repeatedly and honestly over a long period of time, and it’s that kind of extravagance I tend to gravitate towards - the consistently authentic kind. When I read, then, the Mary of Bethany passage, a few things come to mind related to the difficulty of extravagance and its cost before other believers. Extravagance rarely is as costly when one is surrounded by non-Christians, who might find your fervency strange but honest. They have little to lose when relating with a fervent, devoted believer and are more apt to treat such a devotee of Jesus as a curiosity worthy of respect or contempt. Yet it would rarely cross their minds to try to talk a believer out of extravagance. Sharp criticism comes from those with something to lose.
Thus, when I study the passage I think of Mary’s lifestyle over time more than her momentary burst of love. I naturally think of the implications of one who consistently chooses radical devotion and the manner in which those choices naturally chafe at the dross and complacency in my own soul. I think of the false grace message and the manner in which it excuses all manner of compromise in the name of easy forgiveness with little to no consequence in the life of the believer. Those who live according to this false message of grace that empowers “lewdness” and, ultimately, a denial of the Lord God (Jude 4). Simultaneously, those who live according to this message (or variance that excuses compromise) often strike with mocking and contempt at a message of holiness, righteousness, and purity.
Momentary bursts of devotion are easy targets that are often harmless. Long-term consistency in fervency is costly for all who claim devotion to Jesus or the designation of “Christian”.
The Water Level is Rising
We are at a crossroads as believers. There is a real war taking place around us, and there are many casualties. The analogy that fits best for our current condition is that of the lobster in the pot of water: the slow boil inoculates the lobster to his imminent danger. There is a slow boil happening in our western culture as we speak: the west is becoming sexualized, immoral, and corrupt in ways that were unimaginable years ago. The allure of money has always been a real and powerful attraction for the nations, but has there ever been a time in history like this one, where so many can have more money than any of their ancestors or forefathers could have ever dreamed of? To obtain such riches, all one has to be willing to do is compromise just a little; lower the standards just a bit and you can access greater degrees of wealth and notoriety. In an hour of moral relativism, lowering the standards for wealth or fame is a simple and easy choice.
The church does not seem to be paying attention to the cultural attrition that is happening around her. At least, the church in America is not doing so in a way that is stirring her to make radical choices of devotion, fervency, and time pursuing purity of thought, perspective, and action. Many seem content to live “comfortably separate”, enjoying the trappings and lifestyle of their neighbors while seemingly avoiding the pitfalls and dangers of the increasingly dark world that is closing in around them. This should be an hour in which every believer is greatly uncomfortable with the invasion of darkness and perversity in areas that were previously “safe” from such influences. This should be the moment where the church is greatly alarmed at the rampant injustice that is taking root in our nation.
Ultimately, the church should be greatly disturbed with the billions of dollars that are spent per year looking to separate them and their children from their dollars; with that much money at stake, the lengths that companies and advertisers are willing to go to entice the nations is frightening. What are the limits? What determines restraint? Where are the moral absolutes that determine the boundaries. The vast wealth that is dangling like a golden carrot before the peoples serves as too rich a temptation - and the ease of the lack of moral clarity only serves a self-preserving end: comfort, success, and ease of living. Even at the expense of the next generation.
We’ve Got to Get Out of the Water
Our only option is to press and fight for a heart alive in love and zeal for the Living God. We need the prayer of Paul in Philippians 1:9-11 realized in vibrant power in the depths of our innermost being. His prayer went as follows:
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and the praise of God.
In other words, it is not enough to be falsely satisfied with a static relationship with Jesus through the scriptures. It is not enough to attempt to live a good, decent, upstanding life under the banner of Christianity. More is required related to the times in which we find ourselves. Extravagance is necessary, fervency flowing from a heart burning with desire for Jesus is non-negotiable. We cannot negotiate away the tools God desires to give any who ask that can equip our hearts and minds to see clearly and vividly past the billion-dollar deception that is enticing the nations of the earth. We cannot imagine that they are unnecessary. We must fight and contend earnestly for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.
In this war that is being waged against love-fueled holiness and devotion to Jesus, extravagance is a weapon. Extravagance and fervency are the fruit of true grace, or power from the Holy Spirit to express the fruits of righteousness (Gal. 5:16). We need help to lay hold of true wisdom from heaven, that we would have clear, godly perspective related to the invasion of darkness that is descending upon the next generation. We need love to abound and increase in our hearts, that the desire to walk in agreement with the word of God would be alive within us. We need discernment that we might approve of the more excellent way of the love of God, that we would be responsive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit when under conviction, sensitive to His promptings and thus zealous to never grieve Him. Moreover, we need help from God to approve of excellent things - that truth might dwell in our innermost parts.
We need discernment to cut off and turn away. We need the heart to approve of wisdom and excellence in love. We need help from God to be like God, to walk in agreement with Him and burn with passion about the things He is passionate about. As we abound in love, knowledge, discernment, wisdom, and understanding, we can become better equipped to make right choices through grace to remain “without offense”. I want to be clean, pure, and sharp in my thinking, clear-minded and tender-hearted. I want to war against dullness in my own soul, lest I become swept away in the compromise and subtle dissipation of the wicked. I want to be filled with the fruits of righteousness in my own life. That, to me, is the about pursuing extravagance through grace. I want to be fervently devoted and authentically dedicated to Jesus in every way and every choice.
I want to get out of the water and experience the fullness of Christ (Eph. 3:19). I could not imagine a difficult endeavor in a more difficult time. Thus I cry, “Help, Lord, for the godly man ceases! For the faithful disappear from among the sons of men.” (Ps. 12:1) It is because I need help, and because of my awareness and connectivity to my own capacities and potential for sin, that I cry out for help. I am in great need, and greatly desire breakthrough and life and strength in my inner man (Eph. 3:16). I want to be uncomfortable, disturbed, and disrupted - and compelled to be extravagant in the process.
March 12th, 2008
It’s been a while since I set out to answer Colin’s two-part question on extravagance. The first part of his question focused on the historical context - how should have the disciples responded to Mary’s act of devotion? We discussed that last week here. His second was a more personal one - after being slightly autobiographical in the original post on extravagance, how do I currently navigate extravagant expressions of devotion to Jesus?
There are a few “layers” to the question that must be considered to answer the question adequately. I’ll try to hit them one at a time, hopefully in something approaching logical sequence. I’ll hit one today, and another “tomorrow”. I’m hoping that I can follow up with another post on the “real tomorrow”, but I’ll leave room for life to intervene. The subjects related to the answer to the question include “extravagant lifestyles”, “extravagant worship”, and “extravagantly unhelpful expressions of devotion”. In other words, some expressions of extravagance are helpful and provoking in nature, while others are sincere but unhelpful. I’ll start with what I consider to be helpful:
1. Extravagant Lifestyles
It would be helpful to assume, for the sake of this part of the discussion, that “extravagant lifestyles” equals “extravagantly biblical” and “extravagantly devoted” related to passion for Jesus. “Extravagantly off-kilter” I’ll address in a moment. I hit this category first because I wanted to progress from easy to delicate in the manner in which I deal with the extravagant devotion of others. The natural picture that enters the mind when someone introduces the subject of extravagance knit to the Mary of Bethany account is a picture of a believer in the place of heartfelt worship expressing deep devotion. I am more interested, in general, with exploring the subject of extravagant devotion as it translates into a lifestyle of “spiritual violence” and the internal fight to love Jesus with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
As such, when I meet someone who is unusually dedicated, someone who would be labeled as “radical” in the manner in which they live their Christianity before God, I sometimes find myself tested and provoked in the exchange. When I think back to the original post on the subject, I thought of fervency and zeal in this regard s much as I thought about a worship setting. In other words, the guy that always wants to call a fast or the other guy that always wants to have the deep repentance time. I don’t always want to fast, nor do I always feel like repenting on someone else’s terms. In the past I have found myself flirting with a cynical heart or rolling my eyes when the usual suspects called for a group expression of something radical.
In that regard, I have had to grow in my confidence in my identity in Christ as one whom He loves and enjoys. As my heart became knit to Jesus in the place of prayer, and I became a bit more settled in His heart for me, I became more comfortable with the journey that I was on. I realized that part of my cynicism or frustration stemmed from a subtle defensiveness and unsettledness with my own standing before the Lord. Growing in becoming “rooted and grounded” in love (Eph. 3:16-19) and settled on the inside with true Spirit-filled confidence helped me enjoy others (and even jump in and participate at times) in the moments of their expressed zeal rather than feeling threatened by them.
Secondly, I began to enjoy the provocation that followed the stories and testimonies of my comrades and friends as they made extravagant choices to live as consistently with the word as they were able to, by grace. Their choices, flowing from the place of conviction and creativity, have inspired and helped me over the years as I have been provoked to make similar choices and resolutions before the Lord. The common values and vision have served my own desire to walk out extravagant devotion in a manner that cultivates a heart alive and connected to the Holy Spirit with true vibrancy. I have greatly appreciated the comrades that I have the privilege of walking alongside on a daily basis, and I am sure that they have no idea how helpful each of them have been in my journey towards the “fullness of God” that Paul spoke of (Eph. 3:19).
How do I react to extravagance in worship?
March 6th, 2008
A couple of weeks back I posted some thoughts on “The High Cost of Extravagance“. In the comments section, Colin asked some helpful questions that I have been pondering for a bit. The answers did not seem to lend themselves to a comment - I wanted to extend the conversation here with the theme of his questions: how do we navigate extravagance? Here is his first question as he asked it:
“How should have the disciples reacted to Mary pouring the oil on Jesus’ head?”
In the original article, I simply presented the narrative as the gospels did - when, as the disciples were gathered together, Mary of Bethany came in and anointed Jesus for His burial. It was an act of devotion so costly that the disciples were offended with the seeming waste of resource and thus “criticized her sharply”, according to Mark. Why? Because it was most likely her inheritance that she broke and poured over Jesus’ head; the monetary value would have been somewhere around a year’s wages. One particular objection that the apostle John noted was that of Judas - his “concern” for the poor sparking a touch of irony from the beloved disciple as he reports the event.
So here is the pertinent and interesting question: how should the disciples have responded to Mary? We have a hint from Jesus Himself, who declares that the act of extravagance on the part of Mary would be made known “wherever the gospel is preached” as a memorial to extravagant love. John understood the root issue of the sharp criticism that sought to devalue the fragrant offering of Mary’s devotion: self-interest. In turning the issue and offering proper perspective, Jesus established a context for the “value” of Mary’s actions - she alone understood the gravity of the hour ahead and the costly nature of the road that Jesus was about to take. There would be, according to Jesus, plenty of opportunities to serve the poor in the days ahead. There would be only one opportunity to anoint Jesus for burial.
Analyzing what the disciples should have done, then, is a difficult exercise - simply because of the many factors that hindered them from truly grasping the implications of Mary’s act of love. Clearly, the proper response would have had to flow from something more than devotion, for in Mary’s case devotion flowed from understanding. She was giving Jesus all she had to serve Him in preparation for what was to come. It was a simple act, but momentous and powerful to Jesus - she was not interested in anything else (particularly the opinions of the disciples or her sister) but ministering to Him and blessing Him. The disciples, in their immaturity (as is the case with many, many young men) were often focused on themselves and their possible roles and positions (or, in Judas’ case, the monetary benefits) that came with being an “early adopter” of what the rest of Israel was slow to grasp related to the true identity of the Messiah.
This understanding was noteworthy in that, by identifying with this Messiah, they were taking a great risk to be associated with Him and thus had much to lose if Mary’s suspicions about the coming Passover and the fate of Jesus were in fact true. Jesus Himself had been hinting about what was to come, but they either could not grasp the truth of it or did not want to. So any analysis of possible right responses has to bear in mind the paradigm that the disciples were operating with related to the Messianic role of the deliverance of Israel and their reward for serving and associating with the Messiah while the spiritual leadership of Israel had soundly rejected Him. In their constant jostling for position mixed in with their genuine devotion and affection for Jesus and His often confusing leadership, Mary’s act had mostly negative implications for each of them related to their own pride and self-interest.
So, to the question: how should they have reacted? It is nearly impossible to speculate. To respond rightly, as I have said, would have involved coming to terms with the journey that Jesus had to take related to the grave and beyond. Mary, because of what had recently transpired with her brother, now understood both aspects of the fate of Jesus: that He would be allowed by the Father to suffer and die, yet would be resurrected, as He had spoken to Martha (John 11:25). If they understood the implications of what had to happen, they would have, possibly, begun to weep and anoint Him with their tears. If they could have laid aside their self-interest and pride that was provoked by the costly offering of Mary, perhaps they could have found their own personally suitable way to minister to Jesus in that moment. The right answer, I think, is found in the place of abandonment and the consuming desire to bless the heart of Jesus, and to do the thing that ministers to His “need”, if one can use that kind of language.
Who thinks this way? How many, to this very day, approach Jesus cloaked in self-interest in the hope that the Messiah will bless them, help them, serve them, and give to them extravagantly? Is this a wrong mindset? Not exactly - to have an expectation of favor and blessing upon a life lived according to the scriptural pattern given to us by God is actually a right mindset. Yet who can live in such a manner, understanding that it is in the heart of Jesus to love extravagantly, while being subsequently consumed with blessing and ministering to Him as well? The fullness of what John called “perfected love” in 1 John 4:17 is the place in which we become consumed and wholly focused on Him and abandoned to self. This is how He loves us, and has loved us, and has offered us the grace to love Him this way in return.
Tomorrow: “How do you now react to people displaying extravagant fervency?”
February 19th, 2008
Mark 14:3 And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head. 4 But there were some who were indignant among themselves, and said, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? 5 For it might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they criticized her sharply.
Whenever someone demonstrates what, in my opinion, constitutes “excessive fervency” or inappropriate amounts of zeal, I find that in the past I would become deeply annoyed. I wanted the person to back down a bit, to be a bit more sensitive and less idealistic, and to restrain their emotions just enough for me to maintain what I felt expressed the appropriate amount of zeal for the setting.
In other words, I criticized them sharply.
It was critical in my walk with the Lord to connect with that hint of frustration in my heart. It was necessary that I connected to what was really stirring within me - it wasn’t frustration I was feeling. It was bitterness. Anger. It was also a bit of helplessness - I felt so weak in my barrenness and my emptiness that an appeal to charge the hill left me feeling “lesser than”, judged, and a bit left behind. Finally, I felt, if I was honest with myself, a twinge of envy. The collision of all of those emotions and responses in my heart to someone else’s extravagance led me on an interesting journey of self-discovery.
I would have despised Mary’s offering that day, just like some of the other disciples.
The Extravagant Waste
They were “indignant”, according to Mark (who heard this story from Peter) because of the extravagant waste that had transpired right before their eyes. Of course, this language of concern and practicality was nothing more than a smoke-screen, a facade to hide the true reasons behind their indignation. They were furious simply because of what they had at stake. They had much to lose if Mary’s actions were appropriate. For if Mary was right to do what she did, wouldn’t the same actions then be demanded of them…and of us? If we all get to heaven, why not get there comfortably? Why pay extra in the exchange - what exactly do we gain? Throw a year’s wages at the feet of Jesus? Then do it neatly, cleanly…do it orderly! This, well, messy display with all of its “emotion” and tears - it’s unbecoming, undignified, and rather wasteful!
Is order necessary related to worship? Absolutely! One glance at the throne room of God in Revelation chapter four reveals the beauty of divine order. We see in that little window a moment in time, a view of bursting, explosive devotion wrapped in the perfection of His design. We see angels fully given voluntarily to divine patterns in which everyone takes their place, and everyone joyously plays their role in showering the One seated on the throne with beautiful extravagance. Beauty is impossible without order.
Is it important to give to the poor? Absolutely! God’s heart for the poor and the needy throughout scripture is clear. Deuteronomy 15:11 summarizes about 15-18 statutes in the law relating to the poor and how ancient Israeli society was to care for the poor in their midst. The Psalms and the prophecies of Isaiah are filled with insight into God’s zeal to deliver the poor from their distress at the hands of wicked oppressors; Amos and Micah chastised Israel and Judah for their corrupt leadership that took advantage of the poor. Jesus Himself told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and give it extravagantly to the poor (Mk. 10:21).
Yet here we find an untidy anomaly - this one act of extravagance that defines worship and love for us today as astonishingly as the throne room scene referenced earlier. Jesus cared that all who seek Him would hear this story - His response to Mary’s expression of love is more than touching, and more than instructive:
Mark 14:6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a good work for Me. 7 For you have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. 8 She has done what she could. She has come beforehand to anoint My body for burial. 9 Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
The Extravagant Memorial
Jesus, surprisingly to some in the room that night, responds to her extravagance with extravagance. Why? His disciples had been with Him for almost three years now or longer. Peter, by revelation from the Father, understood that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. It had dawned on them to a measure that He was more than a man, and was worthy of devotion and loyalty. Had it dawned on them that he was also worthy of being worshiped? For a Jew, worshiping a man would be tantamount to blasphemy - there was One God, alone, and only He was worthy of worship. To worship an image was to worship an idol - thus the shock of Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s lives when they see God in the form of a Man.
Matthew pointed out that worship of Jesus was not a difficult concept to grasp for three Gentile wise men from the east (Matt. 2:1-11). We see scattered instances of men, like the leper in Matthew ch. 8 or the man born blind in John ch. 9, worshiping Jesus in response to His supernatural power. Yet we only really see the disciples worship Jesus one time before His death, in Matthew 14 after Jesus walks on water. Nowhere in the gospels do we see anyone worship Him as extravagantly as Mary that evening after supper. What kind of emotions arose in some of them, having been outdone in devotion by this simple woman from Bethany?
Later on, in the book of Acts, Barnabas himself would give far more to the new movement at one offering than Mary did. Many in the early days of the church gave all that they had. Yet it was Mary’s act of worship that becomes the memorial that Jesus will celebrate “everywhere the gospel is preached”. In other words, it was the desire of Jesus to elevate one act of worship as the “target” or the example for all new believers to follow after their conversion. This is incredible: Jesus said that this one testimony would be a part of every altar call, every outreach strategy, and every invitation to the lost. Our modern oversight of this story should convict any who preach the gospel. Jesus wanted all believers to remember this woman. Wasn’t Barnabas’ offering extravagant?
The Extravagant Cost
Mary’s act of worship cost her more than a year’s wage. She gave up something precious to her - she surrendered her inheritance when she broke that alabaster flask of “very costly” oil of spikenard and poured it on the head of Jesus. She had “done what she could”, or given the very best and her very all that night in the overflow of her passion for Jesus. She had nothing greater or nothing more to give, but ended the night completely spent - and I am sure she did not have a moment of regret, or any thought about what she had to gain in the exchange. There is a “great exchange”, according to Jesus, in the age to come, but I am not sure if that truth motivated Mary that night.
No, this same Mary that had to endure the ire of the disciples in the past for pressing her way to the front, the ire of her sister for “forsaking” her duties to choose the thing that was needful in the moment, was willing to face “sharp criticism” yet once more. She was anointing His head for burial - she alone knew the gravity and the weight of the coming hours of Jesus’ life. She understood who He was, what He came to do, and that the time had come. And she loved Him. She loved Him! Thus her only response was to pour out all that she had upon His head in gratitude, devotion, and love.
It cost her more than her inheritance, however. The sharp criticism of some of the disciples (John would later identify Judas in particular) reveals the high cost of extravagance. Extravagance is defined in part by what you give up to love Him well; yet it is also defined in part by when you give it up. Is it extravagant to love Jesus when everyone else does, or is it extravagant to shower Him with praise and thanksgiving when no one else will? There is a cost, paid by the indignation of others, when one endeavors to love extravagantly. Your very reputation is at stake related to the stigma that comes with extravagance.
The question remains: what do we gain from extravagant devotion?
The answer is simple: an exceedingly great reward.
Yet the question arises: doesn’t everyone get that reward? Why be extravagant?
Why indeed? Yet it is important to note that one who is struck by love would never think to ask such a question.
February 5th, 2008