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All the Church Cares About is Money

Mary broke her jar open, and along with it her tender spirit. Her perfume and her devotion poured out on Jesus’ head and pooled at his feet, overwhelming the room. He saw to the soul of what she did and was pleased.

“She did it to prepare me for burial.”

For all the times he had tried to tell his followers that he was going to die for them and for all the times they had said, “No, Lord, it will never happen,” it was only Mary that had really heard him.

And it tore her wide open.

You would think a hush would have fallen on the room. You would have expected a hush. But the rest of the story is all too pre­dictable. As with the gleaming creation itself, it’s just like Satan to pounce on something so new and so good. And Judas, so close by, was all too available.

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” he cried.

On its surface, his criticism seemed aimed at Mary for her pointless waste of resources. If we didn’t know Judas better, we would even hear a legitimate con­cern for the needy. But how often the worst things—intolerance, ambition, greed—disguise them­selves as piety. We will see his true colors soon enough. He was trying to serve two masters at the same time, both money and Christ, but it was not working.

One he had come to despise.

We can hardly miss the implication in Judas’ words, the thinly veiled stab, that Jesus wasn’t worth the perfume.

What Jesus said to Martha who had once criticized Mary’s devotion as well, what he had said to death, which had come for Mary’s brother, he now says to Judas.

“Leave her alone!”

Then Jesus beamed at Mary—that it was not too much, that she would never be forgotten, that there is a time for breaking the jar. But Jesus’ words for his critic, for the man with the dollar signs in his eyes, were as disturbing as words get.

“You will not always have me.”

Please read John 12:1-11.

The usher is looking decidedly uncomfortable. The offer­ing basket has hit a snag in the pew ahead of you. A boy is clutching a nickel in his chubby fist, which Mom is shaking over the basket. She peals back one finger at a time, whis­pering the sort of whisper that echoes around the sanctuary, “Let go!” Finally, the boy, desperate to know why God wants his money, releases the treasure. The nickel drops home, the usher relaxes . . . and God is five cents richer.

Just as there was a Judas among the first disciples of Jesus, there are those within the visible church who will do anything they can to get your nickel into the plate. Though I pray they are few, there are those who will lie to you, pres­sure you, and shame you for the sake of money. I make no apology for them. These things are shameful.

In none of these things do they represent Jesus. But how unreasonable it is to turn away from Jesus and his family of believers, of all things, because of Judas! More than unrea­sonable, it would be to your own terrible loss to do so.

Though I’ll be the church’s harshest critic when it is wrong, I’ve also seen the church in moments that have the same look and feel as the introductory story of Mary. She cared about money not at all. I’ve pressed five hundred dol­lars into a needy young couple’s hands on an errand from someone “who wished to remain anonymous.” The note read, “In Jesus’ name,” and I felt the beautiful joy of Jesus on both ends of the exchange. I grew up worshiping in an extravagantly beautiful church that some people may have said was too much. But that holy place rose up out of the soil of poor German immigrants who got by with less, a lot less, and called it a privilege to do such a thing for the glory of God. Jesus is worth it, so they “broke the jar,” and it is beautiful in my eyes . . . and in the Lord’s eyes.

In the introductory story, criticism about money comes from the very one who cares too much for the stuff himself, the one who stands outside of the heartbreaking devotion of Mary not understanding what he is looking at. While the church is open to criticism on this and any other issue and even a faithful church can now and then lose itself in merely institutional concerns, there are also very legitimate con­cerns about money that groups of people that mean to fol­low Jesus will inevitably share.

Any faithful church has a legitimate concern for spreading the message of Jesus. It is the church’s mission, the very rea­son it lives and breathes, to tell the world about Christ at any cost. One of the costs happens to be money. In fact, this cost demonstrates what a wonderful gift money is for a church. Just think, this stuff we call money allows me to translate my time and work—that is, myself—into ministry. It’s difficult to call lucre “filthy” when you’ve seen it translated into awe­some outreach moments in which people, even on the far side of the world, are hearing about the great love of Jesus.

But the church is also concerned that the motivation behind the giving of money is pristine, untouched by human pressure and joyless obligation. God wants no unwilling service, but he wants believers to give in cheerful response to the grace he has lavished so freely and outrageously on them. If you are a spiritual seeker, we only want you to come and listen. We don’t want you to give a dime until you want to because of what you’ve heard, until the love of Christ compels you inwardly. God doesn’t want your money. He wants you.

There’s the rub. Does he have you? Any faithful church will have a legitimate concern for the worldly attachments people feel toward their money. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” warned Jesus. The Bible cuts to the heart of what materialism really is, warning us not to put our “hope in wealth.” Please consider that defining phrase. Understand that materialism is not marked merely by the fact that we have lots of stuff. It is God who has so blessed us. Materialism is trying to meet spiritual needs, such as hope, by accumulating material things, such as wealth. Material needs for clothing, food, and shelter are appropriately met by material things. But the need to know that I’m someone, that I’m loved, that everything is well with my soul today and will be tomor­row, well, these are spiritual needs. Materialism is the way money makes promises—be it status or security, peace or joy—that only God can possibly keep.

“Hope in wealth.” Material possessions connected to spiritual need—this is the very association virtually every television commercial is trying to make. If the advertisers can just get you to connect the car with the joy on that man’s face, if they can just get you to believe that their cologne has something to do with love—that’s materialism. For Pete’s sake, they’ve even tried to associate Coca-Cola with world peace!

And we fall for it. That we do is written all over our faces as we take a new car for a test-drive. The man who just won it all on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire trembles for the very joy of it. Trembles! And we understand it. Clearly, wealth is one of the most potent of the false gods, a shameful source of misplaced devotion, which will end up breaking your heart in the end.

In the penetrating words of Jesus, “Life does not consist in the abundance of [your] possessions.” Mere things can never fill what philosopher Blaise Paschal termed the “God-shaped hole” in our hearts. And so the church, if it is to be faithful, must keep confronting the damnable idolatry and keep calling the love of money exactly what it is—the “root of all kinds of evil”—to compel our repentance and to clear the center of our stage for the One who is alone wor­thy to be our Lord.

You see, it was not Mary, it was God himself who went too far, who went overboard when that which he broke and poured out completely was his only Son. But then the fra­grance of “Father, forgive them” filled the world. With the soft cry of the new baby in Bethlehem and with the hours of agony on the cross, God was saying something to devils, to demons, and to death itself. It was God’s settled determina­tion to save the world, whatever the cost.

“Leave them alone!”

What is the faith that is “of greater worth than gold”? It is in you, reading these words and hearing the news that comes so freely. It thinks to itself, “Then how blessed I am.” You who now have the faith have taken hold of the “life that is truly life.” You’ve come to know the God who cares for you, who has carried you this far as on eagle’s wings, and who blesses you with every spiritual blessing in the material, touchable, holdable Christ.

And that’s when something happens that you hadn’t expected while standing on Judas’ side of the room instead of Mary’s. Your face brightens. “We love,” you finally under­stand, “because he first loved us.” And the death grip miraculously loosens. Then comes an act that’s born of a freedom you never knew before, that is made of depend­ence, of trust, and of worship.

Your hand just opens.

On July 25, 2000, a little congregation in Rockford, Illi­nois, a church called New Life, “broke a jar.”

It did something extravagant that the legalist will never understand, something excessive for the prudent to roundly criticize . . . which is kind of the beauty of it. The congregation members gathered in their new sanc­tuary to worship.

But did they need to raise the cross 60 feet in the air? Did there have to be a hardwood floor in the chancel where carpet would have been fine? And what is the pur­pose of all that wasted space over their heads?

There is no purpose other than to honor Christ.

Yes, it cost a lot of money. But I preached to them that if their hearts were right, crying, “He is worthy!” then this place was holy oil poured out on the Savior’s head, run­ning down his face and pooling at his feet.

May all that God pours in as we listen to his Word pour out of us. May his fragrance be on us. May our words be extravagant, seeming to go too far and to say too much that the God of heaven and earth loves us in Christ his Son.

From More Prepared To Answer © 2004 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Money, Money, Money" is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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