John 12:1- 8: The Heart has Reasons that Reason Cannot Know


A sermon preached on March 17th, 2013 based upon John 12:1- 8.
The story we just heard got me thinking, among other things, about how my wife and  I are quite different, to say the obvious.   Generally speaking, most couples are.  God designed us so that we are attracted to our opposite.
For instance, from time to time my wife will come home from the grocery store with a bouquet of flowers.   I tend to look at the flowers and see something that will be thrown out in a week – I see twenty dollars we no longer have.   My wife sees beauty, I see money.  My wife especially enjoys flowers that work on more than one sense at a time – she likes flowers with a fragrance.  I tend to say, “whatever.”
There is far more beauty in our lives because of my wife, and that’s a good thing.
Another difference between my wife and I involves the fact that when we get into an argument, I generally win.  It’s not that I’m always right.  I’m simply a better debater.  I quickly point out the inconsistencies in her argument.   I’m better at building an argument logically. It can be very frustrating to her.
But as I said, this doesn’t mean I’m always right.  It just means I’m a better debater.
There are things my wife knows, however — insights that come to her — that arise from some deeper place that that place where I build my logical arguments.  Perhaps the word for is it is “intuition.”  Another way to express it might be to say she has a greater receptivity to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit.  Without people telling her, she knows significant things about what they are struggling with.  It’s kind of astonishing really.  “How did you know that?!” I ask.  She doesn’t know how she knew it.  She just knew.
In our Gospel story, Mary reminds me of my wife, and I find myself identifying with Judas.  Not the Judas who John says was a thief who stole from the treasury, but the Judas who objects to Mary using up the expensive jar of anointment, saying it could have been sold and the money given to the poor.  I mean he’s got a point; there’s a clear logic to what he is saying.
You could describe the difference between my thinking and Sarah’s thinking as “heart knowledge” in contrast to “head knowledge.” Blaise Pascal said, “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.”
The neuro-scientists tell us that this corresponds to the two sides of the brain:  The left side is about logic and language and chronological time.  The right side is about relationship and feeling and creativity.
We need both sides, but often in this world the kind of thinking the left brain does gets valued more, because, to a large extent, it’s still a man’s world, and men tend to live more in their head than their heart – their left brain rather than their right.  There are exceptions, of course.
Recently, neuro-scientists have gone even further.  As they examine what is called intuition they talk about how it is inaccurate to say that the mind is located only in the brain.  There is a very real sense in which our minds are embodied, not just embrained.   The old expression, “listen to your gut,” turns out to be true.  When you have a major decision to make, you would be wise to pay attention to what your body is telling you.
If you go to the website for the TED Talks, you’ll find that the most popular talk of all is one by Sir Ken Robinson in which he makes the argument that our schools are killing creativity.  They’ve become too preoccupied with developing the left brain that they neglect the right brain – the seat of creativity.  They should include dance alongside mathematics.   He’s taught at universities and he says that the typical professor views the body as nothing more than a delivery system for the brain.
It’s not that the right brain is superior to the left brain.  It’s just that the value placed upon the two has gotten way out of balance.
When on the sixth day of creation God creates human beings “in the image and likeness of God,” it follows this up immediately by saying “male and female he made them.”  There are both masculine and feminine qualities to the nature of God – and a truly whole human being, made in the image and likeness of God, will have both heart and brain engaged.
So this whole line of thought was inspired by the Gospel story, so let’s take a closer look at it.
The setting is the home of Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus, who Jesus just a few days earlier had raised from the dead.   Mary and Martha are Jesus’ friends – they have a special connection to him, which is the first thing to note.  Jesus related to women in a way vastly different than was the norm in those days.   In those days, women weren’t supposed to be hanging around rabbis.  Women were meant to have babies and raise them, cook and keep house. That was it.  But Jesus had women as friends. He had no problem with Mary soaking up his teachings.  He initiated the conversation with the woman at the well; again totally not done in those days.  He valued women.
And so this family is providing hospitality for Jesus – giving him a place to rest – a place where the threats of the world can for one evening at least be shut out.  There is an extreme heaviness to the mood.  This is the night before Jesus will enter into Jerusalem, setting off the chain of events that will lead to his death.   His enemies among the Jewish leaders are already plotting his death.  And they have good reasons to do so.  Jesus has created quite a sensation by raising Lazarus from the dead.  His presence in Jerusalem, as they see it, will stir the masses of people who have descended upon the holy city for Passover into a frenzy.   It’s not hard to imagine riots breaking out — direct rebellion against Pilate and all his Roman soldiers.  And that won’t turn out well.  Hundreds, maybe thousands of Jews will die.  Maybe the temple will be destroyed.  They can’t let this happen. It is better, as the high priest states, it is better that one man die – that is Jesus – than that many die.  (John 11:50)  So as you see, their plot to kill Jesus has a certain kind of left brain logic to it.
So Martha is doing what women did –  she’s cooking dinner, making sure everything is just right.   Jesus is reclined at the table.  Mary, as is often her way seems to be avoiding the work.  She’s been sitting quietly with Jesus, but now she disappears.  Suddenly she is back.  She has in her hands a jar of very expensive perfume – stuff you could sell for 300 denari –  a year’s worth of wages.   She then proceeds to do certain things that women in that culture simply never did.
She lets her hair down, letting it flow free.  Mary breaks open the expensive ointment, and begins to massage it into Jesus’ feet.  This is never done, especially by a single woman to a single man.   There are instances in which heads might get anointed – the crowning of a king, for instance, but the only people who get perfume rubbed on their feet are dead ones.  This is what you do to prepare a body for burial.  As if this isn’t strange enough, Mary begins to dry his feet with her hair.  The beautiful fragrance of the perfume fills the whole house.
The others in the room, excepting Jesus, must have been made uncomfortable by what she is doing, but she isn’t caring.  She’s caught up in her passionate love.
It’s totally unconventional and illogical thing – and Judas is the first one to point out just how unreasonable a thing this was to do.  “This perfume!  It could have been sold and the money given to the poor!  I mean this could have fed a poor family for an entire year!  What were you thinking!?”
He’s right.  It unreasonable what Mary has done.  And if there was one thing Jesus had been consistent about in his teaching it was that we have a responsibility for the poor.  What a waste this was!
Judas expects Jesus to back him up on this. But to his surprise, Jesus defends Mary.  “Leave her alone.  Mary bought this perfume to prepare me for my burial.  You will always have the poor with you.  You will not always have me.”
These words of Jesus have often been used as a justification for ignoring the poor – as in, “No matter what you do, there will always be poor people.  So don’t be too concerned about them.”  Actually, what he says implies precisely the opposite – that of course Jesus’ followers will always care for the poor.  It’s a good rule of thumb – but sometimes rules need to be broken.   This is an exceptional moment.  Jesus is getting ready to die, and something extraordinary needed to be done in response to this fact.   And the disciples weren’t paying attention – at least not with their hearts – to notice this exceptional moment.
If you had asked Mary why she did what she did that night, I suspect she would have been at a loss to explain her self.  But the heart, as Pascal said has reasons that reason cannot know.  She perceived something the men missed, and Jesus affirmed her perception.  And a few days later, on the night before he died, Jesus would do another strange thing.  He would bathe his disciples’ feet.  Might he have been inspired by what Mary had done that night to him?
This was a striking story to be contemplating the week they picked the pope.   I’m not Roman Catholic, obviously and I should probably keep my nose out of their business.  I think it’s great that they went beyond Europe to select a pope.  I also think it is great that he picked the name Francis, after Francis of Assisi, who lived humbly, cared about the poor and all creation.
But it was striking, was it not, the absence of the women when it came time for the church to make such a momentous decision about the direction they would move in?  Nothing but men had a say in this.  And our Gospel story reminds us that sometimes women perceive truths that we men miss, but the hierarchy of the church is designed in such a way as to cut themselves off from the input of women.   There is a long history of this.   During the Inquisition a disproportionate amount of women were put to death – condemned as witches – because the male hierarchy was threatened by the truths perceived by women.  And often Protestants haven’t been much better.
This also got me thinking about the Apostle Paul.   Before his conversion, he prided himself in being a big time scholar.  He was an expert in the Law, and fluent in Greek thought as well.  Very left brain, and his thinking lead him to conclude that this Jesus movement needed to be silenced.
And then he has that totally unreasonable experience – his encounter with the glorified Christ, which turned his world upside down.  In the first chapter of 1Corinthians he marvels at the fact that the Gospel wasn’t something you could think your way to:
“Where is the debater of this age?” he asked.  It made me think about the limitations of my capacity to debate.  “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” It’s unreasonable that the creator of the universe would be revealed in a wandering rabbi from Nazareth who taught love and offer himself as a sacrifice for the whole in dying upon the cross.  Totally illogical.  But it speaks to the heart.
And it also awoke in Paul a passion that was missing before.  In Romans 7 he talks about how before his encounter with Christ, He knew what was good, but couldn’t do it. But once his heart was awoken by Jesus, he had a passion like that of Mary with her perfume that could animate his life so empowering him to do what needed to be done.
Today’s St. Patrick’s Day.  What Patrick did – head back to the land of his captors once he was free in order to share the Gospel – that, too, is pretty unreasonable.  He inspired to do this when a vision arising in his left brain inspired a passion to share Jesus’ love to the heathen in Ireland.
What Mary did was extravagant, over the top.  It’s a quality that shows up elsewhere in the Gospels.  The massive amount of water that Jesus turned to the best tasting wine.  The crazy, irrational thing Jesus had his disciples do when he told them to give away all their food so the five thousand people could eat, and then sure enough, they all ate, and there was an abundance left over afterwards.  And those parables.  The shepherd who is so unreasonable in leaving the 99 sheep to go in search for the one lost sheep, and the party he throws when he finds it.  The father from last week’s story who runs like a woman to welcome home the son whose behavior was so awful, and then throws the absolutely over the top party.
Such extravagance resonates with the Gospel.  Last week everybody was charmed by the story I told about the birthday party Tony Campollo threw at 3:30 a.m. for the prostitute in the diner, because we recognized it to be somehow expressive of the essence of the Gospel.  Over the top.  We might imagine wishing the prostitute a happy birthday, but pulling out all the stops by throwing a full out birthday party for a woman Tony didn’t know?  That just Gospel craziness!
So let me finish with another crazy, over the top Gospel story, this one told by Phillip Yancey in his book about grace:
Accompanied by her fiancé, a woman went to the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston and ordered the meal. The two of them pored over the menu, made selections of china and silver, and pointed to pictures of the flower arrangements they liked. They both had expensive taste, and the bill came to thirteen thousand dollars. After leaving a check for half that amount as down payment, the couple went home to flip through books of wedding announcements.
The day the announcements were supposed to hit the mailbox, the potential groom got cold feet. “I’m just not sure,” he said. “It’s a big commitment. Let’s think about this a little longer.”
When his angry fiancée returned to the Hyatt to cancel the banquet, the Events Manager could not have been more understanding. “The same thing happened to me, Honey,” she said, and told the story of her own broken engagement. But about the refund, she had bad news. “The contract is binding. You’re only entitled to thirteen hundred dollars back. You have two options: to forfeit the rest of the down payment, or go ahead with the banquet. I’m sorry. Really, I am.”
It seemed crazy, but the more the jilted bride thought about it, the more she liked the idea of going ahead with the party—–not a wedding banquet, mind you, but a big blowout. Ten years before, this same woman had been living in a homeless shelter. She had got back on her feet, found a good job, and set aside a sizable nest egg. Now she had the wild notion of using her savings to treat the down-and-outs of Boston to a night on the town.
And so it was that in June of 1990 the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Boston hosted a party such as it had never seen before. The hostess changed the menu to boneless chicken—–“in honor of the groom,” she said—and sent invitations to rescue missions and homeless shelters. That warm summer night, people who were used to peeling half-gnawed pizza off the cardboard dined instead on chicken cordon bleu. Hyatt waiters in tuxedos served hors d’oeuvres to senior citizens propped up by crutches and aluminum walkers. Bag ladies, vagrants and addicts took one night off from the hard life on the sidewalks outside and instead sipped champagne, ate chocolate wedding cake, and danced to big-band melodies late into the night.