When Bad Character Meets Bad Thinking. (Thinking Through John 12:1-11)
Who do you think is the better Christian? Judas or Mary?
Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus — the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” (John 12:1-5, NLT)
Let’s be honest, doesn’t the use of perfume worth about a year’s wages in one single moment seem like a bad idea? A terrible use of resources? Judas was concerned for the poor. We might even say that he was more “Christlike” than Mary. Yet Judas was not commended:
Not that he cared for the poor — he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself.
Jesus replied, ‘Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (John 12:6-8, NLT)
Judas does not have good character. He is deceitful, greedy, a thief, and will go on to betray Jesus for money.
Is there anything to learn here? Yes.
Spending Time With Good People Does Not Automatically Fix Bad Character
Being one of the twelve disciples Jesus chose to draw close, Judas spent a lot of time with Jesus. Yet despite all the teaching he heard, likely repeatedly as Jesus would have taught similar things in different towns, and despite all the miracles he witnessed, Judas was unchanged. Judas could not have found a better mentor than Jesus. Yet he was unchanged.
Are we spending time with good people yet remaining unchanged? Are we spending time with God yet being unchanged? We can invest time in reading the Bible or in prayer yet not experience any kind of discernible change in character. We may not be any more loving than we were ten years ago — or joyful, peaceful, patient or kind.
Devotion to Good Religion Does Not Automatically Fix Bad Character
Judas was a Jew, and his concern for the poor was baked right into the Jewish faith. Yet not stealing was also baked right in! Judas perhaps gave the impression that he was a good Bible-believing Jew with his suggestion regarding relief for the poor. Yet he was not a good Jew. His character was unchanged. His religion did not change him.
Are we devoted to Christianity, yet we are not changed? Perhaps we say a lot of good Christian sounding things, yet we are not more generous than we were ten years ago — or more faithful, gentle or self-controlled.
Before we go on to talk about the solution, let’s recognize that things get worse as we read further:
When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus. (John 12:9-11, NLT)
The leading priests were supposed to be the cream of the crop, the ones who set the best example of what it looks like to be faithful to God. Yet from them we learn that devotion to good religion does not automatically fix bad character.
Devotion to Good Religion Does Not Automatically Fix Bad Thinking
John Stonestreet often says, “Bad ideas have bad consequences.” We see that played out here. The priests have the wrong idea about how to express their faith, and they have the wrong idea about who Jesus is. From these bad ideas spring their desire to kill both Jesus and Lazarus.
You might have expected the chief priests to treat the raising of Lazarus as a wake up call, to start rethinking their view of Jesus, to start listening to the teaching of Jesus. But their thinking went unchanged.
We can become destructive when we stick with bad thinking. That can be true when we are new to Christianity, failing to rethink areas of our lives that Christ shines a new light on. It can also be true for those of us who have been Christians for a long time. Our devotion to Christianity does not automatically fix our bad thinking.
Are We Like Judas and the Chief Priests? Or are We Like Mary?
Mary’s generous character, as demonstrated with the “waste” of perfume, stands in contrast to the greed of Judas. Mary’s right thinking about Jesus, knowing that Jesus is worthy of an extreme act of devotion, stands in contrast with leading priests who wanted him dead.
So What’s the Fix?
If devotion to Christianity does not automatically fix bad character or bad thinking, what will?
Jesus tells us:
Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.
When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority — quite unlike their teachers of religious law. (Matthew 7:24-29, NLT)
Our character and ideas mature as we build upon Jesus.
It begins with being intentional. Builders choose to build. They also choose where to build. We can be intentional in our desire to build our lives on the teaching and example of Jesus.
This is different than saying we choose to build on our particular expression of the Christian faith. While most Christian traditions attempt to get the thinking right, there is no guarantee that they do. We want to keep going back to Jesus. We don’t want to let someone else dictate all the ideas to us. That happens in cults. Controlling people’s behavior and thinking does not guarantee good character or good thinking. Helping people walk with Jesus and focus on Jesus ensures that we will at least be growing in both.
The builders choose to build, but at some point they need to grab the needed tools and get to work. The intention to build is not enough, there also needs to be action. “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise.”
My wife and I decided some time ago that we wanted to live a more healthy lifestyle. Gluttony is the one sin we pastors can get away with. Good intentions for a healthier lifestyle needed to become actions, like walking past the snack cupboard and lacing up the running shoes. Nike’s tagline of “Just Do It” is a brilliant tagline for a running shoe. It is also good advice to us as Christians, to get actively involved in our relationship with God.
Though exercise has always been something I’ve dreaded, by just getting to it I have gone from “I have to get some exercise” to “I get to workout this morning.” We can go from saying, “I have got to become a person of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” to saying, “I get to become a person growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (See Galatians 5:22-23.) We can go from saying, “I’ve got to read my Bible more, and pray more,” to saying, “I get to have my mind renewed and challenged by thinking through Scripture. I get to live life in the presence of God.”
Jesus himself models good intention and follow-through by his intention to express love in the face of hatred. That good intention became action in his deliberate journey to the cross. When Mary poured out the perfume on Jesus, she unwittingly pointed out where that journey led — to his death, the full expression of God’s love. “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial.”
If Judas had listened to Jesus, rethinking life and putting his words into practice, then the kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been one of true friendship and not betrayal. If the chief priests had listened to Jesus, rethinking life and putting his words into practice, then they would have welcomed him into Jerusalem as a king and a friend, not as a fraud and an enemy.
The cross is a reminder of what happens when bad character meets bad ideas. God came to us in Jesus and we killed him. When the bad character of Judas met up with the bad thinking of the leading priests, the execution of Jesus became a real possibility.
The cross is also a reminder of what happens when good character meets good ideas. Though God came to us in Jesus and we killed him, God loved us anyway. As we pick up our cross and follow in that way of love, we will be changed — both in our character and in our thinking.
Originally published on Clarke’s blog. Reprinted with permission.