“Kiss His Feet”
March 25, 2007 - Fifth Sunday in Lent
So where does Jesus get off? What kind of egomaniac would allow and even encourage the display we find in these verses from the beginning of John 12? How could the Man we regard as the model of humility accept and even welcome such a fawning exhibition of wasteful extravagance as Mary offered in His honor? Anointing and bathing His feet? Wiping them with her hair? It goes way over our boundaries of good taste, and also of what we would expect from someone who is supposed to be humble.
We can connect this text to our psalm this morning. In at least some translations, including the one used in our hymnal, Psalm 2, verses 11 and 12, calls for the nations to kiss the feet of the Lord. In other translations, the call is to “kiss the Son.” In either case, the proper posture before God or His Son is to bestow a self-abasing kiss.
You can find a story similar to John’s in Luke chapter 7. There the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is a sinner, probably a prostitute. She’s not Mary, Martha’s sister, who we see in John 12, but she does the same kind of thing. She falls at Jesus’ feet, anointing them with perfumed ointment and, we read in Luke 7:38, she kissed His feet.
Why would any decent, kind, gentle, humble man want his feet to be kissed? You and I would see such a person not as good, but as arrogant and ridiculously proud. Jerry “the King” Lawler was a professional wrestler in the 1990s who paid audience members to kiss his feet. He would come in with sweaty, muddy disgusting feet, and then have people kneel and kiss them. In 1995, he lost a “Kiss My Foot” match to somebody named Bret Hart and had to return the favor. Last June on a “Friday Night Smackdown,” the new “King Booker,” sat on a throne while a defeated US champion was made to kiss his feet.
I don’t really watch professional wrestling, but I tell you those stories I found on the Internet to illustrate how we see foot-kissing. It’s the realm of fantastic conceit and absurd vanity. Anyone who wants his feet kissed must be a pompous twit.
In ancient Rome, it was the insane emperor Caligula who made his subjects kiss him in subjugation. The most noble of them got to kiss his face. Those lower in importance kissed his hand. The very lowest had to kiss his feet.
Somewhere in the first millennium after Christ, the practice of kissing the pope’s foot was begun. It was a sign by which rulers and others indicated their submission to God’s church. But some popes have returned that sign by washing and kissing the feet of both priests and laypeople on Holy Thursday. John Paul II had not been able to wash feet because of his health for several years, but last year on Holy Thursday, the new pope Benedict knelt and washed the feet of twelve laypeople.
Those are the contexts in which we place such displays. Foot kissing is the stuff of overacting professional wrestlers, of insane despots, of a church focused on ritual rather than spirit. What has this little story about Mary anointing and worshipping the feet of Jesus got to do with you and me?
It’s even worse because what Mary did was so wasteful. Verse 5 says the ointment she poured out on Jesus was worth 300 denarii, about a year’s wages in the ancient world. Make it what? Forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars in today’s economy? What do you make in a year? Imagine spending it all for a pint bottle of perfume you pour out all on one person in a moment of insane extravagance. That’s just nuts.
“Nuts” is our usual response to extravagance. Just for fun I “googled” extravagant gifts Friday evening and found a Forbes pictorial that featured a platinum lined, opal studded ice bucket for $100,000. In 2009, you will be able to spend about 1.8 million dollars for a two and a half hour ride on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space plane. For those who are into stylish cell phones, you can buy one encrusted with jewels for $310,000. Or if you just want to give a gift card, how about plunking down $50,000 to ten million on a little bit of plastic that’s good toward luxury charter flights on private airline Sky Jet?
It’s all crazy, you would say, and so would I. Anybody who would even seriously consider that kind of lavish decadence has to be nuts. But then, why did Mary do it? Why did Jesus allow it? The whole thing was challenged in quite reasonable terms, when it was asked whether it wouldn’t have been better to sell the ointment and give the money to the poor. So why did Jesus reply in verse 7, “Leave her alone”?
Jesus not only told them to let Mary continue her abject display of humility and profligate waste, in verse 8 it sounds like He doesn’t even care about the benefit which might have come to the poor. His words sound calloused and self-centered: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” What pope or professional wrestler could say anything more heartless and selfish than that? Where does Jesus get off?
Truth be told, some would make the same sort of objection to God in general and what we’re doing here this morning. Listen to all the things we’ve been saying and singing, song phrases like “Jesus, you’re the best…,” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” “Glory be to the Father…” “Praise, praise, praise.” What would you think of an adult human being who wanted to be praised all the time? Who commanded people to worship him? Who enjoyed it when people knelt down and humbled themselves before him?
What would you think? Kim Jong-il in North Korea plastering the country with pictures of himself and spending $700,000 a year on cognac, while millions in his country are starving. Saddam Hussein building statues to himself and living in eight different palaces dotted across Iraq. Former president Mobutu of Congo who didn’t give his wife a Mercedes. He bought her a Mercedes assembly plant. He had about 5 billion dollars stashed in Swiss bank accounts, an amount nearly the national debt of his country. Those are the sorts of people who want to be worshipped, who want their feet kissed, who expect expensive gifts to be poured out on them. Is God like that? Is Jesus like that?
The word “worship” is a contraction of the old expression “worth-ship.” To worship is to acknowledge the worth of the one being praised. We don’t suppose it crazy or insane to praise the skill of a Barry Bonds or Venus Williams. It’s natural to commend the genius of Stephen Hawking. It’s OK to honor the generosity of a William Buffet. When the object of our praise is someone of genuine worth, then praise—worship—is fitting. It’s worth-ship.
It’s absolutely fitting that we praise and worship God, praise and worship Jesus, because His worth is so huge. Creator, Savior, Protector, God in Christ Jesus has it all, is all that is worthy. To worship God is not to satisfy the vanity of a power-monger who doesn’t deserve it. God actually rates all this praise.
In verse 7, Jesus said that Mary kept the perfume for the day, the time of His burial. Jesus was going to die. He was going to give up His life for the salvation of His people and of the whole world. That kind of sacrifice was absolutely worthy. It was completely worth Mary’s hugely extravagant show of worship and praise. It makes perfect sense to pour out costly gifts on somebody who is about to lay down His life for you. It makes sense for us to worship Jesus because He really deserves it.
But you still might wonder about the personality of Jesus in all this. Even if someone is worthy of praise, it still feels a bit odd if they want to be praised. We feel less excited about worshipping someone when she seems to desire the adulation we give. If a sports figure invites us to adore him, we think less of him. That’s why professional wrestlers appear so ridiculous. If Warren Buffet wrote articles explaining why he should be praised for his generosity, we would imagine he was only an arrogant jerk, trying to buy our affections. So how does God, how does Jesus, get off asking for praise, inviting it, especially in words like verse 8, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me”?
The only answer that makes sense is if, somehow, worshipping Jesus does more for us than it does for Him. If praise and gifts to God are just for God’s benefit, then perhaps He really is a cosmic Pompous Twit, just waiting for His feet to be kissed. But if worship of God makes you and me better, makes us somehow wiser and nobler, then God is not pompous at all. He is giving us the opportunity to become more fully human, to understand ourselves more fully, to participate in the greatest activity we can accomplish.
God does not need our worship. His ego doesn’t need stroking. He won’t mope around sadly if no one recognizes His greatness. It was not Jesus’ need that made Him let Mary pour that ointment over His feet and lean down to wipe them with her own hair. It was her need, our need, to worship and adore that which is truly good and worthy, so that we might become something good and worthy.
God does not need our worship and our gifts. It doesn’t matter how extravagant, how costly they are. But we desperately need to give Him worship, to give Him offerings that really cost us something. And on some level we understand how that is, how it works.
Imagine your child saving his allowance for weeks and weeks. He’s had his eye on an iPod, or a personal DVD player. But along comes the Saturday before Mother’s Day and he suddenly takes everything’s he’s got, $38.75, walks into a flower shop, and plunks it down to buy you a huge arrangement of spring flowers. You come home to find it sitting on the kitchen table with a note, “To Mom, with love.”
You don’t need that bouquet. In a way, you don’t even want it. You hate to see your boy giving up his savings for a bunch of flowers that won’t last more than a few days. Yet you also know you won’t hurt his feelings by rejecting or even questioning this gift. When he comes in you will thank him with all your heart. You will admire the colors in the flowers. You will praise him for his thoughtfulness and say that this is one of the best gifts you ever received. You will accept and welcome that gift not for your sake, but for his sake.
You want your son to grow up to be generous, kind-hearted and thoughtful. You want him to learn to put concern for others ahead of his own desires. You want him to give lots of thought to doing good and showing love to those around him. So you will accept this gift and the praise that’s implied in it. You won’t tell him it’s stupid or wasteful to spend so much on flowers. You will honor the love that’s shown in the gift and try harder to be a mother who is worthy of such love. You will let him show his love to you in this way in part because it’s good for him to do it.
Jesus Christ accepts our gifts and praises in that same kind of loving parental spirit. He doesn’t need His feet kissed by Mary to boost His ego. But He knows that Mary needs to kiss His feet in order for her ego to grow into a true child of God. Jesus doesn’t need to hear us sing Him praise or bring Him tithes of our income. But He knows that you and I need to worship and give so that we can grow into true children of God. Generous. Kind. Humble. Full of love.
That kind of love and praise and worship will very often appear impractical. In order to worship Jesus, we will give up time and money in ways that look ridiculous to a world that is simply counting dollars and minutes. We will give up time that might seem to be better spent working or resting or even in quality moments with our family. We will give up money to pay for a building full of seemingly unnecessary decorations and equipment. We will give up our pride to sing in a voice that’s off key or to kneel or to bow our heads or even to raise our hands in a posture that feels uncomfortable. To people outside looking at us, it will seem silly and highly impractical. That’s how Mary appeared.
But remember from whose mouth those words of practicality and fiscal responsibility came. It was Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray Jesus, it says in verse 4. He was the one who was concerned about cost, concerned about practicality, concerned about money. Real worship just kisses Jesus’ feet and forgets such worries.
Judas wanted to appear as if he was concerned about the poor. That’s the excuse he offered in verse 5. Verse 6 explains that he really didn’t care about poor people at all, but was simply looking for more money to which he could help himself. Mary’s worship of Jesus was not a neglect of the poor. It was Judas who truly didn’t care about them.
Jesus did not forget the poor either. To us, His words in verse 8, “You will always have the poor among you,” sound uncaring and heartless and all in His own favor at that moment. Yet Jesus was actually quoting Scripture. Those words come from Deuteronomy chapter 15, verse 11. Listen to it. “There will always be poor people in the land,” it says. But then read on, “Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and sisters and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
Everyone who heard Jesus there knew the rest of the verse. They knew He was not telling them to ignore the poor and dump all their money into the perfume trade. They understood that Jesus was explaining how loving Him fit together with loving your neighbor. You can’t truly do one without doing the other.
In fact, when we look at something else Jesus said, we see even better how it all fits together. In Matthew 25:40, speaking of feeding the hungry and clothing the naked and housing the stranger and visiting the prisoner, He said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.”
Like Mary, you and I are called to lavish worship on Jesus. He is worthy of it. And He lets us praise Him for our own benefit, so that we can grow spiritually as God’s children. And part of that spiritual growth is to become like Jesus Himself in our love for others, to care about the poor and needy so much that part of our worship is found in loving them.
If you walk through the church door and drop a bag of cans in the barrel for Food for Lane County or put a package of socks in the Hosea Youth Services house, you’ve already started to worship Jesus before the service begins. Jesus says you are putting that food in His mouth, those socks on His feet. It’s just continuing that same act of worship then to bow down and kiss those precious feet.
Kiss His feet. Psalm 2:12 says to do that lest the Lord be angry with you and you perish. But then it ends, “Happy are all who take refuge in him.” Kiss His feet for your own good, for your own happiness, for you own joy. Kiss the feet of your brothers and sisters in need and so kiss Jesus for their sake, for their happiness and joy. Kiss the precious, pierced, priceless feet of Jesus. And He will save you and bless you and make you His child.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj