Here are few questions for you to play with this week. How much of what you do is motivated by a desire for approval? Who, in your work, is the person you want to please the most? How discouraged do you get when what you do is not recognised?
Behind these questions there is a deep human desire and need. We need approval, we want approval, we need encouragement and are starved if it is withheld.
The big question, however, is where can we get it? There is absolutely nothing wrong with needing encouragement. From your first to your dying breath you require it – so do I. Your need for it, however, can distort your behaviour so that you function in a way designed to obtain approval, no matter the cost.
Now the dynamic becomes more complex. Suppose you want to do something that will create disapproval in the mind of someone who matters to you? Now you have a conflict of interest. What price will you pay for your actions? Unpopularity, disapproval may be unpleasant but what about losing your job or income, your reputation, even your life?
Fear has now entered the equation and you’re faced with a motivational challenge – will you let fear of disapproval, fear of consequences or your desire for approval be your driver?
Closely allied to the fear of disapproval is the ‘everyone’s doing it’ mentality out of which corporate and systemic corruption can flow.
So it is no small matter to assign the importance of your approval rating in your soul’s priority file.
Our twelfth look at the ‘What do you want?’ theme in the fourth gospel is full of approval and disapproval behaviour. Jesus is at a dinner party where Mary, Martha and Lazarus, all siblings in the same family, are present. Mary pours perfume on his feet. Judas (the team treasurer) disapproves of Mary. Jesus approves of Mary. John (the narrator) disapproves of Judas. A crowd gathers who approve of Jesus because of his reversal of Lazarus’ death experience.
The scene moves. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey – a massive crowd approves – they want an Israeli spring to overthrow the Roman dictatorship. Greeks turn up and want an interview – Jews would not approve.
A voice of approval comes from the sky. Opinion now divides over who this Jesus is. Lurking in the background are very disapproving authorities plotting the first death of Jesus and the second death of Lazarus. They are jealous of the crowds’ approval of Jesus.
Many hearers are conflicted because they secretly approve of Jesus, but are afraid to get thrown out of the favoured circle they are in if they own up.
Jesus keeps the teaching narrative going throughout, which creates approval and hatred in equal measure.
Everyone, throughout the entire episode has to face a ‘what do you want?’ choice. John (no doubt with Mary’s help – remember we have been saying all along that Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have collaborated with John after the crucifixion when Jesus gave them to each other) slips in a comment on the conflicted spectators – ‘they loved human praise more than the praise of God’.
There you have it. ‘Do you want human praise or divine praise?’ It is at the heart of this episode, it is at the heart of the gospel and it is at the heart of every human life.
Everyone – including Jesus – had to face this question. As he rode into Jerusalem, he heard the praise of the crowd. A crowd who wanted a freedom fighter. He heard it but could not be shaped by it. Only one voice could shape his worth, only one professional review really mattered, the voice from the sky, which spoke of glory – of real glory – which actually came via death not donkeys.
So here is your challenge and mine. Do you want human praise more than divine praise? It is not either or – we all want both, but which one wins if it comes to a choice? Which do you love the most?
Jesus did not reject the praise of humans, but he did not let it define him, nor block out the voice of God. The Pharisees so preferred human praise that they devised a whole system of behaviour around approval, ironically thinking they were seeking divine approval, but they were not. Somewhere on that scale lays you and me trying to assess our relative love of human praise and divine praise.
Somewhere in the chapter sits a character who seems to have found the secret. Not carrying about approval, disapproval or balancing the two. This character is so absorbed in loving Jesus that nothing else is seen. Her name is Mary and while all around her (especially the men) are worrying about approval ratings, she just sits at Jesus’ feet and pours out her love. The same disciples who had to get past the smell of death to deeper faith now have to get past the smell of extravagance to deeper love.
Mary did not do it for approval but out of love. Jesus tells her (in Mark’s gospel) that her act will be spoken of whenever the gospel is preached. It seems that love of God’s praise is simply secondary to love of God.
So perhaps this week it would be worth looking at doing things simply out of love for God. I hope you approve of my suggestion.
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” 9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.
12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the festival heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the king of Israel!”
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
see, your king is coming,
seated on a donkey’s colt.”
16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. 17 Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. 18 Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” 20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. 27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.
30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die. 34 The crowd spoke up, “We have heard from the Law that the Messiah will remain forever, so how can you say, ‘The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this ‘Son of Man’?” 35 Then Jesus told them, “You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. 36 Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light.” When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them. 37 Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. 38 This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:
“Lord, who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:
40 “He has blinded their eyes
and hardened their hearts,
so they can neither see with their eyes,
nor understand with their hearts,
nor turn—and I would heal them.”
41 Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him. 42 Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved human praise more than praise from God. 44 Then Jesus cried out, “Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. 45 The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. 46 I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. 47 “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge that person. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day. 49 For I did not speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken. 50 I know that his command leads to eternal life. So whatever I say is just what the Father has told me to say.”
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