The United States Office of Government Ethics maintains pages and pages of rules that relate to gift-giving by and to federal employees. For example, an employee may never give a gift to the employee’s official superior, with the exception of on annual holidays and birthdays, when an employee is allowed to give his or her superior a gift, so long as it does not have a cash value of more than $10. Gifts received from people outside the office are even more complicated, with anything valued over $20 deemed to be unacceptable altogether.
The reasoning behind all of these rules is good. Expensive gifts to one’s boss could be seen as a bribe, and the same goes for outside parties as a way of trying to influence the actions of government employees. It’s an ethics issue, and an important one.
But suspicion surrounding generous gifts doesn’t begin and end in government offices, and those suspicions are not always warranted. In our 21st century North American culture, we seem to share a common wariness toward any extravagant giving. Whether we distrust the impulse behind the gift or feel somehow at a loss for how to reciprocate, lavish and generous gift giving just makes many people feel uncomfortable.
Today’s reading from John’s gospel tells a story of extravagant giving – giving that made Judas just as uncomfortable as it might have made us.
Jesus is in the town of Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem for the very last time. He stops to spend the evening with Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters and Jesus’ good friends, are there as well, making dinner, catching up and sharing in fellowship.
We don’t know a whole lot about their conversations that night, but by the time the story unfolds it seems that everyone is pretty much on the same page when it comes to what is about to happen to Jesus. They all know what’s in Jesus’ future, and what’s probably in Lazarus’ future too. When Lazarus came stumbling out of his tomb, the word about Jesus spread even farther than it already had. This was Jesus’ most incredible miracle – the defeat of death itself – and it moved many to believe in him. As more people began to believe, however, others began to fear. The Pharisees began plotting to have Jesus killed, certain that if they didn’t stop him, the Romans would destroy everything they held dear. How ironic that the very act of giving life to Lazarus was the catalyst that was leading Jesus toward his own death.
So, gathered around the dinner table, Lazarus’ family seems to know what’s coming. They’re about to lose their dear friend. They may even know that Lazarus’ new life is at stake as well. Having been raised from the dead, he is as much a threat as the one who raised him. So, time is short, and feelings of grief are palpable as they break bread together in Bethany. Now just imagine what it felt like to be in that moment. Because understanding how Mary, Martha, and Lazarus felt that night is key to understanding the meaning of this Gospel passage.
Scarcity and abundance are twin themes of Lent. In this season we walk through the wilderness each year, challenging our reliance on the comfortable and familiar, and replacing old habits with new disciplines. We travel toward Jerusalem, week after week, mindful of the suffering we will find there. It’s a slow, plodding course, and one that we know well. Next week, we will stand at the foot of the cross and watch as our Savior breathes his last.
Viewed from only one direction, Lent is a very dark season indeed. And yet, we are always mindful of how the story ends. We walk through the valley of Lent knowing that while Jesus’ time left on earth is short, God’s grace is abundant and everlasting.
And for Christians, that is true for the whole of our lives. Even when at times we struggle in the wilderness, we have faith that God is always at work making rivers in our personal deserts. Because in the life of a Christian, Easter is always just around the corner.
Today’s gospel treats us to two different ways of being; two examples of how we confront scarcity. It’s an old story, but in it we learn that people are the same today as they were 2000 years ago.
A current political figure who is quickly becoming a favorite of mine (and not just because he’s an Episcopalian) was quoted the other day as saying, “People don’t resist change as such, they resist loss. And they’re afraid of change when they think they’re going to lose something.” The Pharisees – and eventually, the Roman authorities – felt that the change that Jesus proclaimed threatened their grip on power, and in the face of the loss of that power, they chose to tighten their grip on it. By plotting to kill Jesus, the authorities hoped to stop the growing sense of helplessness they felt by asserting power over what they could control.
Mary, on the other hand, had a different approach. The gospel doesn’t say what Mary was feeling when she left the table and knelt at Jesus’ feet with a pound of expensive perfumed oil. But her silence seemed to say something on its own.
In gratitude for her brother’s life, in grief for the impending loss of her friend Jesus whom she loved, in total fear for the future, words failed Mary. So, instead of speaking, she lavished her Lord with an absurdly abundant gift.
To put into perspective what Mary did, I searched the internet for the most expensive perfume in the world. That perfume is Clive Christian No. 1 Imperial Majesty Perfume. This perfume sells for $12,721.89 per ounce! Now, imagine someone taking a 5-ounce bottle of this perfume and pouring the whole bottle on someone’s feet.
John says that the whole room was filled with the fragrance as Mary anointed Jesus. And I can just imagine the cringing expressions on the disciples’ faces – especially Judas – who probably looked away, lost for words for how to react to this woman who used such an extravagant fragrance and her own hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. In more contemporary language for today we might say that it was all just too much.
But in this little story, we see, importantly, that there are at least two ways of dealing with scarcity: we can seek to control what we can, or we can trust God and give all that we have.
Of course, the most uncomfortable part of the dinner at Bethany is when Judas finally speaks up.
After witnessing this extravagant gift, Judas says that he thinks Mary is being wasteful. He suggests that the money that she spent on the fragrance would have been better spent on the poor. And thank goodness for John’s parenthetical reference that lets us know that Judas was stealing from the common purse. Because if not for that reference, I’d venture to say that many of us would find ourselves precariously close to agreeing with Judas if you think about that $12,000 per ounce perfume.
Yes, of course we might think “What a waste! What a silly thing to do! We could’ve found a much more righteous way to use that kind of wealth.” But you see, it’s not Judas’ criticism that makes this moment uncomfortable. Rather, it’s how easily we find ourselves agreeing with him. And in the process, we lose sight of what Mary is there to witness to and the abundant love of God that she proclaims.
I’m sure that many of us have been there ourselves. We have found ourselves uncomfortable in the face of generosity and criticized it in order to limit its power to make what we give look insufficient. We’ve also probably stood alongside Mary. We’ve allowed ourselves to give to our heart’s content – to lavish our love on someone or something – only to have our motives mocked or suspiciously picked apart. If this happens to us once, we rarely want to risk it happening again.
Sometimes our culture – and perhaps our human nature – pressures us to only take measured risks, and of course, in many ways this is wise. But God is not interested in a cost-benefit analysis of life. God calls us to love without counting the cost.
Wouldn’t it be a brave Lenten discipline to engage these final days of this season as Mary did?
To love generously, just because.
To follow our impulse to give abundantly, just as our God gives to us, and to embrace it?
To give of ourselves in a way that reflects just how much we mean to each other . . . and how precious we are in the eyes of God.
That is what the witness of Mary in today’s Gospel is there to proclaim to us.
One of my favorite hymns, Hymn #707 in the Episcopal Hymnal sums it up this way:
Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee;
Take my moments and my days, let them flow in ceaseless praise. Take my hands and let them move at the impulse of thy love;
Take my heart it is thine own; it shall be thy royal throne.
Take my voice and let me sing always, only, for my King;
Take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose.
Take my will and make it thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee.