Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
Have you ever been invited to a dinner where the host used the best dishes? Maybe you’ve been a guest at a fancy meal? Or, maybe there have been times when you invited guests for a special occasion.
Nothing any of us has experienced is likely to compare to what happens in today’s reading from John.
Can you imagine showing up at someone’s house for dinner as the guest of honor & they break out a $30,000 bottle of wine? That’s what’s going on in the story of Jesus & Mary. The perfume that Mary pours on Jesus’ feet is worth almost a year’s wages!
That being the case, who could argue with Judas? The story describes Judas as a thief & a hypocrite. But thief or no thief, Judas is right. What Mary does seems like a terrible waste. Think what you could do with $30,000. If she was determined to waste it, the least she could do would be to spend it on food or drink. But perfume?
Judas has a better idea. Why this waste? he asks. Could not this have been sold for 300 denarii & the money given to the poor?
What do you think about Jesus’ reply? I think if someone honored me the way Mary honored him I’d feel really uncomfortable. I’d be embarrassed! But Jesus says to Judas, “Leave her alone. The poor you will always have. You won’t always have me.”
That sounds downright selfish, doesn’t it—or, at least strange? Jesus had devoted his whole ministry to giving hope to those on the edge of society: foreigners, the disabled, the diseased, women, children, & yes, the poor. A year’s wages could go a long way toward helping such people. How can he say, “The poor you will always have?”
On the other hand, if we look at the big picture, Jesus’ words are consistent with his whole ministry. Everything he says & does arises out of a spirit of abundance. Everything about Jesus proclaims that God is gracious. God is good.
The very first miracle he performs is at a wedding. He turns water into wine. And not just a few bottles of cheap wine, but 180 gallons of the best wine. He multiplies a few loaves & fishes for thousands of people, not just once but twice. And each time there are leftovers!
Jesus lavishes healing power on those he meets. He restores people to health & wholeness; he returns them to full participation in their community. And, he even raises people from the dead.
The most famous one is his good friend Lazarus. It’s in Lazarus’ home that his sister Mary makes this big show of extravagance. Think about it. Her brother who was dead is now alive. I wonder if what Mary did with the perfume was a thank-you, or payment, out of gratitude for what Jesus had done for her family. People in our society commonly spend a year’s wages to keep loved ones alive. What is one year’s wages when compared to resurrection, a new life?
If we think of it in those terms, Judas doesn’t look quite so good. He starts to look like a “bean-counter.” He’s not thinking in terms of miracles or new life. He’s not thinking in terms of abundance or gratitude or joy. His first concern is money. What a waste! he says. And it’s true.
On the other hand, if you think about it, God is wasteful. God has poured out amazing grace, incredible love on humanity & all creation. What God has received in return from us is disappointment that we don’t have—or might not have—enough. It’s the story we heard last Sunday, in which the Father lavishly, generously, recklessly poured out all he had on his two sons, neither of whom was satisfied. The best they could manage was self-pity & the conviction that they deserved more than they had.
Last week’s story featured two ungrateful brothers. This week’s story, by contrast, features two very grateful sisters. In contrast to the two brothers’ fear of scarcity, we find in the two sisters a spirit of generosity & abundance. Here we find Martha serving & Mary anointing Jesus’ feet, drying them with her hair. They are generous even to the point of being extravagantly wasteful—which is to say, they’re following Jesus’ example.
In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul speaks the language of abundance & waste:
7. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9. and be found in him.
Paul is willing to set aside everything he values in a spirit of gratitude for what God has done for him.
What might these readings teach us about our priorities today?
When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have; but you will not always have me,” we know from his life’s work that he wasn’t ignoring the poor. Rather, he was speaking out of a spirit of generosity: “You are abundantly blessed. You can always serve the poor–& you should. It’s your Christian privilege & duty. But you don’t have to be generous in one area & miserly in another. Be generous—lavishly wasteful for the sake of others–in all areas of your life.”
This weekend the national healthcare debate comes to a head. The basic questions that are raised: Can we afford it? And, who deserves it? They’re the same questions Judas asks in John’s story.
Are we a nation that is generous only in certain things & not in others? Are we, the wealthiest & most powerful nation in the world, guided by a spirit of scarcity…or a spirit of abundance? Are we willing to lavishly spend money only on war? Are we willing to waste money only on the middle class, or the rich & powerful, but not on the poor? When Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you,” he knew that wherever he found poor people he also found people of means who lacked the extravagant, wasteful, abundant, self-giving spirit of God.
We don’t have a lot of power to influence the health care debate. We do have power to determine our own attitudes & choices. I can think of examples of how you have chosen well.
Offering hospitality to the men of ARISE this month has become an annual discipline. It may not cost a lot of money but your generosity in offering the use of our space arises out of a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity, generosity rather than fear.
And in quiet, simple ways you have been faithful. This past week one of you traveled 16 miles roundtrip by Access bus to visit someone in rehab, even without your own car. Another of you at soup supper this past week knew that one of our guests was a vegetarian, & whipped up a pot of vegetarian soup. Extravagance doesn’t have to be a big public spectacle to reflect the extravagant generosity of God. It doesn’t have to be a fancy dinner or a $30,000 bottle of wine. But what Jesus saw in Mary & what he hopes for in us is a desire to imitate the wild generosity of God. God, who has given us life & this “garden planet” with no concern as to whether we deserve it. God–who gave humanity Jesus himself, who would die at the hands of ungrateful people. God–whose love is unconditional, whose forgiveness is complete, whose mercy is boundless, gave us in Jesus, in Mary, & in Paul examples to imitate.
Judas was right: Mary was wasteful! Where in the past week have you experienced the abundant, wasteful love of God? Who have you seen practicing God’s lavish, extravagant, amazing grace?
Let us pray…