What is the most expensive gift you’ve ever received? Now think of the most precious gift you’ve ever received? Were they the same thing? If not, what made the latter precious to you?
In today’s Gospel text, we find ourselves in the midst of a meal among friends. Jesus and his disciples sit in the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. This is the same Lazarus whom Jesus wept for and then raised from the dead only a chapter earlier. You may remember his sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany from the narrative in Luke’s Gospel, where Martha, busy with preparing the meal, complains to Jesus about the fact that Mary is sitting at his feet listening to him, leaving Martha to do all the work. True to form, Lazarus is at the table and Martha bustles around serving the meal. She is the consummate hostess, providing hospitality and seeing to everyone’s needs. This meal, like the last supper that is drawing near, is one of the last Jesus’ journey to the cross. These are people Jesus feels close to. And then something unexpected happens. Mary comes into the room with a pound of expensive perfume and proceeds to anoint Jesus, pouring out the whole quantity on his feet. I can imagine the stunned silence as the smell wafts to every nostril. She did what!?
First of all, when we say expensive perfume, scholars understand it to be equal to a year’s salary for a manual laborer. So even for a family that is well off, this is a very large sum. Secondly, people are normally anointed on the head. In fact it was a common ritual – Kings were anointed as part of recognition of their sovereignty; the sick were anointed for healing. But they were anointed on the head. Anointing the feet was what one did to prepare a corpse for burial. Mary anointing Jesus’ feet signifies his imminent death. And then, in another unusual turn, she wipes his feet with her hair. It’s not a coincidence that the Greek word for “wipes” is the same one used to describe Jesus as he wipes his disciples’ feet after washing them at the last supper. This unselfconscious act is intimate, sensuous even. So it’s no surprise that someone is going to raise a fuss over this odd behavior.
It’s interesting though, who objects. In two of the other Gospel versions of this story, the disciples object, saying, “why are you wasting this expensive perfume, when you could sell it and give the money to the poor?” And this is probably the most sensible response to most of us. John takes this a step further. It is not just any disciple who protests, but Judas, the one who will betray Jesus within a week. As an aside, John makes it clear that in fact Judas has already betrayed him by stealing from the disciples’ shared coffer. The story sets us up to see Mary as the epitome of the good disciple, while unflinchingly showing Judas as a hypocrite and foreshadowing the betrayal to come. Mary gives the best of what she has to Jesus, wiping his feet as an act of service, as he will soon be serving the disciples’.
But what’s even more interesting to me is who remains silent. Here Mary is giving away what has to be one of, if not the most expensive item in the house and yet we hear from neither of the other two people who live there. By their silence, they seem unconcerned that such a costly item has been used in one fell swoop. Judas on the other hand, according to John, is only concerned about the cost because of what he could steal if it were sold off. It leads me to think that, despite the description, the point isn’t about the actual cost. Perhaps, as Jane pointed out last week about the parable of the Prodigal Son, this story also paints a “picture of the world as it is and as it might grow to be, under the influence of God’s creative spirit.” It suggests that, more than cost, discipleship is about “right seeing.” When we approach life from a place of scarcity, we get the message wrong. It’s not that we are off the hook, and not responsible to steward the gifts we have been given – it’s that the heart of God’s love and grace, and the heart of the Gospel are about living out of a sense of abundance. Again and again in Jesus’ life we see this abundance – from the wine at the wedding at Cana, to feeding the 5000 by the sea of Galilee from a few loaves and having 12 baskets of bread left over; to the disciples catching 153 large fish, when no fish had been caught all night. Jesus lives out this sense of abundance in very concrete ways.
Today we are looking at two examples of giving as part of our mission and offering time. The children are taking a special collection for MN FoodShare. It is the largest food drive in the state and restocks almost 300 food shelves across Minnesota while raising awareness about hunger and food insecurity. In 2012 alone, people in Minnesota visited food shelves more than three million times, and 1 in 8 Minnesotans reported there were times in the past year when they didn’t have enough money to buy food. Donations to MN FoodShare go especially far, as CES is able to utilize funds to buy groceries for an average of 8 cents per pound. We will also be dedicating the last of the money raised in the effort to defeat the (Anti-) Marriage Amendment and donating it to MN United for All Families toward the continuing efforts to gain marriage equality in Minnesota.
These are two areas that have been close to our hearts over the past couple years. As a congregation, we have given dollars, products and countless hours to both of these causes. But more than what we’ve donated, people report that it has been their interactions with others that have had the most impact. We start to see “the other” not as a stranger, but as a neighbor – one who has similar needs, hopes and dreams as we have. It is concrete acts of loving our neighbor that open us to being able to “see rightly.” The abundance of God’s love goes beyond the concrete to reconciliation. One of the most striking things about Jesus’ life was his ability to see the person rather than the cost. It’s not that he didn’t follow rules or was agitating rebellion, but when it came down to it, the human being always came first. Whether in showing grace to a sinner, eating with a tax collector, or healing on the Sabbath, what ultimately informed his actions was the ability to truly see people as children of God. If we are able to live out of a sense of abundance, we also begin to see the person rather than the cost. We see our friend at St. Paul’s, not a faceless person in need of groceries. The crux of the marriage campaign focused on our shared hopes and dreams about the value of marriage, no matter who we are.
We aren’t given insight into what Mary is thinking. But by all appearances, she is single-minded in her actions. She doesn’t seem to think about how much the oil costs or what else she could buy, she simply sees someone she loves and she responds. Without saying a word, Mary shows us what discipleship looks like. While Judas is clearly our villain in this story, he cuts a tragic figure. He fails to see the true nature of who Jesus is – that the extravagant love he shows is a reflection of God. He, like we so often do, suffers from a failure of imagination about what this abundance might look like.
How do you live abundantly? What are the ways that a perception of scarcity shrinks your ability live out of God’s abundance? Whether it is looking at immigration reform, and who should be allowed to come or to stay; or who should pay what taxes; or how we think about poverty, everyday we must choose how we are going to fundamentally see the world. God’s love and compassion are the most precious perfume, and it is meant for all of God’s children. We need not hoard it as though it were running out. As we practice generosity, we begin to let God’s economy form our identity as people of God. We begin to see and consequently to live “rightly.” Amen.