READINGS: Psalm 126; John 12:1-8
We had this conversation again this week about money. Cash flow. Paying the bills to keep the church running, so to speak. It’s been tricky again. (As an aside please consider signing up for automatic payments or the envelope system. It really helps. Especially when you can’t make it or are on holiday.)
It’s funny how it comes up every now and then – the conversation about finances – just in that week when the reading set is about generosity. Extravagance. The poor. Or some related matter.
It can’t get any more challenging than this gospel reading.
I read about a pastor’s conference on stewardship – which is about how we look after God’s things, including money. Listen to the story:
One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.” There was nervous laughter around the room. “Do you not understand?” asked the speaker. “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.” It was an anxious moment. Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 5088-5094). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
That’s the point of this gift. It’s about giving to the one who is worthy. (“Thou art worthy” is the song we used to sing during the offering – it challenges us for our afterthought gifts – when we are scratching around in our purses or wallets.)
“If you offer something to God” suggests the speaker, “it ceases to be useful to you. That’s a challenging idea. Especially since we often have strings attached to our gifts.
The extravagance here in Mary’s gift is not unparalleled in the gospel. The water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (how much? 180 gallons. 900 litres.)
The 12 baskets left over at the feeding of the 5000?
Jesus after his resurrection telling Peter to cast his net on the other side of the board. 153 fish! And he already had some on his barbeque.
Mind you this is Jesus of whom John 1:3 says casually: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Reminds me of the Psalms:
Psalm 24:1 The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
Psalm 50:10 For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. (What I term the ‘hamburger and steak” Psalm.)
How are you with your generosity? Do you love Jesus sacrificially and give to Him extravagantly? With utter abandonment?
Good Friday is lurking here though. In contrast to this generous sensual gift of love (the pouring of the perfume, the taboo of Mary wiping his feet with her hair – the same wiping word we find in the next chapter when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel) there is money-bags Judas.
He’s not just out of relationship with Jesus but reacts badly to someone who is extravagantly worshipping and loving Jesus by his criticism. Sounds like Christians I know. Why do we seem to react to people who are in our view too zealous? Mary knew this Jesus – and his feet. She used to sit at his feet – remember? And listen to his teaching! (Luke 10).
Judas pretends to be concerned with the waste – hence his comment that the value of the gift – a year’s wages – could have been spent on the poor. Of course Jesus’ comment about the poor always being with us is no excuse not to help them. He is quoting Deuteronomy 15 – which says that because they will always be there you have to have an open hand.
It’s about Jesus. “You won’t always have me with you” says Jesus. It reminds me of that lovely worship song: “It’s all about you Jesus!”
And death is in the room you see.
Good Friday is near.
The nard – perfume – is a foretaste of his burial. That’s what they used because they didn’t have our modern embalming tricks – sucking out the dead person’s blood and replacing it with preservatives. So they stank quickly after death.
Like Lazarus did after being in the tomb a couple of days. There’s the classic line from the King James Bible when Jesus instructs them to open the tomb.
Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.
By this time he stinketh.
Lovely phrase. There are things in our lives that smell of death too. We stinketh me thinketh.
The perfume is for his burial – but won’t be needed after the 3rd day. It’s still not a waste – because of who he is.
Death is in the room because Lazarus is in the room.
Lazarus is notoriously silent in this passage. He’s the man of the house. Why am I surprised though? When you’ve been dead and you’re alive again – it is a bit disconcerting. I wonder whether he talked about those couple of days in the tomb?
What is interesting and possibly disconcerting for Jesus at his meal is where Lazarus is positioned in the room. Did you notice?
Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.
Reclining at the table – they didn’t sit on chairs – they almost leaned on each other and ate with one hand. I wonder how close death was to Jesus?
Lazarus was more than once described as “Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (John 12:1; 12:9 12:17). An interesting way of introducing a person socially!
And then there is Judas. The thief – according to John.
Only on one other occasion (great sentence – five words beginning with o) – is a thief mentioned – in John’s gospel. It’s in chapter 10: 1 & 10 – the thief who climbs into the sheep pen another way, who comes only to kill and destroy – compared to the good shepherd who came that we may have life and have it to the full.
- Satan – the ultimate thief – did not thwart the purposes of God in the temptations of Jesus.
- Judas’ schemes did not stop the purpose of God.
- Neither will we – with our meanness or self obsession.
We have no option to be like Lazarus. We will need to be raised one day. Although of course he will also be raised in the final resurrection like us! We are just as dependant on Jesus for life in the meantime too. I’ve come close to death – any rescue buys me time to make the next choice.
We do have an option to choose between Mary or Judas.
- To give and love extravagantly. And end up with nothing, and yet everything.
- Or to be a controlling thief. To end up with 30 pieces of silver, and yet nothing.
Both were equally loved by the “lover of our souls” – to use Charles Wesley’s term.
You and me too are equally loved. Like the two sons of the extravagant Father last week who killed the best yummy fattened calf for the party.
The smell that is left is what counts. Listen again to verse 3:
John 12:3 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.
Our lives and gifts should be a beautiful fragrance too.
As is the case in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2: 14-16 – where he uses the illustration of a Roman victory procession, with the incense of the priests rising up. The aroma symbolized life given by the victors and death to the defeated ones.
Paul uses this image to describe Christians: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Thankfully, says John Wesley, we are by the power of the Holy Spirit.
May our lives leave a sweet aroma wherever we go.