Sermon of the Week
The Wrong Answer: Not Dropping It All
Keywords: Poor Always With You, Judas, Devotion, Perfume.
Fred Craddock was a preacher and a professor of preaching.
He mainly told stories, which is hard enough to do
and particularly so when you are trying to convey the message of the Gospel,
But he had a knack for it.
He once reflected about his work in the church
and particularly the first church he ever served as a student pastor.
They had a fund called The Emergency Fund and it had about $100 in it.
“They told me I could use it at my discretion,
provided I dispensed the money according to the conditions.
So I said, ‘What are the conditions?”
The chairman of the committee said,
“You are not to give the money
to anyone who is in need as a result of laziness, drunkenness, or poor management.’
I said, ‘Well, what else is there?’
Far as I know, Craddock said, as the thought about it,
Far as I know, they still have that money….[i]
I’m not sure why I remembered that story
when I started thinking about this encounter
that Jesus had with Mary and Martha and Lazarus and Judas.
I think it is because of the way in which we go about trying to do our work together,
sharing our resources, but protecting ourselves just so,
our intentions and our dispositions and our caution,
so as to sometimes totally miss the point.
If you ask me, that’s what I think is going on here,
in this story from the Gospel according to John.
Mary’s gift to Jesus created quite a stir.
Her action was controversial, yes sir. No doubt about it.
She poured over Jesus a whole pound of expensive ointment,
leading onlookers to protest,
“What a waste!
She could have sold it and given the money to the poor.”
Mary used A LOT of the perfume, so much that the aroma filled the room.
Expensive perfume—maybe Mary’s lifetime supply.
Nard came from India.
That’s the close outlet.
Even more of it was grown in China, even further away.
It was hard to get, and when you could, it was crazy expensive.
So you used it sparingly, carefully,
to anoint the dead body of a loved one,
maybe to sprinkle a few drops on yourself for a very special occasion.
You did not pour it out.
It may have been the most valuable thing Mary had in her possession.
No wonder it was shocking.
You can find this episode,
with key details adjusted here and there
in a few of the other gospels,
and in each of them, the room was astonished at what is going on.
In the Gospel of Mark, it says “They scolded her.”
without saying who the they were.
In the Gospel of Luke it says the disciples objected.
By the time the Gospel of John was written
many years later,
Judas Iscariot is named as the one who complains,
not because he cared about the poor
but because he was a thief who stole money all along.
I find that a bit hard to believe,
since that little band of disciples
probably didn’t have much more than grocery money.
It’s easy to scapegoat Judas.
Then no one else has to face the rejoinder of Jesus to leave Mary alone.
The fact is, I think,
any one of us could have made the complaint about such a waste,
that an expensive resource should be used instead for those in need.
I’ve made those kinds of comments,
Sitting around a boardroom,
or looking over our family budget,
trying to think through what it means to live with scarce resources,
and sometimes seemingly endless need out there.
After all, Jesus, and all the prophets before him,
repeatedly call us to respond to the needs of others,
to be selfless in our giving.
Just to offer a few examples:
Jesus told the rich young ruler
the one thing he lacked
was to give his money to those in need.
Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus led Zacchaeus
to give half his possessions to the needy.
Jesus taught that when we feed the hungry,
give drink to the thirsty,
clothe the naked,
welcome the stranger,
visit the imprisoned,
we are in fact serving Christ.
One would think Jesus would have said to the complainers,
This costly resource should be used for the poor.”
But Jesus didn’t do that.
The disciples must have been surprised and confused when he didn’t say that.
They had been hanging around this teacher for some time, by now,
and thought they knew the right answer.
Instead Jesus said,
“Leave her alone.
She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
You always have the poor with you,
But you do not always have me.”
We need to be careful about what this means.
Some of the other gospels, when they tell this story,
add a bit more context to what Jesus is saying,
But not here.
I’ve been in conversations with people
when trying to describe why the church cares so much about the hungry,
why we put our energy into advocating for people who have little
and who struggle to make ends meet,
and they sometimes quote Jesus here
and suggest that Jesus
is actually giving permission to ignore the poor,
to treat them with benign neglect,
or just care for them in one’s spare time or with money left over.
There’s a lot to unpack there, actually,
about the way we try to rationalize our greed and our love of stuff over people.
But, in fact, Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy:
Where it says:
“Since there will never cease to be some in need . . .
I therefore command you,
‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor’ in your midst.”
Actually, the verse just before that says,
“Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” (Deuteronomy 15:10–11).
Instead, I think the best way to understand what was going on
in this interaction between Jesus and Mary
is to avoid thinking about it as an either-or scenario,
in which one has to choose
between serving the poor and expressing devotion.
You can’t understand what is going on
if you don’t get the relationship between Jesus and Mary,
their deep friendship,
and the heartache that Mary is feeling as she prepares to say goodbye.
The disciples, Judas,
they only saw the situation through materialistic eyes.
They saw the jar of ointment and only thought money and what else it could buy.
They missed seeing it as a gift.
They looked at Mary
and saw only someone who was wasteful.
They missed seeing Mary as a friend devoted to Jesus.
They missed the moment.
Mary seems the only one besides Jesus who gets it,
who realizes that Jesus was facing his own death in a matter of days.
Mary was not careful or cautious.
There are clues throughout this story that Mary goes all in:
As a woman she was not supposed to let her hair down in public,
but down it came.
She was not supposed to exhibit emotion in the company of men,
but her adoration overflowed.
The perfume was worth a year’s salary,
but she did not count the cost.
She could have dabbed a few drops of the ointment on Jesus as a symbolic act, saving the rest for later,
but she poured out so much of it that the whole house was filled with its fragrance.
She held nothing back.
This boundless expression of love for Jesus was beyond calculation.
And Jesus accepted her extravagant gift,
not because he asked for it
or even because he needed it.
He received it as an expression of her deep devotion to him.
Mary, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus,
were close friends of Jesus.
It was their company he sought out in the last few months of his life.
He knew he was headed into Jerusalem,
where his life would be in jeopardy at the hands of the religious and political leaders.
And Mary understood that, too.
Not long before,
Jesus had wept over Lazarus’ death
and then raised him from the dead.
It was all too much for the principalities and powers,
The people who had a lot of stake in the status quo.
John argues that, in fact,
Jesus resuscitating Martha’s brother from death,
accelerated the work to plot Jesus’ assassination.
Jesus risked his own life to save another’s.
Mary realized this. She saw it, she felt it,
when the others could not.
Jesus’ death would come soon; his burial was at hand.
His precious presence would soon be gone.
Mary not only recognized what was about to happen,
but she felt the extravagant love Jesus showed for her brother,
for Martha, for her, and for so many others.
It was overflowing.
So how could she possibly express her thankfulness to him?
What can you do for someone to whom you owe so much?
Someone you are about to lose?
Well, words are not enough. Are they?
A carefully crafted hallmark card, placed in his satchel?
A video sent via text?
What do you do?
Mary decided to express her love with the most extravagant gift she could—
purchasing costly perfume to anoint him.
Now: the disciples, like everyone else of their day, and ours
follow conventional wisdom, mores,
particular rules to live by.
Women should not be seen being effusive in public.
Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve.
Don’t be wasteful.
Use money to serve the poor.
They thought they knew the answers that Jesus would commend.
But their focus on being right
and on pleasing the teacher
meant they totally missed what was really going on:
a welcomed expression of deep love for a person near the end of his life.
All this had me thinking a bit about giving gifts, and receiving them.
Have you ever spent time carefully choosing
or making a special gift for a particular person
perhaps you even spent considerable money on it–
only then to have your gift received with just a lukewarm response,
the minimum of what courtesy requires.
Or perhaps it wasn’t even acknowledged, or worse, rejected.
I’ve even had a gift returned to me with a note that said
“You will enjoy this much more than I ever would.”
Doesn’t it take all the joy out of giving?
We hope through our gifts to connect with other persons,
to express our appreciation or affection for them,
or to assist them in some way.
When our gifts are not received it hurts.
The biblical story of Cain and Abel portrays how devastating it was for Cain
to have offered his gift to God only to have it rejected,
though his brother Abel’s gift was accepted.
When we offer our gifts to another,
in many ways we are offering our very selves.
A rejection of our gift feels like a rejection of us.
And so, one thing we try to learn, is how important it is
to receive others’ expressions of love.
I learned this in a new way on a trip to Central America many years ago.
We were a group of maybe a 15 or so Americans welcomed as guests
As we traveled with the Synod of Mid America
To Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
I was in high school, but most of our group were adults
And we went all over,
Spending time in the cities, and out in the country,
And we often visited communities in poor, isolated areas.
I remember often visiting places where
There was no plumbing in the home.
Where cooking was done outdoors, over a fire pit.
In one place we visited, they had recently constructed a bathroom
With a modern toilet, because they heard we were coming
And they all pitched in to purchase the necessary pipes and supplies.
We would visit many homes that had dirt floors,
Or maybe concrete floors but no furniture but a simple bed
And a dining table and a few chairs.
We were coached how to be guests beforehand.
Our teacher said,
“Try not look at people with materialistic eyes.
Don’t see Americans and think money,
and don’t see the indigenous and think poor.”
He told us that our host families would be giving up their beds for us;
they would be using their best dishes set aside for special occasions for us;
they would be serving us generous helpings of delicious food before others ate
that we would likely receive meat at every meal—chicken, often—
even though they only were able to have meat a few times a month.
He coached that when they offered to do something for us,
we should be humble enough to receive it.
I felt uncomfortable sleeping in the only double bed of my host family
while they slept on top of their clothing on a concrete floor.
And I had to work hard to counter my strong inclination
to refuse help at the conclusion of our week together.
As I began the walk along a stony path towards the bus
that would pick us up,
a young man insisted on carrying my suitcase,
even though my shoes were much sturdier than his.
While I walked empty handed,
I kept telling myself, “Honor people’s gifts.”
For us to receive their hospitality
was a sign of respect and allowed them the joy of being able to give to us.
I read this week about a large department store in a major city
One Christmas season discovered
they had far more poinsettia plants than they could possibly sell.
So they decided to give the flowers to some homeless people
thinking that they could sell them for a little money.
But the homeless people did not sell them for money.
Instead, they gave the poinsettias away.
They relished the opportunity to be able to give.[ii]
Jesus accepted Mary’s expensive present of perfume.
He knew it wasn’t about the money.
He received her lavish gift as a beautiful expression of her adoration and thanks.
What was a sacrifice on Mary’s part
no doubt still felt inadequate to her
to fully express how much she loved Jesus.
How much she would miss him when he was gone.
But it was the most and the best she could offer.
Scholars often note how her gift begins to mirror
the extravagant, boundless generosity of God,
when we consider God’s love and mercy and forgiveness, offered to us.
Are we in touch with how much God loves us,
though we haven’t earned it?
Are we moved by what a gift life is and how blessed we are?
Do we recognize the moment we are in,
remembering that Jesus sacrificed his life for us?
As the poet Mary Oliver wrote:
Look, and look again,
This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes.
It’s more than bones.
It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse.
It’s more than the beating of the single heart.
It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving.[iii]
Sometimes, God calls us to break free from being constrained and calculating.
Jesus held nothing back in his love for us.
For all of us.
Even when we, like the disciples,
have latched onto the wrong answers.
Even when we, like Judas,
have made huge mistakes we wish we could undo.
God forgives us.
God loves us unconditionally.
God withholds nothing so that we receive abundant life.
Realizing this, how can we hold anything back?
What response of ours could possibly be too extravagant?
Jesus welcomes our giving our all, our very life, to him.
May we, dear friends,
Give thanks for heartfelt gifts given in love
And, when we receive them,
Lets make the most of them by deepening our love for one another
And then, because of that love, doing our best to serve one another,
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
May it be so.
[i] Craddock, Fred B. Craddock Stories. Ed by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward. (Chalice Press: St. Louis, Missouri, 2001) p.48.
[ii] From a sermon by Victoria Curtess at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago. Much of this sermon is adapted from her work there, and is indebted to her sermon.
[iii] Oliver, Mary. Evidence: Poems by Mary Oliver, poem “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass,” p. 37.