The Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
John 12:1-8

You know, secretly, in my hard and frugal—practical—heart, I’m on Judas’ side on this one. You probably don’t want to admit it, but, I’ll bet so are you. Oh, I get it. I get Jesus, and I know he’s right, but as Judas points out, 300 denarii (that’s almost a year’s salary for a common laborer at the time), in the form of expensive perfume, had just been cracked open and wasted on Jesus. –Well, not wasted. –Yeah, wasted….Because once that expensive perfume was used it couldn’t be used again. It was a limited, one-time-use resource.

Can you imagine the good that could have been done for the poor? Try to imagine what our church could do if someone donated one year’s worth of salary out of the blue! And if it were not a designated gift, can you imagine the arguments we might have over whether those funds were put to good use for needs inside the church or outside it—inreach or outreach? That’s why I say that many Christians would find themselves on Judas’ side if we were honest with ourselves.

What was Mary thinking? A jar of perfume worth 300 days’ wages and she blows it on one occasion! Most of us, if we own something worth a year’s salary—a car, a boat, a piece of expensive jewelry or clothing—we’re expecting to get a lot more use out of it than just a one-time fling. But that’s what she does for Jesus. Mary, the sister of practical Martha, and of Lazarus, offers a one-time-only gift for Jesus. Because once it’s used, it’s gone.

I don’t know about you, but the longer I own something valu¬able, the less I want to part with it and the less I get out of it. I don’t own any really valuable objects now, but I have before. And when I did I usually kept them hidden or locked away. Do you know people who can’t bring themselves to use the good china for themselves? For anyone? Is there a treasured antique car that never goes out on the road anymore for fear of a scratch or a patch of mud? Is there an inherited or purchased family heirloom that never sees the light of day because its owner is too sentimental or too afraid because it has become too valuable?

Money: There are people who are unable to be generous with their money, even for a good and worthwhile cause, for fear that there won’t be enough for themselves or to leave their children who are already wealthy, maybe even wealthier than they are! And, even Christians, if they were going to spend some of their money, they, like Judas, could certainly find a better use, a more worthwhile cause, than showering honor and praise on Jesus.

In our modern society we have practically eliminated the sense of smell. We don’t want strong odors. So we mask them, eliminate them. But Mary lived in a society that was not afraid of smells. Everyday smells and special day smells. The smells of animal stalls and spring flowers, of bread baking and brush piles burning and honest sweat. And the special, created smells of incense, oils and perfumes.

The smell of perfume was handy, sometimes as a mask, especially with the need for quick burial in a warm climate. But back then, most people loved strong, thick perfume, strictly for its own sake—its own unique and powerful odor. When Mary washed the feet of Jesus, she knew exactly how much that oil was worth. This extraordinary item was being saved for a day in the future. Maybe a wedding; but probably for a funeral—a burial—her own or that of a loved one.

But suddenly, for Mary, the future is now. Mary is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus and listens. She really hears him and seems to understand what the other disciples do not. She gets it. Unlike the others, she knows what lies in store for Jesus. He is going to die.

Evidently Mary is the kind of person who buys flowers before a person dies instead of sending them to the funeral home afterward. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial while he is still alive and can enjoy and appreciate the gift—the offering—the smell of the thick, rich perfume.

In response to those who criticized Mary, Jesus takes time to quote, or rather paraphrase, Deuteronomy 15:11: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth…Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” Some people think when the gospel quotes Jesus as saying that we will always have the poor among us this suggests there is no use in trying to work against poverty since we will never solve the problem. And some use Jesus’ words as justification, somehow, of leaving the poor to their lot. They suggest that even Jesus was saying it’s no use trying to keep up. But that is not what Jesus is saying at all.

In Jesus’ day and among the Jewish people, religion was an important part of daily life. Even the uneducated knew some scripture, and those who studied under rabbis were certainly used to the practice of quoting only the beginning of a passage. The listener was expected to know the rest.

In the Deuteronomy passage, Moses was talking about the Year of Jubilee. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’ ” This is what Jesus expected his disciples, and especially the protesting Judas to hear when he said, “You will always have the poor with you.” That we must always give to and care for those less fortunate. But he was also defending Mary for her gift of love. The people who were criticizing Mary for what she did needed to mind their own business and set about helping the poor with their own money and resources instead of worrying about hers! To not fault Mary or anyone else for loving and blessing and honoring God with a generous gift. Even in the face of many other needs, there is no more important gift one can make.

Like us, Judas and the others are always quick to judge what others should do or the good we would do if we were them! Not nearly as much thought is given toward what we can do—the sacrifice we might make—in our giving—to God and to others.

We also have a great weakness for, if not a self-interest in, sometimes deriding the poor—those of us in power positions. Those of us with much.

Stories—urban legends—about people who grow rich off welfare (& trust me, there aren’t many on welfare who are rich) are blown out of proportion by the media as justification for denying aid to many who desperately need it. The depiction of the poor supposedly engaged in fraud is designed to instill fear in those elements of a wealthier population who want justification for their lack of sympathy.

The truth is, those cases where the system has been truly jilted are usually perpetrated by those who are well off and have figured out a way to get more by robbing the poor and a country and a people who really do want to help. But those instances, those stories, those experiences make our hearts hard, and we start to agree with Judas instead of Jesus.

Fortunately, most Christians, even while practicing some measure of discernment in their stewardship, are more likely to err on the side of charity than sensibility.

If you want to know the truth, sometimes it is the people who have the least who are the most generous. I know people, in this church, with very little money, limited mobility, and difficult lives, who practice effortless discipleship and limitless charity. Interestingly enough, most tithers (10 percent givers) are from this group. They give out of thanksgiving and love. For them it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Mary takes out the funeral perfume, worth 300 days’ pay, and pours it on Jesus’ feet. This is her gift to her Lord. She isn’t saving the good stuff. She is getting out the good china, the good silver¬ware. Her most valuable things. And she is making her first priority, not herself, or anyone else, but God.

There is no pleasing some people. Mary gave an extravagant, sacrificial gift to honor her Lord. Her God, whom she counted as higher than any other and the most important relationship in her life. Yes, Mary could have sold her perfume and given the money to the poor, or to her alma mater, or the library or the soup kitchen or the Zoo. It’s an argument that makes sense, but so does returning a gift to the giver of all our blessings and our hopes. –And, in either case, as pointed out before, it sure makes more sense when it’s someone else’s money.

Instead of worrying about what other people are doing with their money, and who they are serving and how they should be giving it away, we ought to be looking at our own resources and asking how much more we could be and should be doing. As Jesus said,
“You will always have the poor with you.” — So do something about it. Give—in thanksgiving
for what has been given to you. To the poor, to the needy, to the church, to the Lord.
Give and it will be given to you. Give, and be blessed.

In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.