Have you ever heard a charismatic speaker, listened to a fabulous musician, saw a beautiful painting, or a perfectly built cabinet and thought – Wow! Wow – that’s beautiful, or powerful, and isn’t it wonderful that someone offered that gift and… at the same time you feel somewhat intimidated and self-judgmental and start to wonder about the worth of what you have to offer? (Please say yes!)
What is the value of a gift?
The gospel tells of the offering of a gift – unexpected, rare, and controversial. In the story Jesus affirms the gift not because of the excellent quality of the perfume, – but simply because it was a gift of love. Where others saw wasteful extravagance, Jesus sees the extravagance of love – of love that pays attention to what is needed in the moment.
The reading today is from John’s gospel, and it’s clearly names Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It is in their home that the meal takes place.
A similar story is told in both Matthew and Mark, though the woman is unnamed, and the host is Simon and Leper. Welcome to how stories evolve! We don’t know exactly what happened or who was there, but the story is rich in meaning none-the-less.
Marcus Borg & John Dominic Crossan’s book `The Last Week’ looks at this story from the perspective of Mark’s gospel, and sees the woman’s actions as a gift of faithfulness as well as love. E.g.In Mark’s gospel Jesus says three times very plainly that he is going to Jerusalem to die and he wants his disciples to accompany him,
This is the response he gets:
- Peter rebuked him – you can’t go there and get yourself killed!
- He discovers they’ve been arguing about which of them is the greatest.
- James and John, sons of Zebedee come up to him and say, “Teacher we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And they want the right and left-hand positions when he comes to his glory.
In other words, every time he talks about his impending suffering and death, they move further away from that reality. “La la la – not listening – going to our happy place!”
The woman, be it Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus, or another (the other gospels do not mention her name) anoints him, blesses him with an action that says “I love you and I believe in you,” in the most extravagant way she knows how. Without words she says, I know you are going to suffer and die, and I want to give you this gift before you die. She is the faithful disciple that understands what Jesus has been trying to say which is `You have to go with me into death and resurrection.’
David Giuliano, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada tells a story of visiting a shell of man in hospital – his friends and family gathered around saying “Hang in there Eddy, you’ll be back out on the golf course in no time.” Etc. When they had a few minutes alone, David said to him, “What is it like to be dying Eddy, and have everyone around you pretend that you’re not?” “Oh, it’s ok”, the man said. “They can’t help it, they’re just scared. Me – I’m off on a great adventure.”
Sometimes by living in denial, by wishing away a loss, by saying, `When I retire,’ `when I have the house paid for,’ we miss the opportunity to share the love, the dream, the adventure, the gift that our heart longs to give and receive.
I’m not convinced by the gospel writer that Judas really had no regard for the poor, and was dipping his hand into the community purse. By the time John’s gospel was written, there was a degree of anti-Semitism creeping into interpretation. But was it unreasonable for Judas to be upset? I myself often cringe at extravagance and seeming wastefulness – in others and myself. And yet… the year my fifteen year old son gently told that he was going to live with his dad on the other side of the country, I did something quite out of character. I took my children to Maui for two weeks. It wasn’t a bribe. I had already accepted his decision (as heart- wrenching as it was at the time). This may not seem so extraordinary, but for me, the queen of delayed gratification and frugality, it was extraordinary indeed. I wanted to give them something amazing and beautiful and memorable for us to do together as a family. And I’m glad I did.
I’ve even learned to give extravagant gifts to myself now and then – visits with dear friends, spiritual pilgrimages.
Jim Taylor, co-founder of Wood Lake books writes: “Today, people don’t bring rare perfumes, they bring casseroles. …” How else do people show their love? There are many daily kindnesses, often done without fanfare or recognition, and sometimes there are over-the-top gifts – all of them meant to convey – I love you more than words can say.
In a few weeks Jim, Miriam and I will be flying to Fort Nelson for my parents’ 60th anniversary. Do you know how much it costs to fly to FN – in a noisy bouncy cigar-shaped metal tube with wings? We could be lounging around the pool-side in Mexico for a week for the same price. My parents don’t live in Mexico. And even if it is costly – I get to celebrate that I still have both my parents – alive and well – both of them local legends in FN, deeply involved in community, deeply loved by so many –and they are mine! I can give them the gift of being there – as they have `been there’ for me all my life.
I invite you to take a few moments of silence to recall a time when you have given or received an extravagant gift of love…And if there is a story you want to share, let us take some time to do that now…
As we go into this last Sunday before Palm Sunday, we want to share a sweet song written by Gordon Light of the Common Cup Company. Listen in the song for the vulnerability of Jesus, as he gathers with his friends, knowing that his time is limited. The song is called Bethany – which means House of the Poor, and is the name of the town where the story takes place.