Giving Grounded in Love – Rev. Amanda E. Wagner
April 7, 2019 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)
When Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, some witnesses reported the miracle to the Pharisees, and the act became the final straw in what they considered to be a long line of offenses that Jesus had committed. The religious leaders began to actively plot to have Jesus killed, so he immediately went into hiding with his disciples.
Yet as Passover drew near, Jesus and his disciples returned to Bethany, where they were invited to dinner at Lazarus’ home. Because Jesus had left so abruptly during his previous visit, we can imagine that Martha and Mary were pleased to have a chance to thank Jesus for restoring their brother to life.
They prepared a feast, invited all their friends and neighbors over, and sat Jesus at the place of honor. Sometime in the middle of dinner, however, this celebration of Lazarus’ life took a dark turn. In the midst of the festivities, as the guests were talking and laughing and eating, a certain fragrance began to fill the room.
First it mingled in with the smells of roasted meat, fresh olives, unleavened bread, strong wine. Then slowly it began to overpower those aromas until there was only the pungent scent of expensive perfume.
The guests knew that scent and knew it well. They were most likely confused as they turned and saw Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet, the empty bottle on the floor, her hair untied as she used it like a towel to wipe and massage the oil over his feet.
Without saying a word, Mary had made a powerful statement that her guests would have immediately recognized. While kings were anointed on their heads, only corpses were anointed on their feet. And the only time that a woman’s hair was untied in mixed company was when she was in mourning.
Before any of the other disciples understood the fate that awaited Jesus, Mary knew that he was going to die. She was mourning his impending death and anointing him for burial.
This wasn’t the first time that Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. In fact, it was her usual spot, the good disciple ready to learn at the feet of her teacher. But this time Martha wasn’t the only one perturbed by Mary’s actions.
Finally, Judas broke the silence of the moment: Jesus, she’s dumping a year’s worth of wages on your feet when you’re not even dead yet! Wouldn’t that money be better spent by giving it to the poor? Besides, if what you say is true, it’s not like you’re going to be dead that long anyway.
Not that Judas really wanted to give the money to the poor, but Jesus stopped him, saying, Leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.
Some folks have interpreted Jesus’ words as implying that we shouldn’t do anything to help the poor, but he was quoting from Deuteronomy, and those at dinner that night would have been familiar with the passage he was quoting:
From Deuteronomy 15 – If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be…
Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 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.”
Open your hand, willing lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Even though Jesus was only going to be dead for three days, Mary did the right thing by anointing him with expensive perfume. At that moment, the anointing met a need.
Perhaps Mary had saved up her money and bought the perfume to anoint Lazarus for his burial. But then, after asking Jesus to come and heal her brother, Mary realized that it wouldn’t have been very faithful to anoint Lazarus if she really believed that Jesus would heal him or raise him from the dead.
So she saved the perfume and used it to anoint Jesus when it became apparent that his way of life was leading him directly to the cross. At that moment, Mary chose to use her expensive resource in a very faithful and appropriate way, even if nobody else agreed.
Which begs the question: What is the most appropriate use of our money and resources today? How do we decide what things are worth investing in?
Why do we hire pastors and music ministers to lead us in worship? And for that matter, why does the choir volunteer to spend their Wednesday nights practicing an anthem? They put so much preparation into that one moment in the service, and three minutes later it’s over.
Why do we spend so much money on weddings? That’s just one day in a marriage that hopefully lasts long after the flowers have died, the cake has been eaten, and the birdseed has been scattered.
Why do church members leave large sums of money to the church in their wills? If the furnace breaks or the sanctuary needs a new roof, all that money is gone in one fell swoop.
How do we decide what’s worth investing in? Hopefully, like Mary, we ground our giving in love.
Jesus made a habit of showing love through abundant giving. At a wedding in Cana, he provided the party with nearly 200 gallons of good wine, more than all the guests could have consumed in a week. On a mountaintop, Jesus fed five thousand hungry people, multiplying the bread until there were twelve baskets of leftovers remaining.
In the early morning at the edge of the sea, the risen Christ told a defeated Peter to cast his net one last time, and suddenly the net was bursting with more fish than the men could pull onto the boat. In the middle of a feast, Jesus graciously allowed Mary to give her most expensive possession, when she anointed her friend and teacher for burial.
With each healing, each feeding, each miracle, Jesus stood in defiance of those in power. Each time it pushed him one step closer to the cross, and still Jesus chose to act in love. Every single time, Jesus chose love.
Love begets love. Jesus showed love to his disciples, and Mary showed her love for Jesus by anointing him. Judas could criticize Mary all he wanted, but his hypocrisy was revealed.
Either we love abundantly or we don’t. Either we share our abundance with the poor or we hoard it for ourselves. We shouldn’t waste God’s gifts, but neither can we be so concerned with what is useful, practical, or cost-effective that we lose sight of why we’re here in the first place.
Giving grounded in love is why the choir shares a specially chosen song with us each week. It’s why the pastor and music minister and deacons and ushers and acolytes and greeters and snack makers work so hard to make our time of worship and fellowship special.
It’s why we start a marriage with a big party. It’s why we write the church into our will. It’s why Mary poured a year’s wages on Jesus’ feet. And it’s why her display of extravagance was called into question.
Was it sensible? Not really. Was it practical? Absolutely not! But then there was nothing sensible or practical about the life of Jesus and there certainly wasn’t anything practical or sensible about his death. Yet in his life and in his triumph over death, the extravagance of God’s love was made flesh.
Jesus came into a world that didn’t ask for him. Yet Jesus only ever acted for the benefit of the world. And in doing so, he revealed the grace and love of God. We are called to continue sharing God’s grace and love with those in need.
Instead of worrying about what is appropriate or who deserves what, let us accept with thanksgiving the wonderful gift of God’s love that has been poured out for us. And in turn let us give to others out of our own unmerited abundance. Amen.