1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
“They are at the dinner table with a leper, and Jesus is making an assumption about his disciples’ continuing proximity to the poor. He is saying, in effect, “Look, you will always have the poor with you” because you are my disciples. You know who we spend our time with, who we share meals with, who listens to our message, who we focus our attention on. You’ve been watching me, and you know what my priorities are. You know who comes first in the kingdom of God. So, you will always be near the poor, you’ll always be with them, and you will always have the opportunity to share with them.”—Wallis God’s Politics pg 210.
The church treasurer was going through his records at the end of a particularly difficult church year where they had fallen terribly below budget when he realized that the richest person in the congregation, a hedge fund manager, had not given a dime to the church that year. So he called him up and said, “Sir, my research shows me that you have not given any money to the church this year. We are in need of funds and I was wondering if you would like to make a donation?”
The hedge fund manager said, “Well, did your research show you that my mother fell deathly ill this year and that her medical bills have been enormous?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. No, I hadn’t heard” said the treasurer.
“And did you hear that my sister’s husband left her and their three children penniless and with a large mortgage payment to make each month?”
Again, the treasurer extended his sympathy.
“And did your research show you that my brother’s house burnt to the ground, he lost his job, and he doesn’t have any insurance?”
The treasurer was so embarrassed that he even called the hedge fund manager when the rich man said, “So if I didn’t give them a penny, what makes you think your getting anything?”
How we use the things that we have is an ethical issue. We often call it “stewardship.” We are stewards of money, stewards of time, stewards of this earth, stewards of our bodies. Unfortunately we are not always good stewards. And to be honest, it is hard to say what is and is not good stewardship sometimes. Today’s text is a good example.
I begin today by saying that I have to admit, I agree with Judas. I am sure that this is not a popular thing to say, and it is probably far from what you expect a pastor to say, but I agree with Judas. Today, hundreds, maybe thousands of pastors around the country will be preaching from this passage in John, but I bet that nobody else has titled their sermon, “I agree with Judas.” Maybe I should be a little more specific and say that I agree with Judas in today’s text, but not on the whole betrayal of Christ thing. But let’s back up a bit first.
Our text for this morning begins by telling us that it was six days before Passover. Passover is the festival commemorating God passing over the first born children of Israel, leading up to the Exodus out of Egypt. The celebration of Passover is a week-long event, and this year it begins at sun-down on Monday, the 29th. So the events from our scripture for today would be taking place this week, six days before the Passover celebration.
So here are Jesus and his disciples, six days before Passover, and they are eating in the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and his sisters, Mary and Martha. Now I don’t think we need to get too caught up in whose house this was and who was actually doing what in the house. If we read the parallels in Luke and Mark, we find that Luke says that this event took place in the house of a Pharisee named Simon. Mark says that it takes place in the house of Simon the Leper. It is possible that the Pharisee Simon had been cured of leprosy, and it is possible that Simon actually owned the house that Lazarus, Mary, and Martha lived in. It is also possible that this entire event happened more than once. Regardless, I think that we miss the point if we get caught up in the details of whose house this took place in. What we really need to focus on is what took place. And today I am going to use the story found in John’s account while drawing from Mark and Luke to fill in a few missing details.
So Jesus and his disciples are dining in Lazarus’ home and after the meal, Jesus receives a special treat. When you leave a restaurant in the 21st century there are often mints waiting for you at the door to help take care of some of the bad breath issues that come along with eating (always a plus after meals heavy in garlic and onions). But rather than offering Jesus an after dinner mint, in our scripture Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with after dinner perfume.
John tells us that the perfume that Mary uses is valued at 300 denarri. A denarius was considered to be the appropriate pay for one day’s work in Jesus’ day. So the perfume would have been worth about a year’s wages. What does that come to today? $30,000? $40,000? $50,000? Regardless of how much you make in a year, a year’s wages is a lot of money. And it was dumped on Jesus’ feet.
The text tells us that the house was filled with the smell of the perfume. But what would happen in a few hours, in a few days? That sweet fragrance would go away and things would go right back to smelling like they had before. Surely Jesus’ feet would not maintain that sweet smell for long. Soon he would be walking the two miles from Bethany to Jerusalem and the dirt, grime, and sweat of the journey would cover the smell of the perfume. This is why I agree with Judas. The perfume could have been sold for a fair amount of money. And I can’t help but think about how many people that money could have helped. But as it is, this gift, this offering, will soon fade. That seems like poor stewardship to me.
It seems like exceptionally poor stewardship when you consider who was making this gesture. Mary and her sister Martha lived with their brother Lazarus. This means that they were likely single women, either widowed or never married. The earning potential for a woman in the first century was pretty low. We have a few examples in the New Testament of women making a living by participating in things like selling fine linen (Lydia). But for the most part, women did not work outside of the home. That is why there is often such an emphasis on giving money to help the widows in the New Testament. If a woman’s husband died, she wasn’t going to be able to go out and find a 9-5 job. Mary and Martha would likely have been counting on their brother Lazarus to support them financially. And what do we know about Lazarus’ health? Well, he had recently died, so he might have had some health concerns. So where would they be if they found themselves in need in only a few short months? I know I find it most difficult to help people in need when I believe that they have made some bad choices financially.
I once got a phone call here at the church from a family that was in desperate need. They were behind on their rent, they couldn’t pay their utility bills, and they had a baby that was “starving”. They asked if we could help them out by purchasing a few things for the child. So at their request I picked up some baby formula and diapers and they came to the church to pick up these items. And I kid you not, they drove up in a Mercedes Benz. Imagine if Mary, after dumping a year’s worth of pay on the feet of Jesus came to you and asked for a few bucks.
So Mary’s offering to Jesus seems to me to have been poor stewardship because the perfume could have been sold and the money used to support the poor. And it seems like poor stewardship because Mary and Martha’s long-term financial stability might have been an issue. But in three of the Gospels, we have this story of how she believed that the offering was well worth it. And while I said that I agree with Judas and think that the offering was silly, someone agreed with Mary and thought that it was worth it. Jesus agrees with Mary. Jesus defends her gift. In fact, he even says that this offering and the giver will be spoken of for years to come in places far away. In Marks parallel, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (14:9). And that is true. That’s what we are doing here today.
Now I think that I need to point out a significant difference between Mary’s stewardship and that of the people that came to me for diapers. We could go back and forth on whether Mary made a wise decision to put the perfume on Jesus’ feet, but one thing that we cannot argue with is that she did not keep that which was valuable for herself. Whether or not her decision was poor stewardship is debatable. Whether or not her offering was selfish or not is not debatable. She gave something of value to someone that she loved and cared for. She took her own security blanket and offered it to Jesus. That is always a noble act.
Sonya and I were away from home Sunday evening through Wednesday afternoon. We stayed at Massanutten in a hotel, free of charge. Not a bad set up at the foot of the mountain. We could see the skiers and the golfers all at the same time. In this hotel, like in most hotels, they give you little bars of soap (facial, body, and hand!), shampoo, and conditioner. At this hotel, they put the items in a little plastic re-sealable container. It was pretty slick.
Monday morning after housekeeping had left, we found a little treat. The housekeeper had left the soap and shampoo that we had opened right where we had left them. But she also put out a new thing of shampoos and soaps. So I looked at Sonya and said, “I just finished my Christmas shopping for 2010!”
Now I’m not a big gift giver and I am not a big gift receiver. I know that I am bad at showing appreciation when someone gives me a gift. But one thing that I have learned when it comes to giving gifts is that a gift should “cost” you something. For me to give someone the gift of hotel shampoos and soaps cost me nothing. Essentially I would be giving them something that I didn’t want anyway.
I realize that some of the greatest gifts ever are gifts that don’t cost one penny. And to be honest, this wouldn’t be the first time that I had given someone soap. My father does not like to use a bar of soap after it gets so small. So that means that if you get into his shower, you will see many little pieces of soap. He has said something along the lines of, “I work twelve hours a day; I think I deserve to be able to use a bar of soap that I can actually hold on to.”
So when I was about six, I started collecting all of those little pieces of soap from the shower and one day I got them all wet and squeezed them together to make one big bar of soap and gave that to my father for Christmas. I look forward to the day when my son is able to trace his hand on a piece of paper, cut it out, and give it to me for Father’s Day. That will be a great gift that didn’t cost him a single cent. But that’s not to say that it didn’t cost him anything. It cost him time, it cost him energy. And if my son inherits my artistic ability, it might cost him his patience and temper. But if a gift doesn’t cause you to give something up, it loses some of its significance, doesn’t it?
Some of you may be familiar with the short story by O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. The story is about a young couple, Jim and Della. Jim and Della are very rich in love, but very poor in money. They live in a furnished flat that costs them $8 per week. We enter into this story on Christmas Eve and Della is stressed because she doesn’t have money to buy Jim a present. Della would love to buy Jim a chain for his prized possession, a gold pocket watch that had been passed down to him from his father, who had received the watch from his father. But the chain that she wants to buy him costs $21.00. She has less than $2.00.
The author tells us that Della has beautiful brown hair that would make the possessions of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon look trivial. And as Della is looking for a way to buy a present for Jim, she finds herself outside of a wigmaker’s shop. Della decides that she will go inside and sell her hair, her beautiful hair, and use the money to buy the watch chain for Jim.
When Jim and Della get home, Jim sees what Della has done for him, and he produces the gift that he has for her. He has purchased a lovely jeweled tortoiseshell comb set for Della. And to pay for the gift, he sold his watch.
Both gifts now seem rather silly. Both gifts seem rather useless. Now we could talk about which one will be the better gift in the long run. And I think that it is rather obvious that the comb set is the better gift because Della’s hair will grow back and Jim’s watch is gone forever. But the point of the story is not how practical one gift is over the other. The point of the story is that each person gave generously of something that was meaningful to them to show their love and appreciation of the other person.
Would giving the money that could have been raised by selling perfume to the poor have been a more practical gift? In my opinion, absolutely. If it were me, I would probably rather receive the soap and shampoo from the hotel than to have thousands of dollars of perfume dumped on my feet. But the point is not the practicality of the gift, the point is the generosity of the giver. Mary may have given more than she should have, but we find other stories in the New Testament that help us to understand that giving everything to God is never a bad decision.
Both Mark and Luke tell the story of Jesus and his disciples sitting in the temple one day, and Jesus draws their attention to these rich men giving generously toward the temple’s treasury. Then a poor widow approaches the same treasury and drops in her last two mites. Jesus could have said, “That is such poor stewardship. Now someone is going to have to buy her next meal for her.” But he didn’t. He said that her offering exceeds that of the rich men because they gave out of their excess and she gave all that she had.
I believe strongly that we are called to help the poor. I believe strongly that everything that we have is only ours to borrow because everything that we have ultimately belongs to God. We are called to be good stewards of what God has given to us. We should always discern what we give and how we give it. And there are times when we should ask for guidance from others when it comes to how we should utilize the gifts that God has entrusted us with. But when we give out of love for God and love for others, we are never wrong to do so. Our security is not in money or things, but in Christ alone.
I want to close today with the words of O. Henry. These are the words with which he concludes The Gift of the Magi:
The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” (O. Henry’s conclusion to The Gift of the Magi)