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How frequently have we heard others say, or even said ourselves, upon receiving gifts or favors from others: "Oh, you really shouldn't have!" Now that might mean that we wish others had not gone to the trouble. It might mean that we do not feel worthy of a gift.
Or it might mean that the gift is more than we are worth. Yet, in any case, it is always a kind of "thank you," rather than a rejection of the gift; and often we feel overwhelmed and at a loss for words over the kindness represented by the gift.
But there is another response to the receiving of such a gift; and that is the feeling that the person who gave the gift should have given more to him or herself or even to others. When a wealthy person gives an expensive gift, we might think to ourselves, "They can afford it." But when a person who is not wealthy gives an expensive gift, I am more likely to be concerned that that person should be doing more for him or herself. At those times, I think to myself, "You really shouldn't have."
But sometimes, all this simple, straightforward analysis can become really complicated.
In the twelfth chapter of the gospel according to John we read that "Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him.
Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary 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."
There is here a striking mixture of the common with the uncommon. Feet-washing was a common ritual, and we find it at the last supper, when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples.
But the use of costly perfume was uncommon; and I would also suspect that Mary's use of her hair to wipe Jesus's feet was uncommon. Even if the use of perfume had been common, the use of so much was extraordinary.
We are told that the "house was filled with the fragrance," and I would imagine so. Perfumes are usually sold by the ounce or fraction of an ounce. And even the tiniest bit can exude a powerful fragrance.
So imagine what it must have been like to pour out sixteen ounces of this stuff!
Now, on the one hand, it's easy to make fun of this; because that house probably smelled like a perfume factory, or the proverbial "French brothel," for the next year. But on the other hand, Mary is making a strong statement in this act of the washing of Christ's feet.
First of all, the washing of the feet represents an act of humility. It's difficult to do with without getting down on your knees, in the position of a servant.
But secondly, the act of humility is accented, is emphasized, in the act of sacrifice represented by the use of the pure nard, the perfume. And it is clear that this sacrifice is made for Jesus himself, in the most personal way.
And in the perfuming of his feet, Mary has exalted the lowliest aspect of his physical being. Not only does the perfume draw attention to the act, but it also draws attention to the sacrifice that must take place for the act itself to occur.
And finally, as Mary wipes Jesus feet with her hair, she symbolizes the total involvement of herself in her devotion to Jesus. The gift was not only the perfume, but was also herself, on her knees, using her hands to wash Jesus' feet and her hair to wipe them.
It is a beautiful act. But there is always a wet blanket in the crowd.
"But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (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.)"
And we can hear Judas saying, "Oh, you really shouldn't have."
But here, the situation is different. Judas isn't receiving the gift. He's just an onlooker, an observer. And he's being an objective accountant, totally ignoring any meaning in Mary's act. But his observation of the value of the perfume is enlightening.
If it really was worth three hundred denarii, and if the denarius was really a day's wage for a laborer, by my calculations, at the minimum wage--which is outrageously low--that ointment was worth over twelve thousand dollars, about seven hundred fifty dollars an ounce. This was no small gift.
So what are we to make of the disciples' resident accountant and bookkeeper's observations? Was he wrong? I would argue that as far as he went, he was perfectly correct. He knew how much the perfume was worth, and he knew that money could be used for other things. He had listened to Jesus preach, and knew of Jesus concern for the poor.
And he's simply saying, "Isn't there a better way to spend this much money?"
As an accountant, or as an attorney, or as a financial analyst, Judas might score high marks. John reminds us that Judas was a traitor and a thief, but I think that all of that is beside the point. More important here, I believe, is that Judas is being too rational.
He has missed the significance in what must be called the irrationality of the love between Mary and Jesus.
Too often, we think of irrational behavior as being crazy, looney, dumb, stupid, or any of a variety of other negative things. But love doesn't always make a lot of dollars-and-cents rational sense.
When I recall my fellow seminarians, many of whom were tens of thousand of dollars in debt for their education--and I knew of one who was thirty-five thousand under--like Judas, I might ask, why not just give the money to the poor?
Would it not be more rational? Would it not make more sense?
John sees evil in Judas motivations. Because we know that Judas betrayed Jesus, we have also been led to believe that Judas was evil in other ways.
That may or may not be true; but in many ways I think that all of us have a little of the Judas of this particular episode in us. I'm not saying that we are traitors to Jesus; but I am saying that we may frequently miss important parts of the picture.
It is always difficult to make decisions on how we spend our time and our money; and if you're like me, you frequently feel like you've made a lot of wrong decisions. But those decisions don't fall into mathematical precision.
A man or woman who spends eighty hours a week or more at the office or some way "on the job" may be making a perfectly rational decision in maximizing a very high income.
But is that the "right" decision if that person spends no time with his or her spouse and children. Is that the "right" decision if that person has no close friends? Is that the "right" decision if that person doesn't even know who his or her neighbors are?
It was thirty-six years ago that my father made a very irrational decision, according to Judas thinking, anyway. He resigned a position as a high school principal to go back to classroom teaching. It was difficult for him. He discussed it at length with my mother, and he wrote to all his children about it.
To make that move cost him a sizeable chunk of salary, which Judas would have thought a real waste, but it gained him time to be with his wife, time to visit his children, and more time to be with students.
The point of all this is to say that if we view the world from Judas financial balance sheet, there is much that we will miss. The material world may be measured in dollars and cents, but much else in the world is not. Judas missed that.
And it is quite likely that mentality that led him to betray Jesus.
Although one of the disciples, he likely became more and more uncomfortable with trying to make sense of Jesus world, because it didn't fit the balance sheet.
On the other hand, the offer of thirty pieces of silver to do no more than kiss Jesus at the appropriate time DID fit that balance sheet. At least, for the moment.
But Jesus had a response for Judas; and at least part of that response may be troubling to us:
"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."
It would appear from this that Mary didn't use all of the ointment; and Jesus finds use for it. He prophesies his death, which he knows will come shortly. But he also would not have Judas diminish her act. He knows the significance of it, and he wants the other disciples to see that significance. It is only surprising that he was not more firm with Judas.
But what are we to make of his statement, "You always have the poor with you"? This has been lifted out of context to be distorted in so many ways.
Cynics have used this statement to mean that we should do nothing for the poor, because they will always be around regardless of what we do. But I believe that that oversimplifies the statement.
Rather, I believe that Jesus is saying that there will always be those for whom we must demonstrate love and charity. Even if we can alleviate all homelessness and starvation, there will still be those who need our help. But that statement itself still should not be interpreted independently of what follows: "you do not always have me." And here he is speaking of his earthly life. He is calling to the attention of his disciples that his time is short, and that the act which Mary performed could have meaning only if performed during his earthly life.
He is not saying to ignore the poor; but he is saying that, in that moment, there were some more pressing matters.
About thirty years ago I had a college student who had just gotten out of the navy and was in his first year of college. He was very bright, especially in subjects like physics. He brought significant experience as a radar specialist to his studies.
He came to me one day with a problem. The navy had contacted him and wanted to hire him as a civilian consultant.
They needed him to travel the world to study radar installations, all expenses paid, with a good salary, and HE could make the decisions regarding where he might be stationed. He was concerned, because he had just started college, and he wanted to know what I thought he should do. I told him to forget about college, for the time being, and take up the offer. It was a fantastic opportunity for a young person and it might not come again. College, on the other hand, could wait.
According to the financial balance sheets, most of the decisions I've made in my life have been the wrong ones. (As my father once remarked about his own decision-making, "It always seems like I buy high and sell low.")
But although I could moan and groan over those decisions, the only balance sheet that matters is between me and God.
And as we approach Holy Week I am reminded that the most powerful example for my life was set by one who never earned a salary, never owned a home, and never planned for retirement.
He was more concerned with sending us a message, and in sending us that message it cost him his life.
Judas died a long time ago. But we can still hear his voice lingering whenever we have so-called rational doubts, asking, "Why spend your time and money and energy on those you love?"
But it is the voice of God in Christ that reminds us that they, like Jesus for Mary, may not always be with us, and are worthy of our greatest love. Amen.
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