The Barrel

by The Rev. John H. Pavelko
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Year A - 2001-2002 | Year B - 2002-2003  | Year C - 2003-2004


Love: Its Extravagance is Never Excessive
Year C - Sunday in Ordinary Time John 12:1-12

The faculty was discussing a proposal to renovate the seminary chapel. An architect had submitted a modest proposal. A few members expressed their support. Than the critic spoke, "With all the poverty and hunger in the world, how can we as Christians justify spending $50,000 to pretty up our chapel?" The room fell silent to a wave of guilt. The proposal was set aside and the renovation did not proceed. Later in the year, another proposal was presented this time to increase faculty salaries. The chapel renovation critic silently listened and voted with the majority to increase the salary of each faculty member well beyond the $50,000 level. This same critic can also be seen throughout the week enjoying the newly remodeled faculty lounge.1

Sacrificial giving to support the missionary outreach of the church is a noble virtue. Elevating community needs above institutional luxuries is commendable. Including nursing home visitation, serving food to the hungry and rebuilding decrypted homes of the disadvantaged along with excursions to Cedar Point and weekend lock-ins is vital to a healthy youth ministry program. But when motives are disguised and the true intent of the objections camouflaged, the critic's protests sound like the noise of Paul's clanging symbols and resounding gongs.

We live in a world of needy people. Their social, economic and psychological problems are overwhelming. Their hurts are vastly greater than our human resources. The dollars we have spent on pew Bibles, hymnals, windows, carpets, remodeled rooms and big screen projection systems could have been used to feed the hungry. So how do we discern between an act of excessive indulgence and that of extravagant love?

The story of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus gives us some helpful insight but before analyzing it we must recreate the drama.

Jesus was visiting the village of Bethany, located less than 2 miles from Jerusalem. He often spent the night in the village whenever he would visit Jerusalem. The people decided to give a dinner in his honor probably for raising Lazarus from death. Martha and Mary are on the guest list along with their now famous brother. This time Martha is displaying the mark of a servant by assisting in the kitchen while her more mystic sister is once again at the feet of Jesus. Lazarus does not have any duties and so is enjoying conversation with Jesus.

The gospel writers tend to limit their description of the story to the bare necessities. Writing material was in rather short supply. Papyri and leather for scrolls was quite valuable and so had to be used wisely. John does not embellish. He tells us that the dinner took place on Saturday evening but does not set the mood by describing the room or the conversation of the guests. We must use our imagination to see the room and the guests; the movement of people. We must allow our ears to hear the sound of plates clanging together and our nose to capture the fragrance of food and taste the sweetness of wine on our tongue. 

While we listen to the scores of conversations going on around and enjoy the rich delicacies of food, we notice the movement of a woman. She has something in her hand. It is a jar but of what-oil for the food, more wine or water for a thirsty guest. Our attention is distracted by the commotion and laughter around us. We are celebrating. The man Lazarus who had died was now alive. We do not know how Jesus did it. We do not care. Our friend has escaped death and we are celebrating.

That's when we notice the aroma of perfume. What a beauty scent. This is the bouquet of queen not peasants. Who could have afforded this? Who would have poured out such an excessive amount to mark the whole house with its scent? That's when we notice Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. Her face shows signs of sorrow and peace. She is troubled but at a restful tranquility is upon her. Silence drifts through the room. Everybody is watching and wondering what Jesus will do. Will he allow her to continue?

The quiet is disturbed by the harsh whisper of a man. He is complaining to his friend. His words sound reasonable. The perfume is too expensive to be used on someone's feet. It could have been put to better use by helping thousands not just one man. The complaint sounds logical. Why spend money for personal comfort while others suffer?

Jesus accepted this gift because he knew it had been given in gratitude

Mary had much for which to be grateful. Do not confuse this Mary to the Mary Magdalene of The Passion of Christ. This Mary was not delivered from seven demons nor did Jesus protect her from stoning at the hands of religious zealots. Mary of Bethany appears to have had a long friendship with Jesus through Lazarus her brother. The TV mini series Jesus portrayed their friendship and speculated that Mary may have had romantic feelings for Jesus. On one visit, Jesus protects her from Martha's scolding for not helping prepare dinner. After her brother died, Mary hid in the house when Jesus came. She did not greet him. She was hurt and disappointed that her brother had died. She did not want to see the man who could have healed him. Why did he take so long in coming? Mary is just not sure if she could trust him again until Martha tells her that Jesus has asked for her by name. When Mary finally comes, Jesus does hold the grudge. He offers love and acceptance. And then he gave back to her the life of her brother.

Society calls us to show our appreciation for the kindness or generosity of another person with an appropriate response. A thoughtful deed may only call for a verbal response but a gift warrants a thank-you card. A favor that requires the sacrifice of time and money may warrant a gift. 

Jesus had given to Mary his love, not the sexual based, self-driven expression that dominates our society but an affirming, other-oriented acceptance that makes no demands. Mary's heart was so filled with gratitude that she was wiling to give everything she owned to him. Nothing was too valuable or too costly. 

Jesus also accepted her gift because he knew it had been given in humility.

The apostle John tells us that the banquet guests saw Mary hovering over the feet of Jesus as she wiped up the excess perfume with her hair. Both her posture and her deeds are poignant symbols of a humble heart. 

In ancient times, the guests reclined on pillows or mats around a common table. Their feet extend out, away from the table and accessible to the servants but only the lowliest servant washed the feet of the guests. Mary cast aside her pride to kneel at the feet of Jesus and serve him.

With her hair, she created a personal bond with her Lord but exposed herself to ridicule and condemnation. Unbound hair was a mark of an immoral woman, a public disgrace but Mary did not care about public opinion. She let down her hair and acknowledged her own sinfulness before the only man who could offer her unqualified grace and forgiveness.

With the room filled with fragrance of expensive perfume, her deeds could hardly go unnoticed by the self appointed critics. Detractors are always willing to offer their negative comments. Take bold, decisive steps and they will criticize the wisdom of such resolute decisions. Wait for the proper timing and they will suggest cowardice for the delay. Purchase something of value and they will complain of waste, buy at a discount and they will question the quality.

Mary's offering of love was expensive. It was worth a year's wages. Judas was right; it could have feed many hungry mouths; it could have relieved much suffering. It could have been used for a thousand other things but she chose to use it to honor her Lord. Jesus does not criticize her or condemn Judas. He simple tells everyone, "Leave her alone." Back off this is her way of showing her love and gratitude.

Ministry requires budgets. Budgets require the spending of money. One axiom of ministry that I have learned over the years is that people will always have different opinions on how money should be spent. One person's necessity is another person's luxury. Rather than use Judas as are model we should follow our Lord's example.

When a gift is given in gratitude and humility its extravagance is never excessive. 

The surgeon could have enjoyed a position at a hospital making a six figure salary and the prestige of being chief of staff but instead he choose to toil under the primitive operating conditions of a third world country Each day he would offer his services to the local people free of charge. After a full morning of surgery, he would walk to the nearby villages and make his post operative house calls.

During one trip, he visited the small home of a very poor family. Their entire net worth consisted of one Angora rabbit and two chickens. Each day she would comb hair out of the rabbit so that she could spin it into yarn to sell in the market. The chickens provided their only food.

After the surgeons visits the woman insisted that he stay for lunch. He agreed to return after making another visit. He returned an hour later and the smell of lunch filled the hut. He peaked into the stew pot to see what he was going to eat. He saw one rabbit and two chickens. The woman had given up her entire livestock-her only income and her only food in gratitude for the surgeon saving the live of her husband.2

When a gift is offered with humility and in gratitude, its extravagance is never excessive.

1 Story from William H. Willimon, retold by Richard Meyer, "Break a Vase," and cited by Brett Blair, "Illustrations for March 28, 2004,"
2 Story told by Victor Shepherd and cited by Brett Blair, "Illustrations for March 28, 2004,"

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