Cost Versus Value

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, APRIL 7th, 2019


Once I have bought someone a gift, I do tend to find it rather hard to keep it under wraps until the day it is supposed to be given. I don’t know why, but the prospect of giving it becomes so thrilling that often, I have to say, I do capitulate and the lucky person ends up with an early gift. If they’re really lucky, I give the gift so early that then I end up buying another gift to give them when the actual day does come round. So it is that although Kelly’s birthday is actually today, the gift giving commenced yesterday.

The comment at the end of today’s gospel reading, where Mary of Bethany had just given Jesus a very expensive gift, might suggest that Mary, like others of us, could not contain her ability to give a gift when it was actually supposed to be given. We note in the final verse that it was a gift which had been intended for Jesus’ burial, but she had decided that she couldn’t wait any longer to give it.

However, what was motivating Mary of Bethany was, I suspect, not excitement and anticipation but an overwhelming sorrow and sadness. She was, I think, so overwhelmed with the ever-looming prospect of her dear friend, Jesus, no longer being around that she couldn’t bear to put it off for another second. Yes, it was meant to be his burial anointing, but she wanted to show him how much she loved him, right there, right then.

You remember Mary of Bethany. There are lots of Marys in the New Testament so it can get confusing and for centuries even the officials of the Church seemed not to be able to get it all squared up. But this Mary is the one who lives with her sister Martha, and her brother Lazarus, in the little village of Bethany, which is about two miles outside of Jerusalem. Mary is the free-spirited one, the emotionally demonstrative, impulsive, wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve one. Breaking open the burial perfume ahead of time was totally the kind of thing she would do.

Detail of the raising of Lazarus, Mary and Martha meet Jesus. From the Hunterian Psalter, a twelfth century illuminated manuscript, thought to have been produced in England c. 1170.

Detail of the raising of Lazarus, Mary and Martha meet Jesus. From the Hunterian Psalter, a twelfth century illuminated manuscript, thought to have been produced in England c. 1170.

In contrast, her sister, Martha, is the sensible, organized and, dare I say, buttoned-up one. She does the cooking, the cleaning, the logistics and all those other thankless tasks that someone has to do so that everything stays on track. I suspect that she might well have been a bit of a martyr about it from time to time.

The only thing we know about Lazarus is that he was their brother, and that, a little while before today’s episode, he had died and that Jesus had brought him back to life.

And today’s reading seems to have been a dinner party thrown in honor of Jesus for what he did for Lazarus. Martha was serving – surprise, surprise – and then comes this most extraordinary event.

Spikenard,  Nardostachys grandiflora , from a 17th Century Japanese Herbal

Spikenard, Nardostachys grandiflora, from a 17th Century Japanese Herbal

Now, St. John’s gospel is full of symbolism, and this passage is no exception. It is full of deep theological metaphors but I’m actually going to ignore those, and take the story at its most face-value.

Mary brings in to the room an alabaster jar, filled with a pint (it says a ‘pound’ of an incredibly expensive perfume made from the essential oil of a plant grown in India and China. In the story, all we know is that it was worth 300 denarii. But we also know from elsewhere that the average wage for a day laborer at the time was one denarii so, roughly, this was a year’s wages for an unskilled blue-collar worker of the day. Or to put it in our day and age, that jar of perfume works out at somewhere around $25,000. Even by the standards of the high-end New York City ultra-rich, this is some extravagant gift, is it not?

We can infer, yes, that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were very comfortably-off, but the point is that they used their powers for good. We’re so used to the meme that Jesus and his disciples lived this kind of hippy-commune existence where they had no possessions and didn’t think anyone else should own stuff, and should divest themselves of wealth, that we forget that this was not what Jesus actually did think. Remember when he first sent out the disciples to go preach in the local villages and towns in Galilee? He told them not to carry possessions or money and seek lodging and food every night from kind souls along the way. But in order for that to happen, you needed people who did have possessions and money. Some are called to the itinerant way. Some are called to the stable and fixed way. That’s actually how Jesus came to know the household in Bethany – these wealthy folks had thrown their doors open in hospitality to him, and he’d got to know them very well.

I have to admit that the idea of pouring out a jar of perfume worth $25,000 has often sat very uncomfortably with me. But perhaps that’s because I am missing the point, along with, I suspect, many others.

The person who missed the point in the story, of course, was Judas Iscariot. John of course, writing well after the Resurrection and Ascension, is using this passage to set Judas up for his big betrayal of Jesus a few days later and it’s hard to know exactly what Judas’ motivations in this story are, but for sure he is outraged – outraged – that this vastly expensive item has been, in his view, squandered, when it could have done some good.

And that’s basically the heart of it. Judas failed to see that Mary anointing Jesus, in fact, was doing some good. She was saying thank you more fulsomely and lavishly than we can imagine. Thank you for saving her brother; thank you for being a friend; thank you for bringing hope. She just couldn’t bear to leave this precious perfume sitting on the shelf until Jesus had died and was being buried. She wanted to share the gift with him in person. For her what she was giving was not such much a ‘gift’ as a ‘present’.

Back in England, we tend to call ‘gifts’ ‘presents’ instead. I actually love the word ‘present’ for these offerings. It emphasizes that the real worth of the offering is the relationship – that one is ‘present’ to the other person. Seen that way, the focus shifts to the act of two people giving and receiving, and the item being given becomes secondary, a token symbol. As for Judas, he seems to have been one of those people who sees the cost of everything, and the value of nothing.

The context, and the motivation are everything. If Mary had poured out a $25,000 perfume just to make the point that she could, and that she was wealthy enough to, or if she’d posted it on Instagram with that self-serving faux humility that is all over our social media, then I’d be interpreting this story in a very different way. But I believe that her motivations were selfless, loving and genuine, and this transforms what otherwise might, indeed, have been a shameful waste into the deepest act of kindness and care that any person could offer.

So while at one level, this story from Bethany, circa AD33, might seem very far away, its actually right here, right now, for us to bear in mind when next we shop for presents and give them.

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