Nothing can send God’s people into opposing camps like an extravagant bequest. If the donor hasn’t assigned an intention for the gift, and a church has no policy for such gifts, a battle to control and use the funds can surface. That happened in the church of my youth. An undesignated gift was given A powerful elder lobby filibustered until the church bought a plush travel bus for senior “fellowship” trips to the mountains, beaches, Six Flags over Jesus, and the like. And there arose a hue and cry, “How that money could have been used for better things.”
Once I asked a street person I frequently greeted, “What do you think of all these fancy churches and tall steeples?” I expected he’d say, “The money could be better spent on the poor.” No – he said, “I look up and see a steeple, and I remember God is with me. I wouldn’t be welcomed inside that church. So their steeple lifts my spirits out here.” I was, as the Brits would say, gobsmacked. I figured a street guy would think the money could better be spent on helping people. Well, it did – for him.
Jesus dines with friends. A few days prior Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead. Needless to say, that attracts a load of attention and headlines. Lazarus immediately moves up behind number one Jesus on the authorities’ Most Wanted list. As a deathly dirge plays dinner music, Jesus gathers at table with Martha, Mary, Lazarus and his disciples. During dinner Mary leaves the table, and comes back carrying a clay jar. Eating stops. Heads turn. Mary lets down her hair. She pours a very costly perfume on Jesus’ feet – what you’d do to anoint the dead for burial. She then wipes his feet with her hair – probably making the party uncomfortable.
Judas objects. He claims the money could better be spent helping people, not wasted on Jesus. Bless his heart – Judas cares for the poor. John blows his cover – and lets us know he’s a betrayer, and is embezzling from the disciples’ funds. He’s looking out for himself, not Jesus. “Leave her alone,” says Jesus. “She bought it to anoint me for death. The poor will be around. I won’t.” Sometimes extravagance that seems to be wasted is the only worthy response to recognizing God’s love poured out for the world in Jesus. Steeples, church buildings that are instruments of God’s love to include everyone, and not monuments and museums – sometimes in spite of the people inside, can be signs those closest to Jesus miss. My street friend opened my eyes.
Only Mary and Jesus know what’s ahead. It will be his life poured out this time. A waste? Some will think so – a good, decent man, whose plan failed. Yet in God’s plan his life is anything but a waste. In Jesus God anoints the world with the extravagant fragrance of everlasting life and love, freely given for all. When we, like Mary, “get it,” we will be free enough to pour out what is costly and we treasure most for Jesus’s sake.
We do this in less dramatic ways – offer our love to God in the tradition of Mary, even when we don’t realize what we are doing. Our choir prepares anthems, chants, Lessons and Carols – offers their gifts, and it’s done. Would we say their efforts are wasted? People volunteer to serve the homeless and hungry. A few may mumble thanks. Is time given wasted? We give flowers in memory of loved ones to God’s glory – and the flowers soon die. Some, who are able, give large sums to churches. Others who have little left after paying the bills give sacrificially. Love has its reasons. If our hearts are fixed on God – in our worship, service to others, adoration of the Holy, what we do for love’s reasons can hardly be a waste.
I learned as a child where Judas ends up – and you probably did, too. The place begins with an “h” and isn’t heaven. Mary, conversely is compared with Judas to be righteous, devoted, who learns well at Jesus’ feet. That’s how we should be. Judas had daily opportunity to learn and grow from Jesus. Later I wondered if my teachers forgot Jesus’ parables like the Good Shepherd who goes to find the lost sheep. If the Shepherd would do that – would Judas, cast a role in God’s crucifixion drama, then be disposable, lost, sent packing, or is he too the object of divine love. Maybe he’s the one the Good Shepherd goes and finds, and brings home. Can you imagine Mary throwing a party when Jesus leads Judas back home? And honestly, both Mary and Judas live within us. One moment we offer Christ our gratitude, devotion and worship. We love others as Jesus loves us. Another moment Judas helps us see how we betray Jesus, pandering to our wants, and forgetting how God so loves us. Judas helps God bring us back home, too. After all, this is the season to return to God.
Not everyone likes or welcomes the news that God will love and go find the likes of Judas. If that’s so, why bother with all this serving others, worship, tithes stuff if it isn’t getting us a better deal? Can’t we just “do our own thing” and let God come find us, too. We bother because we “get it” – at least partially. The love Mary honors in Jesus is the love Jesus has for Judas. It’s a quality of love that doesn’t wait to act when we feel loving. It’s neither emotion-driven nor reserved for those we think deserve it. That love begins in God. It attractive and irresistible, and pours out through us when we “get it.” The love we honor in Jesus is the love Jesus has for Judas, for everyone. God’s love somehow, someway, in God’s time gets us all safely home – even you and me. It’s a mystery why we are all so loved. By having faith in Jesus we can start to believe it – and believing such love is, we begin to live it, and living it the sweet fragrance of God’s love comes alive in this world again.