Wasted gifts, Reckless love and a new song

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If you’ve heard me speak anytime in the last couple of months, no doubt you heard me banging on about Lazarus and his sister Mary, and her recklessly inappropriate gift to Jesus. You can read about it in John 12 if you want. I have stayed with this passage because every time I have made to move on, it has said something new to captivate and capture my attention.

For a long time I have been struck by the way Mary gives Jesus her gift of costly perfume. She doesn’t hand it over to him gingerly, saying, ‘Careful, its worth 50 grand. That could feed a lot of poor people.’ She breaks it open, and pours it all over his feet, wasting what would have been a lifetime of perfume in a single moment.

Judas doesn’t like it. We’re told ‘the fragrance of the perfume filled the whole house’ and it certainly seemed to get up his nose (ba-dum-tsh).

But his objection is one that makes perfect sense to me. Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? But then would it have been a gift to Jesus, or to the poor? Can it be both, or does it need to be one or the other first and foremost?

In our world, we are quite comfortable giving things away, providing they are put to good use. We’re happy making offerings to our church, as long as they’re being spent in a way we agree with. We’re pleased to make donations to aid organisations, providing they have a good track record and transparent processes. We are even prepared to give money to the poor, as long as they don’t do anything we don’t approve of with it.

Then I realised. We aren’t giving at all. We are spending.

If we were giving, we would be releasing it, letting it go, handing it over, acting as if it were no longer ours. But instead, we are offering the money because we approve of the likely outcome. Just like when you hand over your 50 cents at the dairy for your little white paper bag of assorted sweets. Its an exchange, not a gift.

‘I’m giving this money to the church because I like the direction we’re going.’

‘I’ve stopped giving to the church because I don’t approve of the direction we’re going’

Truth is, we were never giving in the first place. We’ve been buying church, putting a deposit down on (our concept of) the kingdom, consuming it, commodifying it, and then rejecting it when it fails to meet our needs and expectations.

As John tells this story he lets us in on a secret; Judas doesn’t care about the poor. He’s a thief, and he’s hoping to get his hands on some of the money in the process. He’s hoping to gain something he wants from the situation. As it stands, he’s seeing a fortune being spilled, irretrievably on the ground. This offends him. This gains him nothing. His selfish interest is rightly labelled: thievery.

Are we all that different? When we give (or spend) our money on something we want, and then call it an offering to God, are we somehow stealing? I’m not sure what I’m more offended by; Mary’s idea of giving, or that I might be a thief like Judas.

This is not to diminish the value of the hundreds or thousands we spend on sponsoring children, giving to the Red Cross or Amnesty International, or investing in micro enterprise initiatives in the developing world. But it doesn’t change the fact we are doing something we already want to do. Can it be a gift to God and the poor at the same time? Maybe. But it probably can’t be a gift to God, the poor and ourselves all at once.

Mary shows us a different way. She makes a gift that doesn’t benefit herself, or even Jesus in any practical way. The material gesture simply becomes a means to the end of communicating a love and devotion which causes all else to pale in comparison. What would it mean to give without strings attached, without secret or spoken demands on how the ‘gift’ is used? What would it mean to give in such a way that removes our riches from the economy altogether, rather than just redistributing them in a way we can control?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I have been won over by this act of reckless love. Now I want to live into it. Anyone else keen to try?

 

AUTHOR: Malcolm Gordon
7 Comments
  • julz

    wow you are a very keen guy putting this up i look foward to other peoples perspective on this one xo

    May 23, 2013
    • Yeah I know Julz, a sucker for punishment. Still its as much to me as anyone else. I want to try a different way!

      May 23, 2013
  • Geoff

    It’s an interesting thought and on the face of it seems to go against the concept of being a good steward of your money. Jesus certainly didn’t see it as wasteful and so in His eyes it was considered a good thing and hence good stewardship. In this case I think it’s important to note that the gift solely benefited the intended recipient. In many cases where gifts are given with strings attached (as with donations to aid organisations for example) these strings are intended to ensure that the larger percentage of the ‘gift’ actually benefits the intended recipient (or recipients). Had Mary given the perfume to someone else (a dodgy sort of a character) to pour over Jesus feet and that other person had taken half the perfume for themselves and only given half to Jesus (the intended recipient) would it still have been good? I’m not convinced of my own answer to that question but simply giving (either money or time or anything) without knowing how the gift will be used and if any of it will end up with the intended recipient isn’t good stewardship.
    That being said I think that having strings attached is providing the giver with a sense of control and if this control is a condition of the gift then it ceases to be a gift as it was not given with a purely selfless motive. In my opinion something is only a gift if it is given with no intended benefit (motivation) for oneself. Getting to the true motivations behind things is a different story though and can be tricky and take some deep contemplation as often a ‘gift’ can be to appease ones conscience or can be given with the expectation of reciprocation which are both selfish motives.
    You’ve certainly got me thinking about the balance between being a good steward and genuinely giving (without maintaining control). I think there must be a balance but it will likely require some further insight and contemplation.

    May 24, 2013
    • Wow Geoff, I have got you thinking! That’s a pretty impressive debate with yourself, but I hear you on all that stuff. Its not as simple as being ‘careless’ with our giving, but perhaps we’ve become too careful, to the extent (as you say) control wins over generosity.

      May 24, 2013
  • stan

    “But it probably can’t be a gift to God, the poor and ourselves all at once.”

    Ah, why not? If it benefits God by blessing the poor, benefits me by helping get me to forget myself and put other people’s needs as very important, then what is the issue?

    “The material gesture simply becomes a means to the end of communicating a love and devotion which causes all else to pale in comparison.”

    The thing is, it seems to be impossible to remove ourselves from the equation. If I give out of love and devotion, that’s still something that I want to do. In the immortal words of the Dalai Lama, there is “smart selfishness, and stupid selfishness”. The former is about acts that include self-interest at some point, but are ultimately about what benefits others, leads to spiritual growth etc…

    I echo your worries about stewardship (and ultimately, control) becoming more important than simply giving freely. I just don’t see an inherent contradiction between doing what I want to do and what God wants me to do – as I become closer to who I am in Christ, the two will overlap much more.

    May 25, 2013
    • Ok so let’s apply the logic; was Mary’s gift smart or stupid? Cos I don’t see much self interest, other than a conviction that to lose everything and to gain Christ is still a win 😉
      You may well be right, perhaps a gift can benefit everyone in the mix, but I guess it comes down to motivation. Am I paying off my guilty conscience and is that a primary factor in my decision to be ‘generous’? I guess I’m just a little suspicious if we too easily assume that what God wants is what I want. As you rightly say, we hope to see a congruity grow and develop, but I think there’s a enough in Jesus’ ministry about surrender and obedience for me to believe that any match up between my will and God’s will be incidental rather than foundational, at least this side of the eschaton! Thanks for engaging!

      May 25, 2013
  • Cam

    Hey Malcs, I get where Stan is coming from. How do we know Mary’s gift wasn’t a little bit selfish? Doing an extravagant thing for a guy who’s just resurrected your brother is surely going to get you some brownie points… Maybe I’m too cynical. But I really like that you’ve raised the questions you have, and trying to remove our ‘strings’ and selfishness from our ‘generosity’ has got to be a good thing. Regardless of whether or not Mary was being just a little bit selfish, there seems to have been a divine hand guiding her in her act of love (preparing Jesus for his burial) and I think that’s what we need more of – the Spirit’s guidance – whether it’s feeding poor kids in a far away land or taking a well-to-do colleague out for a beer and a chat. The other thing I take comfort in is that God can use my self-interested ‘gifts’ in ways I couldn’t imagine. Keep up the good work.

    June 5, 2013

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