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?