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Extravagance?

 

Mark 14:3-11        Deuteronomy 15:7-11

Shortly after ordination I was transferred to Maritime Conference of The United Church. I had been in my New Brunswick congregation only a few weeks when Dr. Robert McClure, missionary surgeon and, at that time, moderator of the denomination, visited the area. The regional clergy met with him over supper in a steakhouse.  I ordered my steak rare. When it came to me it appeared not to have been cooked at all. My steak was hemorrhaging. In that gruff abrasiveness for which McClure was known everywhere he barked at me, “Shepherd, do you want a tourniquet for that thing?”

A few months earlier I had seen a different side to the man, and a different manner of expression. McClure was speaking to a group of students at the University of Toronto about his work in the Gaza Strip. He was telling us that we North American “fat cat” students knew nothing about much that matters in life; specifically, we knew nothing about gratitude. He told us that on one occasion in the Gaza Strip he had stopped at a peasant hovel to pay a post-surgical call on a woman on whom he had operated.  (He told us he had done a “rear axle job” on her.  Since I lack medical sophistication I can only guess what this might be.) The woman and her husband were dirt-poor. Their livestock supply consisted of one Angora rabbit and two chickens.  The woman combed the long hair out of the Angora rabbit, spun it and sold it. She and her husband ate or sold the eggs from the chickens.  Following her post-surgical examination the woman insisted McClure remain for lunch. He told her he had to see another patient a mile or two down the road, but would be back for lunch in an hour.  When he returned he peeked into the cooking pot to see what he was going to have for lunch: one rabbit and two chickens.  The woman had given up her entire livestock supply, her own food supply, her livelihood, her income.  She had poured out herself upon him, reserving nothing.  As he related the incident to us students, McClure –gruff, blunt, abrasive – wept like a child, and could only blubber and blurt, “You students know nothing of gratitude, nothing.”

There is another incident of gratitude that will never be forgotten, says our Lord. A woman broke a bottle of expensive perfume and poured it over his head and over his feet even as she wiped his feet with her hair.  Make no mistake: it was expensive. Three hundred denarii was a year’s income for a labourer in Palestine . Why did she do it?         We’ll come to that. What rejoinder did her deed elicit? With either disappointment or dismay or even disgust Judas retorted, “What a stupid waste! Why not sell the perfume and give the proceeds to the poor?”   Jesus replied, “Let her alone.  The poor you’ll always have with you.  She’s done something beautiful.”

 

I: — We would misunderstand this gospel story abysmally if we thought for a minute that Jesus was cavalierly dismissing the horror of poverty and the plight of the poor themselves. We are people of shrivelled, stony hearts if we read this story as legitimating any society’s disregard of the poor.  Only the most insensitive people are unaware of wasted money that would do eversomuch for the wretched of the earth.

We must remember that the poor of first century Palestine weren’t those who had a little less than their neighbour, those whose automobile was older than most people’s, those whose home had only one toilet. They weren’t those who had fallen into downward social mobility only to be caught in the social safety net that we have in Canada , which net prevents any of us from falling anywhere near as far as we otherwise might. In first century Palestine the poor were really poor. The houseguests who witnessed the perfume-pouring, including Judas; they had a point; they weren’t without sensitivity or understanding. They were piercingly aware of the poverty they couldn’t fail to see and the staggering value of the perfume wasted on the head and feet of one man.

These people were Israelites.  They knew the Hebrew bible. They knew that the first responsibility of Israel ’s king, back in the days before the Roman conquest when Israel still had a king, was to safeguard the poor.  (This point we should linger over.  The first responsibility of political authority is to safeguard the poor.) So exquisitely sensitive was Israel to the horror of poverty that it had many different Hebrew words for “poor.” One Hebrew word for “poor” referred to those who were physically frail, sick, handicapped, lame, wasted. Another Hebrew word for “poor” referred to those who were forever dependent.  To be uncommonly dependent on others, for any reason at all, is to be poor, if only because such people are always at the whim and mood of those they depend on. A third Hebrew word for “poor” referred to the oppressed.  The oppressed were the powerless, the helpless who were exploited relentlessly and ground down ruthlessly.  Israel was so exquisitely sensitive to the plight of the poor for one reason: God is exquisitely sensitive to the plight of the poor.  The psalmist reminds his people, “God does not forget the cry of the afflicted.”

Jesus was a faithful son of Israel – and more: Jesus is that Son of God with whom the Father is well pleased. Then our Lord’s concern for the poor reflected perfectly his Father’s concern and gathered up the concerns of his kinsfolk.

We Canadians live in a country that continues to display concern, some concern at least, for the poor. I have never doubted why or how we came to display such concern: our nation has been informed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. In those countries that lack a Christian history and a Christian memory the attitude to the poor is very different.  While I was appalled at the wretchedness I saw in India , given India ’s widespread poverty, I was startled to learn how many rich there are in that country and how rich they are.  Never think that India is populated by poor people only. Never forget that every year since 1870, including the years of the worst famines, India has been a net exporter of food. But India has little Christian history and therefore little Christian memory.  For this reason the attitude to the poor there is different.  I have no doubt too that as secularism erodes the Christian background in Canada and dilutes the Christian infusion, Canada ’s attitude to the poor will change, and change for the worse.         Is there any governmental leader in Canada at this moment who knows that his or her chief responsibility, by God’s ordination, is to safeguard the poor?

In Israel the poor could take grain from a field or grapes from a vine, and take these at any time if they were without food.   (This wasn’t deemed theft on account of the manifest emergency.) Every third year 10% of the harvest was given to the poor, no questions asked. Every year a border had to be left standing in every grain field following the harvest, the border of grain being for the poor alone.  The poor were allowed to borrow money interest-free.         Job says he won’t be able to face God if he hasn’t assisted the poor. Amos says God will punish Israel for its failures with respect to the poor.  The apostle James is livid when the wealthier members of a congregation receive preferential treatment.  Since all of this is gathered up in our Lord himself, the people who rebuke him over the woman’s extravagance can’t be faulted.  They are sensitive to the plight of the poor; they expect him to be; he is. Then why doesn’t Jesus fend off this weepy woman and have her do something useful with the money she wants to give up?   Whatever our Lord meant when he said, “The poor you have with you always”, he didn’t mean that the poor can therefore be overlooked. Tragically, what our Lord didn’t mean is precisely what too many people have thought he meant.  It was the social consequences of our Lord’s words abused that drove Karl Marx to speak with no little justification of religion as the opiate of the people, the drug that tranquillizes the wretched of the earth in the face of their misery.

The poor matter. They matter to God. They should matter to us. Every Israelite knew this. Jesus knew it too. Judas knew that he knew, as did the other onlookers.  Therefore their protest, upon seeing money thrown away on anyone in a display that lasted only a minute, is entirely understandable.

 

II: — Then why does Jesus permit the woman to waste her money and jeopardize the poor?   Before we answer that question we must ask and answer another question. When McClure, the missionary surgeon, looked into the cooking pot and saw the rabbit and two chickens, why didn’t he say to the woman, “Why have you deprived yourself of your livelihood? Don’t know you know you’ve rendered yourself penniless?   What do you think you’re going to do now?”         Why didn’t McClure shake his head in amazement and say to us university students, “Those impoverished people in the Gaza Strip; they are their own worst enemies. We’ll never be able to do anything for those who evidently can’t help themselves.” McClure said no such thing because he knew the meaning of her act: her act didn’t mean she was unaware of her material predicament.

Jesus said no such thing because he knew the meaning of the woman’s act: her act didn’t mean she was unaware of the plight of the poor. Our Lord knew that what the woman was pouring upon him wasn’t perfume, ultimately, however costly; it was love she was pouring upon him. It was gratitude taking the form of love. It was a spectrum of gratitude and love that could be seen as pure gratitude or pure love or any gradation of the two if it even makes sense to distinguish love and gratitude in this woman’s heart.  Her pouring out the perfume wasn’t the most adequate expression she could find of her love for the one who meant everything to her; it was the only expression that occurred to her in that instant. Of course it was a waste in one sense; in another sense, no waste at all, since it was categorically different from all considerations of waste and usefulness and thrift and expedience.  It can be considered waste as long as a price tag (300 denarii) is attached to the perfume; it can’t be considered waste as long as no price can be affixed to love. Does anyone want to suggest that she should have mailed our Lord a letter for only 52 cents, or even e-mailed him for nothing?

Jesus didn’t object to her doing what she did once.  Had she attempted to do it repeatedly, I’m sure he would have stayed her. But to stay her when every impulse within her moved her to disregard social convention and public niceties and yammering tongues and cruel gossip; how could our Lord have halted such an expression of love and gratitude without crushing her? Had he stayed her she could only have concluded, to her endless embarrassment, that she had been as gullible as a child, when in truth she had found herself forever different thanks to the ministry of this man.

In first century Palestine a woman didn’t speak to a man in public, or a man to her, lest they be thought to be involved in an impropriety.  Neither did they touch each other.  A friend of mine, a psychiatrist whose psychiatric expertise is matched by his Christian ardour; my psychiatrist friend, in discussing this incident with me one day, remarked that the woman’s act was extremely sensual: wiping a man’s feet with her hair, kissing his feet, trying to dry them with her hair – this is erotic.  Her hair must have been long, so long that she would let it down and then let herself down; no, not let herself down, simply collapse at his feet oblivious to everything and everyone, aware only of him upon whom she was now pouring out everything. Then was there an erotic element in her deed? There was. And so what. Our Lord was no fool. He wasn’t unaware of the erotic trace element in the woman’s self-giving. But while he was no fool, neither was he a sledgehammer about to crush her.

One hundred years ago James Denney, a fine Scottish theologian, remarked, “You show me someone who hasn’t purchased a gift he couldn’t afford for someone he loves and I’ll show you someone who isn’t fit for the kingdom.” Of course none of us could afford such a gift every week and therefore we wouldn’t purchase such a gift every week.         The Scottish fellow’s story has point, we should note, only if we can’t afford such a gift at all, not even once, and yet purchase it anyway in our poured-out gratitude for someone who is dearer to us than life.  If we have done such a thing, we won’t bother replying to those who say that such a deed is the height of irrationality and foolishness and improvidence and should therefore be eschewed everlastingly.  We won’t bother replying just because there is no word that can express inexpressible gratitude and love and devotion.

Not so long ago Maureen’s best friend from her New Brunswick days telephoned us on a Saturday night.  She wanted us to pray for her on the spot, that is, over the phone. She was very ill, sick unto death. Her husband, she told us, wasn’t in the house but rather was stumbling around outside, beside himself at his wife’s condition and his dread of losing her, so much does he love her.  She telephoned me subsequently with the same request.  Again her husband couldn’t bear to overhear the conversation.  When Maureen and I lived in her village we often commented on this couple’s straightened financial circumstances.  They had little money and had come from families with little money, she being one of 17 children and he being one of 14.  The first Christmas we were in Tabusintac she purchased a Christmas gift for her husband; it was the most outlandishly expensive cologne for men. Now he was a lumberjack. Thereafter he was the sweetest-smelling lumberjack in the New Brunswick woods. But she hadn’t bought the carriage-trade cologne to make him smell sweet; she had bought it because it had been the only vehicle she could think of for expressing her love for her husband.

Let’s come back to the woman in the gospel story.  Different accounts of the story in different gospels tell us that she poured the perfume on the head of Jesus or on the feet of Jesus.  In different gospels Jesus is recorded as making different comments, entirely understandable in view of what it is about the incident that most impresses different gospel writers.  When the woman poured the perfume out on the head of Jesus she was anointing him. Kings and priests were anointed in ancient Israel . When the woman anointed Jesus, then, she was recognizing him to be the one to whom she owed obeisance and allegiance and lifelong faithfulness, for he was now her effectual sovereign. When she anointed him she was also recognizing him to be priest, not a priest like those who offered up sacrifices in the temple, but rather the priest who offers up himself, priest and sacrifice in one, and therefore her effectual redeemer. In fact she honoured him as rightful ruler of her life only because she had first known her sin pardoned at his priestly hand.  It was her experience of forgiveness and freedom that constrained her to bind herself to him forever. “You show me someone who hasn’t spent a fortune he didn’t have for someone he loves, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t fit for the kingdom”, said the old Scot. Was the woman in our story fit, fit for the kingdom?   We shouldn’t be asking about her.  We should be asking about ourselves.  What are we going to say when the same question is posed concerning us?

As a matter of fact our Lord Jesus, risen from the dead, puts the question to us that he put to Peter on Easter morning in the wake of Peter’s denial. He asked, “Peter, do you love me…?” In fact he asked the question three times in the wake of Peter’s three denials. On the one hand, by asking the question three times over he was saying to Peter, “Don’t answer glibly; take your time and think about it; don’t ‘pop off’ with something ill-considered and hasty.         Ponder the question and weigh your answer.”   On the other hand, by asking the simple question without mentioning the repeated denials he was sparing Peter the downward spiral into self-loathing and self-rejection and ever-worsening guilt.  The question was sharp enough not to let Peter off, yet gentle enough not to let Peter go. “Do you love me?” Our Lord puts the same question to us in exactly the same spirit for exactly the same reason. Peter said, “Lord, you know that I love you.”   Months earlier a woman whose tears bespoke more than could ever be said anointed Jesus in public, witnessing to the watching world that she gloried in his priestly pardon and gladly submitted to his kingly claim.

 

A woman’s poured-out perfume, poured-out tears, poured-out heart told our Lord how much she loved him.  It should have told the onlookers too.  It didn’t, however, but not because they were concerned – rightly concerned – for the poor.  Our Lord was unfailingly concerned for the poor, as no doubt the Israelite woman herself was. Her deed couldn’t tell onlookers how much she loved him, however, in that they lacked such love themselves, and lacking such love themselves were unable to recognize it in someone else.

Then how much do I love him?  How much more should I love him?  And you?

 

                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                         

February 2008

(preached February 10 2008, Markham Presbyterian Church, Ontario)