January 7, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 26:6-13.
Now when Jesus was in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of costly perfumed oil, and poured it on his head while he was reclining at table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold for much, and the money given to the poor.” Since Jesus knew this, he said to them, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She has done a good thing for me. The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me. In pouring this perfumed oil upon my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Amen, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.”
Yesterday’s gospel on the Epiphany of the Lord was from Matthew’s account of the arrival of the magi to give homage to the newborn King of the Jews. I don’t think that it’s coincidence that this passage today was my next reading as I finish the gospel of Matthew. I had never connected the gifts of the magi at Jesus’ birth with this gift of perfumed oil shortly before the Passover and Jesus’ arrest. It reminds me of O. Henry’s short story, The Gift of the Magi, the story of the young married couple at Christmas time who each sold their most treasured possession to buy the perfect gift for their beloved. Della sold her long hair to buy Jim a watch fob and Jim sold his watch to buy Della hair combs. O. Henry ends his story describing it, “the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.”
Today we have the story of a very foolish act, the sacrificial gift of this woman’s treasured perfumed oil that Mark and John tell us cost 300 days’ wages. I usually sympathize with the disciples. These poor guys had been paying attention to Jesus’ teaching about compassion and consideration for the poor and here he goes turning everything upside down again. He did it to them time and time again. I think it’s because he didn’t want them to think in narrow, linear ways about how to bring about the kingdom of God. It can’t be done that way and Jesus’ teaching about God’s will can’t be contained in a simple manifesto. It’s not either/or, black/white. It’s not that simple, not that easy.
What this story is about is a love for Jesus that knows no bounds. That when our hearts are touched by Jesus, we want to express that love in the most extravagant ways imaginable. We want to give him what is most precious to us, even if it’s a sacrifice. Just as Jim and Della did, just as this woman did in Simon’s home.
Such an display of love can appear wasteful or foolish to outsiders — not that the disciples were outsiders. They gave of themselves, made sacrifices in their love of Jesus that were equally foolish to those who hadn’t fallen in love with him. When I think about it, heeding the gospels, living the word of God, defies common sense. As Barclay writes, “[T]here is a world of difference between the economics of common sense and the economics of love. Common sense obeys the dictates of prudence; but love obeys the dictates of the heart.”
That’s what Jesus was responding to in this story. This woman let her heart lead her to make an extravagant, sacrificial display of her love for Jesus. It’s such an unusual thing for us to give love its fullest expression, unfettered by prudence and common sense. That’s why stories like The Gift of the Magi move me so much. My heart yearns to be expressed without the constraints of prudence and common sense. Jesus wants me to let go. Let go of my ego, of my concern about the security and the future, of what others will think of me. Just give my love for him full throttle. He wants me to show that by loving those in my life in that way, by seeing in them the wonderfully unique people he has created. I will not always have them with me either. He wants me to be wise like Jim and Della, to be an extravagant gift giver.