Lent V: A Costly Gift
We are nearing the end now, heading towards Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem where we see Christ’s final acts before his death and resurrection. For the last five Sunday’s, we’ve been looking at Jesus’ actions and how they speak to us today—how we might look at what Jesus actually did rather than simply what he said. You may have noticed that many of our passages through this Lenten Season have revolved around some central themes—forgiveness, repentance, second-chances, and grace. In every instance that we read about, Christ seems to defy social convention and errs on the side of compassion as he seeks to see everyone as a child of God.
I’ve challenged you to see Christ’s actions not as an unattainable, perfect way to live one’s life, but to recognize that Jesus was human and had to deal with the very same human problems that we face today, and that even though thousands of years separate us, it’s his actions that speak most clearly to a world that so often prefers violence over peace, hatred over love, judgment over understanding.
Our final passage in this series might be one of the more challenging for some of us today. It encompasses all of our themes but introduces one of the most controversial topics in the church—that of money, and gifts, and even legacy. If you’ve been in a church long enough, you know these things are vitally important but can be some of the most highly debated within a congregation. How does a church spend its money? How do they honor the gifts that are thoughtfully given? In what ways is that spending appropriate for the church? Should it all go to mission? To outreach? To evangelism? To building maintenance? To care for the poor? Many a church session have spent long and tedious nights discussing such issues and rarely does a topic offend more easily than money.
I read of a story that was told by William Carter who talked about a time he was attending a stewardship conference in which an ecumenical group of pastors were gathered to discuss generosity. One such presenter was discussing the topic of giving directly to God and he began to see the eyes glossing over and the yawns beginning from his colleagues. (Hopefully something that isn’t done too often during my sermons!). But then, he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, placed it in as ashtray, and set it on fire…he looked up and said, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” The reaction from the crowd, apparently, was electric. People began to fidget, one even whispering to the other, “doesn’t he know it’s illegal to burn money”. The speaker, of course, was making a point, “Do you not understand” he asked, “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.”
Now I promise to not do anything quite as dramatic, but we have a similar situation in our scripture reading: Jesus is at the home of Lazarus, a man he miraculously raised from the dead only a short while ago. They are soon to enter the Passover Season, one of the most important holy events in the Jewish tradition. After dinner, we read that Mary took a jar of costly perfume and began anointing the feet of Jesus, filling the house with a brilliant fragrance. We know that the cost of the perfume was around 300 denarii, or in modern terms, about a full year’s salary—this was a costly gift. So much so that Judas Iscariot finds the entire thing wasteful, disgusting even. “Why was this not sold and the money given to the poor?” he exclaims. John’s gospel is not too kind to Judas, leaving no suspicions to his true intent, that he didn’t actually care about the poor but simply wanted the money for himself. Christ’s response to Judas cryptic as he say’s “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
There are so many wonderful things to be explored from this text. There is a beauty in the symbolism of John’s retelling of this story— the power of the foreshadowing of Christ’s death with the ritual cleansing and anointing of the body. There’s beauty in the fact that out of all of Jesus’ disciples, Mary—humble Mary—was one of the few who knew what was to come. There’s also a sense of mystery in Christ’s words (of course we know the end of the story) but Jesus here is quoting a verse from Deuteronomy 15:11 that says, "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'" Jesus’ response is not a selfish one, but another foreshadowing of the responsibility that his followers and all followers of Christ have to the poor, even when Christ’s earthly body would leave this world.
What may be most helpful to us, in this season, is to really focus in on both Mary and Judas. Our first inclination may be to identify with Mary, with the love she has for Christ but also the willingness to give, to sacrifice, to be in harmony with Jesus’ will. But how often do we realize that humanity, ourselves and our own actions, often reflect more towards the example of Judas instead? We vilify and cast Judas as the betrayer but often forget our own ability to take advantage of situations and people when it comes to looking out for ourselves or our families. We forget that Judas is by no means the only apostle to betray Jesus in the end. Karl Barth asks a difficult question but one that we must ask, if we believe in redemption for ourselves, if we believe truly that redemption exists for the lowest of the low, then surely no person deserves redemption more than Judas Iscariot.
We have to be careful then when choose Mary over Judas, to say that Mary was in the right and Judas was in the wrong, because to do so would be to ignore the fact that humans showcase the potential for both goodness and evil. We must remember, that although Jesus knew of Judas’ actions to come, he did not send him away, he did not punish him or try to get rid of him…he loved him as a disciple. And that gift of love, knowing what Judas was about to do, is greater than anything I can imagine.
We look at our lives today and we place value on things, on time, on people, and we often decide within ourselves whether or not this thing or event or even person is worth the gift of our time. We question people’s intentions or look to the future to decide if the price is worth the cost. We choose not to invest in people because perhaps, they are not choosing to invest in themselves. But what did Christ do?
Towards Mary, he received. He was thankful and loving towards the devotion of a gift offered with no expectations—no strings—nothing to be gained or lost. Towards Judas, he was understanding and forgiving despite all of his and our worst tendencies towards evil in this world. Towards us—we are given the opportunity to live out the call that Christ has set before us.
So, in our lives, how often are we giving only in the expectation receive? How often do we place a transactional nature on things, not only with money, but with everything in our lives? What is the intention of our transformation this Lenten Season? Are we seeking a reward? Or are we seeking to truly be reflections of Christ in our world? Ready to make a difference because it’s the right thing to do, not because of what we will get in the end.
This gift is far more costly than anything else. To do something simply because it is the right thing to do takes determination, it takes humility, and it takes a willingness to place your trust into God’s guiding grace. It’s to say I’m all in.
As we move from our Lenten Season, soon into Holy Week and the coming day of resurrection, let us examine our motivations and our desires for the church in the world. Let us remember that through the ultimate gift of Christ, we can become reflections of redemption, reconciliation, and even grace, here and now.