Extravagant Giving
John 12:1-8

In these tight economic times where we are learning to be more and more frugal with our money today’s Gospel reading rings some alarm bells doesn’t it?  Here is a woman using a very expensive perfume to make a bloke’s feet smell better.  If you understand the value of perfume, about a year’s wages, you can’t help but say, “What the?”

This extravagant act of service really needs to be put into perspective.  We need to understand what had been going on and what was about to happen to get a sense of the gift that she gave.  It was six days before the Passover and Jesus was at a house in Bethany, the house of his good friend Lazarus.  You will remember that it was not long before this that Jesus had received a message to come to Bethany because Lazarus had died.

It had taken Jesus four days to get there and he had asked for stone blocking the front of the cave that Lazarus had been laid in to be removed so that he could go inside.  He was warned of the possible stench, but he asked them to open it anyway.  Then, rather than going in he remained outside and called for Lazarus to come out, which he did, still with the wrappings on his body from being laid to rest.  Many people had seen this take place so there was no doubt that it had happened.

So then we come to the event in question, at the home of Lazarus, there was a dinner being held, it appears, in Jesus honour.  Perhaps it was to thank Jesus for resurrecting or bringing back to life, his friend Lazarus.  Martha was serving Jesus and Lazarus as they reclined at the table.  It is no surprise that they would want to hold a bit of a celebratory dinner, this was a special occasion after all! 
It seems too that Mary had come prepared.  You wouldn’t imagine that the average person would have an alabaster jar of the finest perfume just sitting on the shelf just in case it was needed. 

When she anointed Jesus’ feet with it the sweet smell filled the whole house.  This is a stark contrast to the stench of death that Jesus was warned of when he arrived at the burial site of Lazarus.

Then one of the other people who were there for the dinner, a guy we are all too familiar with by the name of Judas Iscariot put his two cents worth into the mix.  He was protesting against the use of the perfume.  His motive appeared to be the poor people missing out if Mary used the perfume on Jesus, but John, (who gave us this account of the event) made it clear that he had an ulterior motive, he wanted the funds to go into the common purse so that he could get his hands on it.

But Jesus sets things straight; he comes to the defence of Mary, “Leave her alone, she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Now was the right time for her to give her extravagant gift.  She was giving in response to the gift of resurrection from the dead for her brother and at the same time was preparing Jesus for the even more extravagant gift he was about to give her and for the rest of us, his own death, burial and resurrection.  It was her choice, by her own free will to use what God had first given her to serve someone else.

When you look at the scenario that has just played out, of all the characters in the story can you relate to any or all of them?  Do you see yourself as Lazarus, feeling very alive and resurrected, enjoying the company of Jesus?  Do you relate to Martha who is quietly and simply serving those gathered for the dinner?  Do you find a greater affinity with Mary, giving extravagantly in response to the love that someone else has freely shown you?  Or maybe you’re a bit of a Judas, questioning the gifts of others because in the process you might be missing out on getting something for yourself?  I’m not going to offer you the role of Jesus, because not one of us could possibly fit into that spot.

Maybe by looking at our own patterns of service and/or giving we might be able to see where we fit in.  How do you give of yourself, your time or your possessions to serve others?  How do you decide who gets a slice of the pie?  Are there enough hours in the week to give a little to someone else?  Do you have skills and abilities that you could use to help someone else?  Do you have assets and income that could be put towards building up the kingdom of God?  How do you decide how much is enough?  How do you decide if it is too much?

It may be a bit risky to use this text as a yard stick or measure to work out how much is enough.  But here we do have an example.  Mary gave the equivalent of a year’s income to purchase the pure nard perfume to anoint Jesus.  That is huge!  But so was the gift of life given to her brother.  She was living now in the joy of having the life of her brother returned.  In response she gave extravagantly.  She didn’t give in order to receive; she gave because she had received already.

What have we received from God, from his Son Jesus?  Hmmm, let me think.  Haven’t we received a very similar thing?  As a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection we have had our sin forgiven.  As a result we are made righteous before God and as his children death has lost its sting, we have received eternal life.  How are we to respond?  In joy, in praise in thanksgiving, and in returning to God what he has first given us, ourselves our time and our possessions. 

Mary obviously was not worrying about where her next meal would come from; she simply gave, as we read in Matthew 6:31-33, “So don’t worry about these things, saying “What will we eat? What will we drink?  What will we wear?” These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.”

This text is on the front of the little leaflet that we have put inside your News this week.  It’s a new tract from Lutheran Tract Mission.  I encourage you to take it home, read through it and prayerfully consider the way you serve the kingdom of God through your giving.  Not only as Mary did with her physical gift, but also as Martha did, through using her talents to serve others.

For most of my life I have been listening in at Annual General Meetings and reading financial reports and wondering why we always seem to be concerned about failing to meet budgets.  Surely there should never be an issue of trying to fund ministry opportunities in a country where very few people live in true poverty.  We need to put our faith and trust in the Lord who provides for us and give generously, even extravagantly of what God has given us, ourselves our time and our possessions, for the building up of his kingdom, for his glory and for our good.

Just as Mary gave out of and in response to the love of Jesus, we too are called to respond to his love for us as we serve others and reach out for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Amen.