Mary: The Power of Extravagance
A Summer Family Reunion: Lessons From Our Faith Ancestors
Sunday, July 22, 2018
The Baptist writer, educator and minister Dr. John Carlton once shared a sage piece of advice that came to him from a trusted mentor in his life. Carlton was a young adult at the time and this father figure was sharing with him about the importance of money management. As they talked, the man offered a personal story to John about an argument that he and his own wife had when they returned from a vacation with their children. The man’s wife was bothered because she felt they had spent way too much money and had lived well beyond their means while on the trip. He listened to her and then offered a different perspective. “Honey,” he said. “Do you remember when we were engaged? Neither of us had two nickels to rub together. But, I wanted to give you the best engagement ring I could. And, I did though it was a ring that was clearly beyond our means. Yet, you didn’t object for that ring was an expression of my heart and that was more important than what it cost. I feel the same way about this trip and what it communicated to our children.”
The advice given by the older gentleman to the younger John Carlton, which Carlton had never forgotten, was clear – budgets and living within our means is critically important. But, that doesn’t mean that extravagance is not occasionally the better decision in the moment. (Worship Beyond the Usual, pg. 66-67).
This is certainly one of the points of our story for today. It is a story found in all four gospels, which is a rarity, as most gospel stories are not told by all four writers. In John’s version, the story is set in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. As they are together with Jesus, Mary takes an incredibly expensive jar of perfume worth a year’s wages and uses all of it on Jesus’ feet as she cleans them while also using her hair to wipe the liquid away. In essence it is her way of anointing him.
As we can easily imagine, the reaction by some was that of shock. Shock, I think, both at the very act itself but also because of how wasteful the moment appeared. This view is expressed through the words of the disciple Judas in John’s telling who points out that they could have done so much good for the poor had they simply sold the perfume and used the proceeds to help others. As Judas says, the bottle of perfume was worth a small fortune.
Jesus, however, echoes the other extreme. He finds in Mary’s act an expression of love, tenderness and care. He doesn’t ignore the fact that the perfume was expensive or the act extravagant but rather than seeing her behavior as wasteful, he recognizes what Mary does as just the right thing in that moment.
In eleven verses, Judas and Jesus offer us both sides of the coin. Judas is not wrong. Mary had indeed spent a lot of money and it was money that could have been used in ways that were not as excessive, lavish or extreme. Yes, John, in his gospel, chides Judas for his perspective. But, in truth, Judas is a lot like many of us. He is watching the bottom line, thinking about doing the most of what they had and not being wasteful.
Jesus, on the other hand, doesn’t really completely dismiss Judas’ perspective. But, he does make it clear that what Mary had done was the right thing in the time. It was a sign of her love shown in a clear, unmistakable and unforgettable way. It was also shown with little time left to spare for Jesus’ life would soon be over as his death loomed large on the horizon.
Again, the gospel point is the same as the lesson that John Carlton learned from his mentor. In much of life, living frugally and spending within our means is the right thing. But, there are times when extravagance is far more important.
I believe this is true in life in general and in the life of faith in particular. In general, I am a strong believer in living within our means, saving and being careful with what we have. I was raised this way and I think our faith affirms this approach on many levels. But, I also believe that at times the extravagant use of our time and the lavish use of our resources to communicate to our spouse, children or those we love most how much we care about them and as a way of creating special memories is absolutely the right thing. And, as this very story of Jesus illustrates, life is short and ends quickly. No one wants to see the time with our children or life itself come to an end having never acted with extravagance.
This is also true for our walk with Christ and for our life as a church. Again, being good stewards is incredible important and is the right thing much of the time. But, there do come occasions where the Spirit invites us to act with extravagance toward one another, our church and toward our world. Blaise Pascal once said that “the heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of…” as believers we might tweek that statement by saying sometimes the Spirit moves us to step out of the norm or to live outside of the box. When the Spirit of God tugs at our hearts, we must follow.”
After all, in God, we have the ultimately example of this. One of the best words for what God did for us in Jesus has to be the term extravagance!
I had the pleasure of visiting with one of our members recently who had just returned from being on an Honor Flight. If you are not familiar with the idea, Honor Flights are trips offered free to veterans of either World War II or the Korean War. In many cases they are one day trips to Washington D.C. to see the Memorials there and to receive one final hero’s salute. It is a day of extravagance including a private chartered plane ride with a celebratory departure and return, police escorts all day long in DC, the chance to lay a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and in his case a welcome, handshake and salute from a current General in the military. One day long honor flight for 100 veterans and their travel companion costs roughly $50,000. Is there anyone in this room that feels like that is a waste of money? I didn’t think so. Amen.