Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.
There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. – John 12.1-7
There’s much in the pages of the Bible to help us ponder the importance of giving – and giving generously – but for me, the most powerful is the description above of Mary anointing Jesus.
Just before his final entry into Jerusalem, Jesus is in Bethany with dear friends. They throw a dinner for him and then… the unforgettable happens. Mary takes an enormous quantity of eye-wateringly expensive perfume and pours it over Jesus’ feet. Her devotion to Jesus, her gratitude for all that he is and does and the fear she feels for his life, all come pouring out with the perfume. It is an act of human extravagance which mirrors the story of divine extravagance which she sees in Jesus, the one who pours himself out in life and in death.
But not everyone is impressed and that’s partly why this passage has so much to teach us. We learn not only what generosity looks like but also what the absence of generosity looks like. It’s Judas, another dinner guest, who is critical. And his mealy-mouthed complaint about wastefulness completely misses the point. But then, everything John says about Judas describes a sadly diminished human being, closed to the beauty of Mary’s outpouring.
What has all this got to do with us today? As Mary reveals, Christian giving is primarily a response to a loving and generous God who has given us all that we have. Musing on how we could be sharing what we have been given – in terms of time, money and skill – is a vital aspect of our discipleship. And it’s a task which needs constant attention both as we change and as life changes around us. The last year is a case in point: everyone’s needs have changed; what we can give and the ways in which we can give have changed.
We have witnessed an extravagant outpouring of love to the isolated and anxious, the sick and the bereaved, the newly hungry and vulnerable. But mirroring God’s sharp-eyed loving, may we also reach out generously where the need is acute but not so obvious – to support agencies and charities struggling from loss of income, and to our own churches, facing greatly reduced finances for the mission and ministry of the Body of Christ across this diocese.
Two short sentences from the Church Times back-page interview a few years ago have stayed in my mind since I read them. The poet David Whyte had been asked about regret. “I regret my acts of smallness,” he said. “I have never, ever regretted being generous.”
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