The memory of it still makes me smile: one afternoon a number of years ago I was out on a “pastoral call,” guitar in hand, at a local nursing facility leading a sing-along for the residents there. As it happened, on this particular day I was accompanied by my daughter Sarah, who was only five or six years old at the time; which I remember because almost immediately it became clear that I could have sung out of key, played with every string of the guitar tuned to the wrong note, or even stood on my head and spit nickels (!) and it wouldn’t have mattered, because Sarah had become the star of the show! The elderly women all wanted Sarah to sit on their laps and all the old men wanted to hold her hand and “make much of her.” And Sarah, to her credit, was quite obliging; as I recall, she was actually very comfortable in a setting that can often be a bit scary for a small child; in fact, in all honesty, she kind of enjoyed all the attention!
When we came to the end of our visit, I went around greeting everyone who had gathered in the day room, and Sarah was right there with me, shaking hands and saying hello to the residents just like was I doing. It was then that I noticed out of the corner of my eye that many of those residents were reaching into their pockets and purses, pulling out money and quietly giving it to Sarah. And not just a few shiny quarters, either; by the time we’d finished circling the room the kid had ended up with several dollars tucked in her hands! Of course, immediately I’m saying, no, you shouldn’t do this; that’s very nice of you, but Sarah can’t take it; but one by one, they’d insist that Sarah keep the money (mostly by conveniently ignoring me and saying directly to my little girl, “Now you tell your Daddy that he has to take you out for a treat!”). And Sarah, God bless her, looked up at me with this gaze of utter wonder and amazement like this was Christmas morning; so how could I say no?
So we graciously accepted these gifts and Sarah got to have ice cream on our way home! Still, I couldn’t help but feel badly about having accepted such an extravagant gift from these residents who likely did not have the money to spare; and the next day I returned to the nursing facility to speak with the activities director about it; perchance to make amends by repaying the debt. The director, however, was quick to refuse the offer, adding that giving Sarah their small gifts had almost most certainly been the best part of their day. “This is their way of saying thanks,” she said. “They don’t often get the chance here to have children visit, much less to be able to spoil them a little bit. They loved your daughter, so if it made them happy to give her a little something, I say, why not!”
Such was the true extravagance of the gift; that it was prompted by the experience of gratitude.
In John’s gospel, we’re told that Jesus and his disciples were at the house of Lazarus (“whom he had just raised from the dead” [12:1]) and his two sisters, Mary and Martha, for what can best be described as a dinner party. And it’s sometime during this gathering that Mary offers up an extravagant gift of her own, taking a “pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” (v.3) – the cost of which might well have represented Mary’s life savings – and pouring it all out to anoint Jesus’ feet, with the excess oil wiped away with her own hair. John tells us that the “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” but I have to imagine that it was filled with the sound of stunned silence as well, the awkwardness of the moment broken only when Judas angrily (and dubiously) chastised Mary for wasting such a valuable item that could have benefited the poor. Jesus saw it differently, however, recognizing the gift for what it was: an expression of deep gratitude. “Leave her alone,” he said. “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (v. 7)
Questionable though his motives may have been, we have to admit that Judas was right about one thing; it’s hard not to concede that under ordinary circumstances Mary’s gift was one that could be considered “over the top” and wasteful. But there was nothing ordinary about this moment: Lazarus, who was dead, was now alive; Jesus, who had raised Lazarus to life, was there with them; and Mary’s heart was so filled up with the joy of it that she was compelled to respond in the most lavish way possible! Under any circumstance three hundred denarii (equivalent to nearly a year’s worth of labor) was a lot of money to be sacrificed; but since this was a gift of full devotion, the unrestrained grateful response of Mary’s heart, the sacrifice was of no consequence.
When Mary anointed the feet of Jesus, it was indeed a gift of fragrant, extravagant love; but much more important than this was the fact that it was in response to divine love even more extravagantly given, and graciously received. It makes me pause to consider our own offerings unto God and the attitude by which they are given; for whether what we give comes under the categories of time, talent, treasure or some combination thereof, the measure of that gift ultimately comes down to the fullness of our hearts where the giving is concerned. Truly, our greatest sacrifice can only begin point to the far greater sacrifice that’s been made for us; as the words of the old hymn has beautifully put it:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all!” — “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”
Our Lenten journey continues, and we draw ever nearer to the cross and the great and extravagant gift of sacrificial love that was given there. How will we give thanks, beloved, for this amazing love?
I pray that our response might be extravagant in its own rite… and fragrant as well.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry