Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday in Holy Week - Costly Perfume

Today's readings can be found here.


Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. It’s 300 days’ worth of wages for a laborer. If you worked six days a week, it’s almost a year’s worth of pay. At minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), and assuming 8-hour days, that’s about $17,400.

I want you to imagine for a minute what would happen if I told the congregation that we were going to spend $17,000 to have a guest vocalist come to St. John’s to sing one song on Good Friday. Or imagine what your spouse would say if you came home and announced that you had spent $17,000 on a bottle of wine for dinner that night. Or imagine what the neighbors would say if you spent $17,000 on fireworks for your next birthday.

As he makes his final trip to Jerusalem, where he will be killed, Jesus stops for dinner in his friends’ house. While sitting at the dinner table, Mary, one of his hostesses, takes a pound of perfume made of pure nard and anoints his feet and wipes them with her hair. I think the value of that gesture gets lost in translation. Three-hundred denarii is a lot of money. And what Mary does with it is an overwhelming statement of humility and sacrifice. It’s the kind of awkward, beautiful moment that two friends will always share together; every time they meet again, they will think of it. Mary’s act of anointing Jesus is a way of showing that nothing else, absolutely nothing else, matters as much as what is about to happen to Jesus.

Judas questions why that perfume was not sold so that the money could be given to the poor. John, the author, tries to give the reader some inside information to clarify the situation, but I partly think he muddies the water. By telling us that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief, John leads us to believe that his objection was baseless and selfish. That might be true—Judas might have had his eye on the cash—but, when I stop and think about how lavish and ridiculous and ludicrous that gesture was, I think Judas might be right. Why wasn’t the perfume sold and the money given to the poor? And why does Jesus respond, “You always have the poor, but you do not always have me?” How can we justify this kind of expense—the inexplicable use of $17,000 for a one-time, one-person moment?


If you believe that nothing is as important as the death that Jesus will die, then the anointing makes sense. If you can see that the value of what will happen to Jesus is immeasurable, then the perfume is justified. If you can see that the cross is what transforms the whole world, bringing hope to the poor, then the three-hundred denarii is well-spent. Our challenge, therefore, is to become like Mary—willing to give up everything to participate in Jesus’ death. We must lose ourselves in the inconceivable gift that is the cross. All that we have and everything that we are must disappear in the sight of Calvary. The needs and concerns and alternatives must vanish because the only thing that matters is what happens on the cross. This week is about losing everything else so that only one thing occupies all aspects of our being.

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