Love’s Lavish Gift (A Reflection on John 12.1-8)

An evangelical  pastor friend of mine once told me the story of how, a number of years before, he had wanted to do something special for his wife. Life in the church isn’t easy, for spouses as much as for pastors themselves, and through it all, she had stuck with it and with him with a grace that had astounded him. And so, he decided he would start saving up, a few dollars here and there from his meagre salary, to buy her a beautiful gift: a diamond necklace. It took four years, but eventually, he finally had squirrelled away enough to buy her this token of his love for her. She was blown away by the gesture, knowing full well the sacrifices he had made in order to make this gift happen and she proudly wore it to church the next Sunday. Well, church being church, you can guess what happened next. People in the church started to complain amongst themselves at the lavishness of her necklace, and, the church board told them they were going to freeze his salary since clearly they were paying him too much if he could afford such luxuries.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of this story when I read this morning’s Gospel reading, where a similar story plays out. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus who loved to hear Jesus teach, pours out a jar of expensive perfume on to Jesus’ feet, and lovingly dries them with her hair. Rather than being moved by this gift of love, as Jesus clearly was, Judas becomes indignant at the perceived waste.

Now here’s the rub: If we take his objection at face value, Judas isn’t wrong. The money Mary spent on the perfume probably could have been better spent on food for the hungry, just as the money my friend saved up for the necklace could have certainly found more practical uses. But love doesn’t care. Love is lavish. Love spares no expense.

It’s no accident that this story happens shortly before Passover, and therefore for us in our lectionary, just a week before Holy Week. The reality of all that is happening and about to happen is clearly weighing on Jesus. And, it seems that, no matter how much the other disciples always objected or misunderstood when Jesus said his path would result in his death, Mary at least listened and understood: She had bought the perfume to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. Many of us wish we could have shown our departed loved ones how much we cared for them before they died, and here Mary has done just that, pouring out the sweet perfume of her love on the man Jesus.

Love is lavish. Love spares no expense.

This is the whole message of Jesus’ life. The mystery of his Incarnation, his baptism in the Jordan, his ministry of teaching and healing, his speaking truth to power, and ultimately his humiliation and death — it’s all Love’s lavish gift: Divine Love that spares no expense.

Of course, the text also tells us that Judas’ objection had nothing to do with his supposed concern for people living with poverty, and there’s a message for us in this too. I am reminded by a line I quoted in this past week’s character trait post on honesty:

“Our minds are quick to deflect blame, protect us from painful feelings, minimize embarrassing truths, and offer clever ways to evade the full truth. We use disclaimers, exaggerations, and rationalizations to protect our self-image” (The Power of Character Strengths (2019), 116).

This can be true of our indignation too. Often the things that get our backs up tell us just as much about ourselves. The people who drive us crazy often remind us of the things we hate in ourselves or of things we feel are lacking in ourselves. Or, like Judas here, we can react badly out of a sense of entitlement — not “That’s wrong” but “That’s mine.” When we react badly to generosity we would do well to challenge the motivations of our heart and dig deeper into why we’re having the reaction we are. For love is lavish in its generosity, and if we cut ourselves off from appreciating this, we can cut ourselves off from love itself — as indeed Judas has in our story.

Brothers and sisters, let us love lavishly, as Mary lavishly loved Jesus, and as God has lavishly loved us. And let us not scoff at the gifts of others, but rejoice in their generosity and in their love.

6 thoughts on “Love’s Lavish Gift (A Reflection on John 12.1-8)

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