Have you ever met a generous person you didn’t like? I couldn’t think of any myself. We don’t tend to say, “They are such generous people – real jerks I tell you.” Of course, we can get lost in the semantics of generosity. Do you and I see generosity in the same way? Maybe that would change how we viewed a generous person. This happens. Dorothy Day has been called an American saint. A Christian woman of faith with a true generous spirit – most everyone agrees. Amidst the Great Depression, Day took her Christian faith right into the most challenging slums of New York City. There she established the first Catholic Worker House, a place of radical Christian discipleship that became a place of hospitality for men, women and children in need.
One day, a wealthy woman pulled up to the house in her big car. Dorothy Day showed her around the mission which moved this visitor a great deal. On her way out, the woman impulsively pulled a diamond ring off of her finger and handed it to Day. The woman got in her car and pulled away and Day went back inside with this ring in her hand. The staff was ecstatic when they learned about this act of generosity. The ring could be sold for a huge amount of money and take some pressure off their budget – at least for a while. A couple of days pass and one of the staff notice the diamond ring on the finger of a homeless woman who was leaving the mission. The staffer was stunned and confronted Dorothy Day immediately. This must be a mistake. Surely Day had not given that homeless woman the ring. But… she had. Flabbergasted the staffer shouts, “Why in the world would you give away such a valuable piece of jewelry?” Day responded, “That woman was admiring the ring. She thought it was so beautiful. So, I gave it to her. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”
Generous? Wasteful? What do you say? You and I wouldn’t be the first to argue this matter. Adam and Eve probably squabbled about what to do with all of the extra avocados. They’re so good. Today’s scripture focus puts such a squabble front and center. And I must say, things are getting serious. We’ve been cruising through Lent thus far – it’s been fairly nice and gentle and focused – “Who Am I in Christ?” we’ve been asking and we’ve said things like trusting and connected and compassionate and restored – all nice, good, characteristics of somebody trying to live in the ways of Christ. I hope they’ve made you think about your own relationship with Christ and the world – that’s what we’re trying to do together week after week; praise God, figure out why being Christian matters and go make a difference in the world. I had a marvelous conversation with a man this week – just an inspiring guy – and I asked him about that sweet spot in his life – the time when things just seemed to click; when he simply loved it and was focused and making a difference. He named many fascinating things but offered at one point, “In terms of societal difference… probably…” and he named another amazing gift he helped birth in the world. How cool is that? Societal difference. Another friend, who’s lived twice as many decades as I have said in response to a similar question, “I don’t think I’ve lived those best years yet.” Wow. I love people. People are truly amazing.
So, this is what we’re trying to sort out week after week together and I am amazed and appreciative that you show up every time, eager to be alive and healed and difference makers. And we’re homing in now on the big stuff. It’s Spring Break Sunday today and we’ve got some folks out of pocket – but two weeks from now – we all won’t fit in this space. People know its coming; the cross, the death, the resurrection. That’s ahead of us. And today, Jesus makes that mental, emotional, and spiritual shift himself. He knows it’s coming too. So today he names it. Claims it. And won’t look back.
The Gospel writer, John, gives us this story today. It’s probably a hybrid story of sorts from some of the other Gospel accounts as John mixes some of the elements we discover in stories told by Matthew and Mark – different stories – but ones that have some of the same elements. It’s a marvelous scene. Dinner table, party of five best we can tell. There’s the three sibs: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus is clearly tight with these three. He and Lazarus probably played t-ball together and they all probably swapped stories about who they liked in Middle School. They were close. So when Lazarus was sick and died while Jesus was out of town, Jesus had a real hard time with it – as did Mary and Martha. They were mad at Jesus, in fact, for not being there through the whole thing. After Lazarus had been dead for three days, Jesus finally shows up, Martha is ticked. She’s action oriented and a little fed up that Jesus didn’t make it home to be with his best friend who was dying. And… Jesus is moved. The moment brings about the shortest verse in all of scripture which says… for bonus points on Spring Break? “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35). But – alas – Jesus heads over to his friend’s tomb and hollers at him in his best Carman voice: “Lazarus, come out!” And would you believe it? Out comes Lazarus – a little disheveled naturally – you think waking up on the wrong side of the bed is bad, try being dead for three days. I’m sure he was desperate to brush his teeth. Anyway – Lazarus is back and Jesus says, “C’mon. Let’s go.”
This all precedes our dinner scene today at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But we’re talking party of five so who else is there? Jesus, of course, is dinner guest number four. And fifth? Judas Iscariot. If there were others in the house, we are not told. But these guests all represented an important dynamic in the story of Jesus moving forward. So imagine this dinner table. Lazarus is probably working one of the Triangle Peg Board games like they have a Cracker Barrel. He’s just stoked to be alive again. Judas is probably checking his stocks, a little agitated about the new tariffs and what it’s doing to his investments. He’s also filled out several NCAA tournament brackets and is among the 56% of Millennials willing to miss a work deadline to watch a March Madness game. He had Virginia going all the way. Figures. Martha is cooking the meal – remember – she’s an action oriented person. She would have given anything to fix another meal for her brother so she’s probably working up Lazarus’ favorite dish. Jesus sits at the table sifting through his thoughts about the Passover. It was just six days away and he knew the hostilities would be great. Was this the end of the road? Was this the culmination of his mission? Was this forthcoming parade into Jerusalem as good as punching his death ticket? He certainly suspected that it was and the moment that follows confirms that this was indeed his suspicion.
Enter Mary. She’s been out of sight for a bit. Slipped out of the room without fanfare. Martha noticed and commented of course, ever a bit frustrated that Mary doesn’t help enough. “What is she doing back there. I never know what she’s doing back there.” But she’s entered the room with a pound of costly perfume. Scholars tell us that this perfume would have equaled a year’s salary of a typical day-laborer. Think of the bills that could have been paid. Think of the people she could have helped. Mary surely knew and counted that cost. But she’s made up her mind. She goes to Jesus, kneels at his feet and pours the whole thing out on his bare, dirty, weathered, callused, carpenter’s feet. Much of it immediately flows onto the floor – not even of any use to his feet – sort of like Chevy Chase’s character, Dusty Bottoms, in Three Amigos  when he takes a drink from his canteen, swishes it around, spits it out, and tosses his canteen to the dry, cracked earth as the remaining water gushes out onto the ground while his buddies are dying of thirst. Not totally self-absorbed, he does offer his friends lip balm.
Judas, not paying attention to much, but knows money when he smells it. While money has been studied and determined to be among the absolute dirtiest of human possessions, we all know the smell and have probably heard someone say, “I love the smell of money.” I worked at a bank for two years during college and the money bags I would count of deposits from the McDonalds and the convenience store down the street about knocked me out every time I opened the bag. Whew. But, you know the smell. One writer said, “Cash is what defines us as a species. Nothing else in the universe has money.” Well… Mary’s not rubbing Ben Franklins between Jesus’ toes but the fragrance she dumps over his feet overpowers what Martha’s got cooking on the stovetop. Judas knows enough to know that smell is worth way more than what he hopes to win in his office’s tourney pool. Is Mary being extravagant in her generosity? Or is she being irresponsibly wasteful? That’s the question of debate for today.
Mary takes the costliest possession she has and spends it all on Jesus. Love is not love if it nicely calculates the cost. It gives its all and its only regret is that it has not still more to give. In her estimation, this is the absolute best thing she can do for this man, this friend, this one who brought her brother back to life – this person she has likely come to believe to be the Messiah for which her people have long awaited. And so, without hesitation, she gives it all to Jesus. Now, did she have buyer’s remorse the next day… or even sooner… saying, “I immediately regret that decision.” Nothing to indicate that. She’s confident in her love of Jesus, her offering to him. Judas, however, immediately cries, “Waste! You fool!” Judas spouts off saying, “Do you know what we could have done for the poor with the money we could have pocketed from selling that perfume?” Judas was the treasurer of the Disciples not-for-profit ministry. Jesus gave him the position – maybe as a way of saying, “Judas, here’s something that you can do for me. Here is proof that I need you and want you to be a part of this.” There seems to be some sense that Judas was insecure in the whole thing – maybe needing some affirmation, some role of importance. He was probably good with numbers and business. And this may have made money – or the love of money – greed perhaps? – among his greatest temptations. Some have called this the law of temptation. Brooke Foss Wescott, biblical scholar, speaks to this saying, “Temptation commonly comes through that for which we are naturally fitted.” If you’re good with money, you may regard money as the most important thing in the world. If you have a particular gift, your greatest temptation may be to become conceited about that gift. Temptation may have struck him at the point of his special gift. This isn’t to pick on Judas – we may all fight similar temptations in our own lives. Judas calls it like he sees it – a terrible waste.
What we see truly depends on what is inside of us. We see only what we are fit and able to see. If we like someone – that person can do very little wrong in our eyes. If we dislike him or her – we may misinterpret even their most upstanding action. We do this in partisan and arm-chair politics all of the time. Or a neighbor you are suspicious of stops and helps you change your flat tire but all you can think is – “What are you up to you no-good sneak?” Before you know it, you’ve convinced yourself that they didn’t tighten the wheel nuts on the new tire to sabotage your next car ride – certain to lead you off the cliff to a fiery death. A warped mind brings a warped view of things. If we find ourselves becoming very critical of others and projecting unworthy motives on them, we should, for a moment, stop examining them and start examining ourselves. Generosity? Wasteful extravagance? Is it worth a deeper look into our own motives?
I do wonder about that. Matthew, Mark and Luke – the other three canonical Gospel writers – share a story we call “The Rich, Young Ruler.” It’s about a guy who comes to Jesus and says, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” What are the bare requirements to sneak into heaven through the side door? Jesus says, “Well – you know – keep the commandments – that sort of thing.” Rich young guy pulls out his perfect attendance in Sunday School card and smiles with assurance that he’s nailed the commandments. But Jesus sees something in the young man’s eyes. And so, Jesus focuses a bit more and says, “You know – what you need to do is go, sell everything you have and give the proceeds to the poor.” Silence. Nothing but blank stares. Then the young man turns and walks away. Why? The text says, “He was sad because he had so much great stuff.” In those stories, Jesus seems to say what Judas was saying to do with the perfume. “Sell it. Give it to the poor.” Why does Jesus see it differently in Mary’s case? It’s got to deal with motive. What is your greatest motive in life? What is keeping you from greater union with the Spirit of Christ and from loving your neighbor as yourself? When you’re critical of another for the way they spend their money or act or talk or whatever – is it because of your humble and deep connection with Jesus or is it jealousy, greed, selfishness? I’m not here to judge… I’m just here to raise the question… and first and foremost for my own consideration. When Jesus snaps back at Judas – “Leave her alone. The poor will always be with you. She’s preparing me for burial,” I don’t think he’s saying, “Forget the poor – you’ll never solve that issue.” He may be saying with a raised eye-brow, “Judas – you’ve got plenty of money in your bank account right now that you can give to the poor. But will you? Do you really expect us to believe you’re terribly concerned for the poor?” Jesus may also be saying, “Your daily task is to remember and care for the poor, the least of these. This moment, however, is one of the very last we’ll ever have.”
Mary seems to know this is a sacred time… a limited moment with Jesus. And there is this great truth about life that Mary seems to capture in this moment. Some things we can do almost any time, but some things we will never do unless we grasp the chance when it comes. You have that tug and desire to do something fine and generous and big-hearted but you put it off – “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and the impulse goes and the thing is never done. Life is an uncertain thing. We think to utter some word of thanks or praise or love but we put it off; and often the word is never spoken. Mary seizes the moment to honor all she feels, to share tribute to the one she will claim as Lord. And Jesus sees her motive and honors it graciously in return. She generously cares for the gift of Jesus and tangibly offers care for his body – his feet – something she can do to show honor. You may think you don’t have much to share – but generosity, with the right motive and offered humbly – is of greater worth than any one sum of money. Jesus’ feet, which would soon be marked by the human tools of death, were being treated as the most valuable things Mary had ever encountered.
There is a group called ZAKA, literally Hebrew for Disaster Victim Identification, that is a set of voluntary teams, most whom are Orthodox Jews in Israel, who aid in the identification of the victims of terrorism, road accidents and other disasters and wherever necessary to gather body parts and spilled blood for proper burial in accordance with their faith, the Jewish law. They wear yellow vests and show up quickly in response to terrorism and other tragic deaths to honor the dead. They even collect the bodies and body parts of non-Jews, including the suicide bombers for return to their families. The extended ZAKA name, in Hebrew, actually can be translated, “true kindness” which is a fitting designation as the deceased beneficiaries of the kindness are left unable to return the kindness. A horrific and beautiful thing all at once.
Mitch Albom, in his book “Have a Little Faith,” spends time with his childhood rabbi – who at 82 years old asks Mitch to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. Albom feels utterly ill equipped and unworthy to do such a thing but after the rabbi’s insistence, agrees to do so insisting himself that they spend some important time together. In one of their conversations, Rabbi, whom Albom lovingly calls Reb speaks to the horror of our time – the wars, the bombings, the hate. Reb says, “But Mitch, even in this new age of horror, you can find small acts of human kindness. Something I saw a few years ago on a trip to Israel to visit my daughter. It sticks with me to this day. I was sitting on a balcony. I heard a blast. I turned around and saw smoke coming from a shopping area. It was one of these terrible bombs. Car bombs. I went from the apartment as fast as I could, and as I arrived, a car pulled up in front of me. And a young fellow jumps out. He is wearing a yellow vest, so I followed him.” When I get to the scene, I see the car that has been blown up. A woman was apparently doing laundry; she was one of the people killed. And there, in the street…” he swallowed. “There… in the street… were people picking up her body pieces. Carefully. Collecting anything. A hand. A finger.” He looked down. “They were wearing gloves, and moving very deliberately, a piece of a leg here, skin there, even the blood. You know why? They were following religious law, which says all pieces of the body must be buried together. They were putting life over death, even in the face of this… atrocity… because life is what God gives us, and how can you just let a piece of God’s gift lie there in the street?” This was part of the ZAKA group I mentioned before. Reb continued. “I cried when I saw that. I just cried. The kindness that takes. The belief. Picking up pieces of your dead. This is who we are. This beautiful faith.”
Generosity? Wasted effort? True kindness? Pure motive? Were they preparing these people, made in the image of God, for their burial? Just as Jesus said Mary was doing for him? Can you imagine? What do you think? Judas scoffed. Mary trusted. Jesus received. What are we going to do? I don’t have all of the answers. But that true kindness thing? Generosity? There seems to be something to that when it comes to following Christ. And I know Mary’s extravagance may seem extreme. You may never in your lifetime meet anybody who takes Jesus that seriously. But I felt obligated to bring it up to you today, because once in a while somebody does, and I had the feeling it just might be you.
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 http://old.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/canonizationtext.cfm?Number=34. This story is told with slightly different angles depending on the source. One such source is found here.
 This note and other exegetical commentary utilized in this message as derived from William Barclay’s Commentary The Gospel According to John: Volume 2. Westminster Press. 1975.
 Have a Little Faith. Mitch Albom. Hyperion. New York. 2009. Pg. 87-88.