Cost versus Value

We are very familiar with the scene and the characters in today’s gospel. We think we know them. There is much that has been said regarding them. But, none of the details in the story irrefutably support the theories.Theories that have long been perpetuated about who, where and when this scene takes place. Therefore, I propose those things are not as important as what happens.

In order to stick with what happens, we have to remove the judgement and blame put upon Mary and Judas,  clearly a disadvantage for a good storyteller. Even the TV show, “You Are There,” narrated by the most respected journalist of the last century, (can anyone name who it was?) Yes, Walter Cronkite. He tried to say, “This is what happened,” but couldn’t do it without dramatically recreating the events. Today, we are obsessed with images captured by phone and mounted cameras, but we still can’t seem to get to the truth of what happens.

Let’s see if I can convey what happened without editorializing. Let’s envision Mary going through airport security. As her carry-on item was being examined by a person wearing  blue latex gloves, officials pulled her aside. It was determined that Mary was in possession of an unusual volume of amber-colored oil. The liquid substance was well over twice the 3.4 oz limit, closer to  eleven. Alabaster jar included, the value declared was equal to what TSA workers made in a year.  As Mary proceeded to a table to  join the rest of her party, she appeared to dump the contents onto Jesus’ feet. She was last observed wiping off the excess with her hair. The entire area near the boarding gate was filled with fragrance.

Suspicions arose. A fellow traveller said, “Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” His words were directly quoted, yet selectively chosen to appear in the story. The idea of questioning why Jesus would allow anything other than what the observer thought right is introduced. Not only does the observer question the motives of persons involved, but they suggest they themselves know better. Like a pundit, Judas states what should have been done instead of what actually happened.

Eyewitness testimony is fallible. Only God knows people’s hearts and minds. You and I don’t know what it’s like to live or work in a crime-ridden neighborhood where trust cannot be afforded. Most of us are not first generation immigrants fleeing political or gang wars. Some of you grew up in poverty and rose above it. You kind of understand how people act in desperation. If you were denied the right to education and employment, you might understand what drives people to action. If you have ever had to take on the responsibility of protecting other lives with your own, you understand hindsight.

The gospel story was written in hindsight and highly editorialized. In art, traits ascribed to two different Marys in the Bible have been blended into one. The identities of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany are melded into one grateful, penitent spirit devoted to Jesus. Painting such “a picture” of Mary’s attempts to answer Judas’, “Why?” What Mary did made absolute sense given who she was. With her background, her behavior was to be expected.

Another portrait is painted of Judas. Only after the crucifixion is Judas accused of being a thief while acting as treasurer. Forever labelled the betrayer, his motives will be forever doubted. Was Judas more suspect than any other lobbyist?

The point is, every society resembles both Mary and Judas. All nations stand together on a spectrum of good and bad motives, and share a history of both virtue and selfishness. We all carry ambivalence regarding who has the power to choose and do what.

Jesus’ reply affects persons represented by both Mary and Judas. “Don’t condemn. People’s backgrounds influence their decisions. I see that both of you have worked hard and saved. See a cause greater than yourselves.”

When Jesus says,“ She bought it so she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Jesus knows his fate, but Mary does not. She only knows that what she possessed was of great value. She offers to give it away out of love, hoping it will serve a greater purpose.

My old church hosted a disaster relief auction. If you were willing to donate something worth over a hundred dollars, you were to meet with the member/auctioneer and let them know what the minimum bid should be. I handed over my grandmother’s rare teal colored, magnolia-adorned Roseville vase, because like Mary, I was willing to pour out my oil. In her place, I would have been flattered when both Judas and Jesus recognized the value of my sacrifice.

But unlike Mary, I became secretly angry when I found out that the vase went for half its value. I didn’t know who I was more mad at: the auctioneer who didn’t recognize its value or the person bidding that did, and knew they were getting a steal. Unlike Mary, I wasn’t in a humble state. Like Judas, I thought the gift was going to waste since it wasn’t traded for its full value.

John points to what Mary does, not who she is. Her actions are wholly unselfish signs of giving something she acquired over a long period of time all to Jesus. Mary dedicated the most valuable thing she had to a single use, even though it made no practical sense.

We have long emphasized the cost of the oil. In the song by CeCe Winans, the refrain is sung from Mary’s perspective, “You don’t know the cost of the oil, in my alabaster box.” Years after the song came out, I too had been shunned. When the song came on the radio, I turned up the volume. The words spoke to me. I had come to identify with anyone who had made choices that caused others to speak in anger, and whisper, “There’s no place here for her kind.” When she sang, “ Don’t be angry if I wash his feet with my tears, and I dry them with my hair,” I sang loudly, directing the lyrics to every self-righteous Christian.

My life during that time was clearly being offered as a form of sacrificial penitence. As I sang, “You don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box. You don’t know the cost of my praise,” tears ran down my cheeks. I knew where Mary and CeCe were coming from.

I had suffered. I was grateful. I had been healed by the love of my husband. I cried more as I sang, “You weren’t there the night He found me. You did not feel what I felt when He wrapped his loving arms around me. You don’t know the cost of the oil in my alabaster box,” my audience  still anyone who misjudged me.

Years later, my understanding of God reframed the audience. As I looked out to see the people I usually sang to, no one was looking at me. The voice I heard wasn’t even my own. “What’s going on?” I thought.  I had earned the oil through my suffering. I was willing to pour it out on others. As new tears fell, I realized that it was me who didn’t know the cost of the oil.

It was Jesus singing, “You don’t know the cost of the oil. You don’t know the cost of my praise. I was there the night I found you. I did feel what you felt when I wrapped my loving arms around you. You don’t know the cost of the oil in that alabaster box.” 

When we realize the price Jesus paid and the fact that God holds nothing back, it’s overwhelming. There is no limit to the ways Jesus reaches out and tries to connect with us, or hopes we’ll reach out to each other. Jesus is present in ways it may take years to acknowledge.

Acknowledgment is key to fully appreciate Lutheran theology. Since Scripture records Jesus saying, “This is my body, and this is my blood,” we believe Jesus meant what he said. We believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the bread and wine of Communion. We have Jesus in our midst and are witnesses no less than if we had been watching Mary and overhearing Judas. We encounter the very same presence of God. What an awesome thought. Jesus told them, “You do not always have me,” but not because he was going away in every sense of being present.  

It is incomprehensible to accept the cost of the gift Jesus offers us. That’s why we need to hear the words, “The body of Christ, given for you, the blood of Christ, shed for you.” “For you,” silences the voice of Judas, who questions everyone’s motives, even God’s.  The answer to every,” Why?” is not condemnation. God’s answer is always love, offered, given and poured out without weighing or examining the cost. And, “that’s the way it is, Sunday, April the 7th, 2019.”  Amen.

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Vicar Nancy Brody

Vicar, 2018-2019

Nancy Brody was called to serve as pastor of Messiah Parish in Halifax, PA. Her congregations are named Messiah Lutheran Church (Fisherville) and St. Peter (Fetterhoff’s).

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