The story we hear from John is one that I find filled with challenges for all of us as people who strive to follow Jesus on the Way. Jesus himself feeds people, heals people, comforts people. He tells us that whenever we feed, visit, care for, or provide clothing or shelter for the least of these we do it for God. He calls us to follow in his path of caring for and loving others completely. And yet in this story a woman has just spent an extraordinary amount of money to celebrate Jesus, who he is, what he has done and what he will do. She recognizes that his path is one that will lead to his own destruction and yet to life for so many, and she comes to celebrate and honor that choice. This is a story that is told in all four of the gospels, though slightly differently. In Luke, the woman is not Mary but a “woman of ill repute”, someone who is seen as unclean, unworthy and untouchable. In that version especially, there are parts of the story that we recognize as the way that Jesus always behaves: Jesus is not afraid to talk to or even be touched by a woman that others reject and condemn as sinful and unclean. Jesus honors and lifts up a person whom others would not see except to harm, and would not ever approve of. Jesus empowers, supports, and LOVes a person others saw as the dregs of society. We get that. That is the Jesus I love. That is the Jesus I follow. That is the Jesus I want to be like. But I have to admit, Judas had a point here, too. The nard with which she anointed Jesus represented a great deal of money. And it could have been used for the poor. John discounts Judas’ motives saying that he wanted that money for himself. In the other gospels, it is all of the disciples who are upset at this use of the money, and it is for exactly the reason they say: they think, as any of us might, that this extravagance was a huge waste of money, money that could have served many people.
I preached on a similar passage before when I talked to you about how in the midst of suffering and struggle, God is not only the God of comfort and healing, God is also the God of celebration, of abundance, of JOY. And that is true. We see it in the overflowing of food when he fed the 5000. We see it in the overflowing of wine when he turned the water into wine. We see it in the two old testament passages we read for today. And we see it here as well… “This woman has done a wonderful thing for me! Let her alone.” I shared with you before the story of Dorothy Day, founder off the Catholic worker making a very similar choice when given an expensive diamond ring that she chose to give to a poor woman. The other volunteers at the center condemned her saying that she could have sold that ring and helped many, many people with the money. Dorothy Day responded by saying, “Do you believe Diamonds were only made for the rich?” and we recognize in her words the Jesus who did not condemn the woman who celebrated him with this expensive nard.
But I think Jesus was about something very different in this story.
As I have said before, even God’s celebrations are about lifting up those who are downtrodden. We have Luke 14:13-14 in which Jesus says, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid (at the resurrection of the righteous).” In today’s story, Jesus is lifting up the woman who has been scorned and rejected. Every time there is a celebration, those who previously have not had the opportunity to celebrate and “party” are given that chance. But this story is more, even, than that. While the woman in the story was honoring Jesus, she was also being given the opportunity to give something back. In Jewish practice it is considered a blessing, a Mitzvah, to allow someone to serve you. It is considered an act of service to allow another to serve you, to give something back to you. This is a woman, again, who was rejected by society, according to the other gospels. She would not have been allowed to touch others, to serve others, in any way. But Jesus gives her the gift of allowing her to serve him, to give to him. And he honors that, says her actions will be remembered, and raises her gifts and her offerings up for all to see.
We know from psychological studies that when people are allowed to contribute to what they are given, it impacts them very differently than when they are only served and not allowed to give anything back in exchange. It was for this reason that one of the soup kitchens where I volunteered “charged” those who came a quarter for their meal. This was a token amount and did not begin to make any difference financially for the soup kitchen. But in terms of the esteem and sense of worth of those who came, it made a huge difference. The guests no longer felt they were receiving charity. Instead, they felt that they were paying for something, contributing to their own nourishment, participating in their own lives in a different way than when they were just given food for free. It changed the way they saw the exchange, and we found that many asked to volunteer to prepare and serve the food as well and to give back in other ways, too. They saw themselves as worthy and able enough to contribute when we asked them to “pay” for their meals in some small way. They came to the table as equals: people who had paid for what they were given. And that equality allowed them to offer more, to contribute and care more about what they were giving and doing.
I think this is a practice we need to consider whenever we give someone a gift of our service. During the many years that I have visited people who are “shut ins” or who are in the hospital and convalescent homes, the comment I have heard the most often, and which I hear again and again and again, is that the people in these situations feel useless, pointless. I try to explain to them that they are giving a gift by allowing others to serve them. They have served others many times, and now it is their turn to receive. And while I believe that deeply, I find it is not satisfying for those listening to what I am saying. They often would rather die (and they express this to me in phrases such as "Why am I still alive? There is no reason for me to still be here!") than to live without purpose or meaning. And I have found myself wondering, isn’t there instead a way that we can help even those in the hospital and those who are shut in to “give back”? We can bring those whose hands and arms are still functioning yarn and invite them to knit hats or scarves for various programs and projects. We can bring in birthday cards and ask them to send them to those in the church who are having birthdays this month. We can ask them for advice and listen to their wisdom. We can bring them small hand sewing projects.
Again, the studies show that when people are given the opportunity to be useful, they recover much more quickly and much more fully. When they have a purpose, meaning, a reason – no matter how small – to continue, they make a fuller effort to do exactly that.
I invite you to think for a moment about your own experiences and ask if this isn’t true for you as well. Personally, I am reminded of a time when my church was invited to join other congregations in serving a monthly community meal. We were already serving a monthly community meal in an inner city Presbyterian church, but our local Ecumenical group also served one just down the street and we were encouraged to be part of that as well, to join with our brothers and sisters of all faiths in serving people in our own neighborhood. About ten of us showed up to help, only to find that the woman in charge of the kitchen would not allow any of us to help. She kept saying kind things, “Oh, you all do so much already! Just sit back and let me serve you!” and these words were sweet, sounded generous and helpful, they seemed good and right. But I’ll tell you, all of us left feeling useless, frustrated, pointless in that situation. And none of us returned to help again.
In contrast, when I have visited people in prison, I often hear stories of even the prisoners’ needs to serve in some way, to help, to GIVE in some way. One person told me he would not eat everything from his meal but take the morning bread he was given to feed the birds. He needed that opportunity to give and found it in his own way. He told me that he noticed that several of the other prisoners were feeding the local skunks in the same way, calling “Here kitty, kitty” each morning as the skunks came by – incorporating laughter with their “service”. And while at some level this was just funny, it was also necessary. They found their spirits lifted immensely by this simple act of giving to something else.
I think we get stuck in an ideology of either serving or being served. But this doesn’t help us. We all need to give as much, if not more, than we need to receive. It doesn’t matter how old we are, it doesn’t matter what we have been through, it doesn’t matter what we have done or failed to do, how much we have given or been given in the past. Having purpose, giving to others, serving others, and receiving care – all are vital to our well-being. But sometimes we get stuck in an ideology of competition which serves no one.
"There was a farmer who grew excellent quality corn. Every year he won the award for the best grown corn. One year a newspaper reporter interviewed him and learned something interesting about how he grew it. The reporter discovered that the farmer shared his seed corn with his neighbors. “How can you afford to share your best seed corn with your neighbors when they are entering corn in competition with yours each year?” the reporter asked.
“Why sir,” said the farmer, “Didn’t you know? The wind picks up pollen from the ripening corn and swirls it from field to field. If my neighbors grow inferior corn, cross-pollination will steadily degrade the quality of my corn. If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn.”
So it is with our lives. When we deny education, for example, so some people, all of us are lessened in our wisdom, our insight, our ability to grow and learn more fully. When we deny food to our neighbors, all of us are lessened by not connecting with these others who would bless our lives. And when we deny others the ability to give and to serve, we take away a collective sense of purpose, of meaning, and of true community. The fact is, none of us truly wins, until we all win!
In today’s story, Jesus served the woman, whoever she was, by allowing her to do a good thing for him, by honoring that service and by celebrating it. We are called to do the same. We are not called to just serve others, but to see them for the full humans they are, people in need not only of our love, but people in need of loving as well; people not only in need of being served and cared for, but people in need of serving and caring for others as well. It is a gift to allow another to serve you, whoever they may be. Jesus saw that and recognized that in allowing the woman in today’s story to offer him care. Let us pray to be just as generous in allowing ourselves to be served as well. Amen.