I began to allude to this last week but I’ll just go ahead say it this morning: to understand my Mema and what made her tick you have to understand just how…thrifty she was. I’ll say thrifty because I put these sermons online now and my family is reading them and would be offended if I said cheap. She was incredibly thrifty, she didn’t like to spend money unnecessarily. For the last, at least ten probably more, years of her life she lived on a dollar and thirty-two cents a day. She would go to lunch at Burger King with her sister and order a ninety-nine cent chicken finger sandwich and a senior drink. I was there the day they had to inform her that the senior drink was no longer free and would instead cost her a quarter: she walked out of the Burger King! She literally walked out and told them she was never coming back. Her boycott failed when she realized all the local fast food establishments had changed their senior drink policy but still, she walked out over a quarter. So she’d get her sandwich and eat the chicken and the bottom half of the bun. The top bun she’d wrap up in napkins and take home to eat for breakfast the next day. Supper was either cereal or something she’d cooked leftover, that was her routine, one dollar and thirty-two cents daily. She bought things in bulk, I promise you this is true: she had so much toilet paper in her house when she died that my uncle took it and, with four college age and up people living in his house, did not buy anymore for over a year.
She didn’t like to spend money. She especially didn’t like to waste money. Particularly when it came to food, if she bought something then by golly you were going to eat every bite. To not do so would be to throw money down the drain.
My sister was very concerned about this “money down the drain,” thing, she didn’t want to be accused of it. So one night we were eating at Mema’s and Rebecca hid the food she didn’t want to eat under the table. We left without it being found, it was at least the next day. Mema didn’t like to waste money, and that came to a real head when she went to something other than fast food restaurants where drinks were not included in the meal, because she wasn’t about to pay a dollar for a coke when water was free. This led, once again, to a conflict with me and my childhood obesity because I wanted a coke. So in one corner you had the woman who grew up one of seven children during the Great Depression and managed to raise three boys after her husband died and in the other was me with my addiction to high fructose corn syrup. She desperately wanted me to understand that by drinking water at the restaurant I could save a dollar, and that would be one more dollar that I could have for whatever I wanted. To prove her point she started offering me a dollar if I ordered water. My response was that I didn’t want a dollar I wanted a coke.
“Well you’re not getting a coke, that’s a waste of a dollar.”
“If you’re willing to give me a dollar anyway why won’t you just spend it on a coke?”
“That’s not the point.”
“But either way you’re losing a dollar.”
As you can probably guess I ended up without a coke or a dollar. I’d like to say we only had exchange once but her ghost would probably haunt me for lying from the pulpit. The Corley’s are a somewhat of a stubborn people, so that same fight happened again and again. She eventually ratted me out to my parents and I was given a talking to about back talking my grandmother where I continued to profess my innocence and explain that if she was going give the dollar away I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have a coke. My dad tried to explain to me that it wasn’t really about the dollar, she was trying to teach me a lesson about whether things are worth what they cost. And I allowed as how her lesson didn’t make any sense, at which point I was told to order water and keep my mouth shut.
In our text this morning we see a lesson from Jesus about the difference in the cost of something and its value. All four gospels share the story of Jesus’ anointing but John is the one who fills in details that the others leave out. We find out that the anointing takes place in Bethany, presumably at a dinner thrown by Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. That’s a kind thing for them to do considering that it was not that long beforehand that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. The family fits in nicely to the roles that we’d expect from them if we remember other instances where they show up. Martha is serving. She’s in the kitchen making sure everything is coming together, she’s running back and forth seeing if anyone needs a refill and making sure everyone is comfortable, she’s working hard at being the perfect hostess to show her appreciation for what Jesus has done for her family. Lazarus, only recently back among the living, is taking his opportunity to mingle and relax, to enjoy the new life that he has been given, to be in Jesus’ presence and soak up all he can from this person who brought him from death to life. And then there’s Mary. As is the case with another dinner we read about in Scripture Mary isn’t in the kitchen with her sister helping to serve. Instead she finds another way to show her gratitude to the person who brought back her brother. She took a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, poured it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped it away with her hair. And don’t miss this – the entire house filled with the fragrant perfume. Remember back to the protest that came from the sisters when Jesus called for Lazarus’ tomb to be opened: as King James phrased it “my Lord, he doth stinketh.” The stench of death is gone from this house, in its place is the fragrance of life, a beautiful, powerful smell that fills the entire room.
It should be a beautiful scene of a family who has received a miracle showing their gratitude and things to the one who performed it for them, but the happy moment isn’t allowed to define the dinner. Judas raises a question, this perfume was expensive, it was worth an entire year’s work, if Mary wasn’t going to keep it why waste it, so much good could have been done if it was sold and the money used for the poor. Now John then goes to great lengths to prove that Judas is a hypocrite, that his supposed concern for the poor is more about making himself rich than anything else but I want to hold off on that for moment and focus on the two responses without that information impacting them, because what I believe we see here is a debate being played out between the cost of something and the value of it.
The perfume costs a great deal. It could be sold and bring in a great return and with it a lot of good things could be done. But it has value beyond that. Its value is in the words of Jesus in verse 7, it “was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” The value of the perfume is that Mary knows how much it is worth and uses it to show her devotion to Jesus. She isn’t concerned about the cost, she doesn’t focus on the dollar values, she gives the best thing she has to show where Jesus ranks in her life.
Its interesting, in just a few chapters Jesus will wash his disciples feet and give them the command to do the same for each other as a sign of their love, the sign by which people will know that they are followers of Christ. Mary has done it before the command is even given. In this act by Mary we see the outpouring of love that John declares to be the hallmark of discipleship and the recognition of who Jesus is that John showcases as the essential mark of Christian life. The power of Mary’s story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without having to be told. She fulfils Jesus command to love before he gives it, she recognizes that “his hour” is coming before he explains it to the disciples, she gives freely out of love before Jesus gives the example on the cross. In a season where we celebrate God’s calling on all people regardless particularly of gender, its significant that the first person to get what discipleship is about is woman whose society would have said could not even be a disciple. Mary reminds us that disciples are not necessarily those with a title who are deemed worthy, but those who love Christ and live out that love regardless of cost.
I want to return to Judas for just a second. If Mary shows us the right way to be a disciple, Judas shows us the opposite. What’s interesting though is he uses the right words, he gives the right impression of discipleship: “let’s not waste that perfume, thank of all the good we could do if we sold it and used the profit for the poor.” Judas is good at feigning righteous anger on behalf of the less fortunate. He does a great job of giving lip service to acting out of love. But the reality is that he steals from the money jar. Judas uses the poor as a means of enriching himself, he feigns discipleship and devotion to Jesus’ teachings as a way to improve his own position. He pretends to care about the poor in public but steals from them in private. He follows Jesus around and declares himself to be a disciple but he is taken aback by an act of devotion towards Jesus. He calls himself a follower but the seeds that will lead him to betray Jesus have already been planted.
We see two examples of disciples in this story. One has the title but none of the devotion. The other has the devotion but can’t begiven the title. One is concerned with the cost of things. The other knows their value. One gives lip service to acting in love. The other does it without having to be told. One is an example of shouting empty words while only caring about our own bottom line. The other is an example for us to go and do likewise. One will abandon and betray Jesus. The other will see him resurrected and tell others what happened. Where does our focus lie? Do we focus on the cost or do we focus on the value? Do we scream loudly in public but do nothing in private? Are we more worried about what we might gain in following Christ than what we can give as his follower? Are we truly living the lives of disciples or have we just accepted the title?