17_her-precious-perfumeSunday, March 17

John 12:1-8

Human beings are not good at valuing things.  If we were, more people would be as wealthy as Warren Buffett. His investment track record is fantastic because he sees value, where most people speculate and move with the herd.  For example, a friend confessed to me over dinner that he invested in an internet company in 1999, and his original $10,000 investment soared in price all the way to $1 million in a few short months.  He was excited, thought about retiring early and just wanted a little more before cashing out.  But the stock price began to slide and soon the tech bubble burst and soon he had less than $10,000 in this stock.  He was crushed and still actually holds the stock hoping it may someday come back again.  Greed kills.  A prudent investor might have sold half at $500,000 mark and let the rest ride risk free.  This man was greedy and looked at price, but not the value of a company that never turned a profit.


Buffett is legendary among investors for figuring out the true value of a company and buying it when other people overlook it.  To do this well you have to be a contrarian and be confident enough to go against the tide.  For example, during the peak of the financial crisis, Buffett started plummet.  Buffet makes his money on boring companies like Hershey’s Chocolate.  Even in a terrible economy Hershey’s sells, and Buffett probably makes a few cents on every kiss we buy.  He knows how to value things.


In a culture that worships cost-benefit analysis, we are often really terrible at figuring out what is really valuable in life.  We want to know the true bottom line.  Sometimes it helps us make better decisions. If we can replace an oil burner with natural gas burner or change some light bulbs and put in motion detector lights, and it pays for itself quickly, it is a “no-brainer” to make that kind of investment.  But we don’t always know how to value things like experience, creativity, human rights, or compassion.  When I lived in Poughkeepsie, I was a foster parent and got to know many wonderful people who managed this program for the county.  With budget cuts looming, the County decided to get rid of long-term unionized workers who were paid a lot more than new workers would be.   So they offered retirement incentives, combined with a message that those who stayed on might face layoffs.  Let me make you and offer you can’t refuse!  So 14 seasoned workers in the foster care department took the buyout, and they were replaced with 8 brand new people who knew very little about what to do.  Not only did the quality of service decline, and child abuse rose, but foster parents began to drop out of the program, kids fell through the cracks, and the county paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra costs to house kids in programs.  I know because the agency I worked for housed them.  The cost/benefit analysis did not know how to value things, like a trained and compassionate social worker vs. a newbie, the retraining costs for new workers, the loss of foster parents, let alone the value of keeping our children safe.


The value of things is an issue in our Gospel lesson this morning.  First, let’s look at what Mary values.  Mary of Bethany is not only the sister of Lazarus, recently risen from the dead by Jesus, she is also the Mary, sister of Martha.  She is the one who is scolded by her sister for not helping with the cooking and cleaning, but instead is sitting with the men listening to Jesus (while being served by the women.)  In that story Mary is acting like a male disciple and it is her sister Martha, not the men, who want to put her back in her place.  Jesus departs from tradition and defends her, though we may wish he also proposed some rearranging of household chores, and invited Martha to sit, while Peter, James and John cleaned up (or at least Bartholomew, he didn’t seem to have anything else to do!).  So Mary of Bethany and Jesus have this positive bond, he has valued her as a person, a disciple, and not just as someone to cook and clean for his visits.


When Lazarus died, Martha met Jesus at the edge of town and chastised him for being too late.  She laid her brother’s death at Jesus’s feet.  He was the great healer, if he had been there, Lazarus would be alive.  In John’s Gospel, it is the raising of Lazarus that incites the religious leadership to plot to kill Jesus. In the prior scene in John 11, the governing Sanhedrin meet because they worry that Jesus is too popular and they will be displaced by the Romans.  Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple, says “Better for one man to die, than the entire nation,” (there’s some cost/benefit analysis) and they plot to arrest and kill Jesus.  So Jesus is shuttling to safe houses to avoid arrest when he comes to Bethany.


Mary seems to understand the irony that giving life back to her brother is what is putting Jesus’s own life at risk.  So she takes this expensive perfume, a pound of nard, which was an oil from the root of a plant that grows in the mountains of Northern India.  Was this purchased to use in burial for Lazarus?  That would make Mary’s ritual all the more startling and prophetic.  One does not anoint the feet of a living person.  Putting perfume on the feet is the first act of the ritual of preparing a body for burial.  If you want to honor someone, you anoint their head.  Is it Mary who truly understands the storm clouds around Jesus, and sees that he is in grave danger?  It is an act of sorrow, and of honoring his courage to continue on in the face of death threats.  She knew the value of his sacrifice.


The impact on those watching might be like Rosa Parks coming to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis and perfuming his feet for burial just days before he is shot.  I imagine Ralph Abernathy and Andy Young trying to pull her to her feet, “Come on now sister, there is no need for that.  Hey, don’t let the cameras see her, we have a strike going on here.”  Martin interrupts, “Let her be.  There will always be other strikes and boycotts, brothers.  This is in case I don’t see the Promised Land.”


What does Judas value?   He says what many of us might say.  What a waste!  That would have fetched 300 pieces of silver, almost a year’s wages.  We could have helped the poor with that money.  Judas is Mr. Cost/ Benefit analysis here.  He claims to value “the poor” yet a few days later he will put the value of Jesus’s life at 30 pieces of silver, just a tenth of the value of Mary’s nard she used to anoint his feet.  It’s hard to penetrate Judas’s thinking here.  I think Jesus Christ Superstar is close.  Judas is often associated with a radical nature. Iscariot is not his last name, but a word meaning dagger.  He may have been associated with those who would assassinate Roman collaborators.  Was he a disappointed revolutionary, disenchanted with Jesus and with raising the status of women and loving your neighbor, forgiving your enemies, when the focus should be on overthrowing Rome?  Was he like Malcolm X, who wanted a more radical confrontation that MLK, to take a harder line?  Is it just “the cause” that is ultimately most valuable?


What does Jesus value?  At first we may be puzzled at Jesus’s response that “the poor will always be with you?”  This is often quoted out of context to justify not being charitable. Why bother, you can never overcome poverty?  But that isn’t what Jesus meant.  Jesus is being the rabbi here, quoting Deuteronomy 15:11,

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

In other words, “Yes Judas, we must remember the needs of the poor as scripture says, but you won’t always have me.”  Any good Rabbi of Jesus’s day would have pointed out that there are two kinds of good works, acts of mercy, which included paying for a burial that a poor family could not afford; and acts of justice, such as giving alms for the poor. Acts of mercy were held to be of the higher value.  Thus Jesus honors Mary’s gift over Judas’s call for giving to the poor.



What does Jesus call us to value in this story?  Jesus values much of what is important to us.  He values the intangibles that make life worth living – compassion, kindness, love.  Jesus values justice, inclusion, removing barriers between people, feeding the hungry.  Jesus would probably love much of what we love here at First Churches – community, the beauty of the sanctuary, the time and energy we give here.  But there is something more, something that Judas didn’t clearly get.  Most of all, Jesus calls us to value the astonishing appearance of the presence of God in our midst.  When the spirit of God is present, love conquerors sin and death.  As the forces of human hubris and evil circled around Jesus, seeking to take his physical life, he was pouring out as much of the life-giving spirit of God that he could.  Jesus embodies God’s announcement in Isaiah, “Behold, I am about to do a new thing.” God’s new thing for us is so astonishing it can only be described as a resurrection from death to life.


Where are we being made alive in the places we felt dead?  Where is love conquering strife?  Where is joy overcoming sorrow?  Where is the spirit of God making all things new in our lives?  Where is resurrection, death to live, happening now?  Where you see the possibilities of new life, take your expensive perfume and break it open.  Let its fragrance be a sign to everyone around of what is truly of value.



What does Jesus call us to value in this story?  That may be different for each of us here.  What things do you improperly value because it is hard to put a price tag on it?  Is there a place in your life where cost-benefit analysis runs amuck?