FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT
Prayer of the Day: Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John 12:5
So said Judas as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” worth more than $300 denarii. To put all of this in context, a single denarius was the measure of an average day’s labor in First Century Judea. The cash value of Mary’s perfume was not inconsequential. While Judas’ motives here were surely not pure as the driven snow, you have to admit that he makes a valid point. He could even find support for that point in scripture:
“Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!” Amos 6:4-6
Then, as now, families are starving to death while Jesus is getting himself a $43,318 foot massage.
Of course, there are other measures of value, other aspects of what we call the “economy.” The word “economy” derives from the classical Greek word οίκος meaning “household” and νέμoμαι meaning “manage.” As everyone knows, there is far more to running a household than simply managing the budget. A family lives by values of love, loyalty, common history and tradition having little or no financial significance. Relationships of trust, skills in parenting, religious practices and shared family stories inspire, shape and inform the way a household lives as much or more than its income and expenses. Far more important than a household’s wealth or the lack thereof is the quality of life experienced by its members, both individually and as a family. A household (economy) in which members are treated unjustly, unequally or without regard for their needs is a disfunctional one.
Sadly, our contemporary American culture is largely blind to any value that can’t be measured in dollars and cents. Not surprisingly, then, our discussion about economic issues seldom gets beyond “cost benefit analyses.” Like Judas, we cannot think or talk about economics apart from money. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our leaders’ recent move to defund the Special Olympics. It is doubtful this event will ever turn a profit, enhance national security or stimulate the economy in any appreciable way. Its value lies in the way it empowers, encourages and inspires persons with special needs to excel, to take pride in themselves and their accomplishments. These results are invaluable, but impossible to measure in terms of money. So, it is not surprising that, in an era of perceived scarcity, the number crunchers whose job it is to balance the budget (on paper anyway) would elect to pull the plug on this program that requires funding but does not generate cash at least equal to that funding. So too, what benefit does society receive from teaching children to play musical instruments or dance or paint? We know that the vast majority will never become accomplished professionals. Wouldn’t money poured into the arts be better spent on improving science labs, purchasing computers for student use or even something as mundane as fixing the roof leaks in our school facilities? Indeed, isn’t art the plaything of a privileged class with the leisure and resources to enjoy it? What is a symphony to a starving child?
There are two fatal flaws with all of this reasoning. First, it assumes a universe of scarcity. Judas and people like him are convinced that the world is a shrinking pie. You need to grab your piece and hang on, because there is not enough for everybody. Despite his pious expression of concern for the poor, we know that Judas’ true concern is for Judas. You want to save the world? Then start with the one person you actually can save-yourself. After all, isn’t that really what “America First” is all about? Isn’t that what our Dear Leader (a/k/a the president of the United States) has been telling us from day one? There are not enough jobs, enough food, enough room in this country even for us, and what little remains is about to be taken away from us by dark skinned immigrants who speak a different language and practice a different religion. Strong women are undermining our manhood just as the growing influence of Black, Asian and Latino persons in positions of leadership are taking away the white, Christian America we thought we knew. Donald Trump appealed precisely to these fears of scarcity and loss laced with racism, announcing: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”
Disciples of Jesus should know, as Judas would have known had he been attentive to Jesus’ words and works, that our God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Though it is true that there is not enough in this world (or in the entire universe) to satisfy human greed, there surely is enough to satisfy human need. One has to wonder, did Judas forget how Jesus provided enough wine to float an aircraft carrier for a little wedding at which the libations seemed to have run dry? Did Judas forget how Jesus fed that hungry crowd of over five thousand with just a few loaves and fishes? Did he so quickly erase from his mind Jesus’ filling the dead body of Lazarus with life? Did he really think the reign of God was so poor and threadbare that it could not spare time for some simple play that generates no cash, but lightens the heart and invigorates the body? Did he imagine that the business of feeding the hungry leaves no room for song or dance? Is this world God created so impoverished that it can’t afford to allow a woman’s expression of love for Jesus in offering him lavish hospitality?
Judas’ economy leaves no room for God’s generosity and provision. He would have us believe that economics is a matter of lifeless, mechanical principles that operate best when irrelevant factors such as compassion are kept out of the way. He would convince us that we must choose between meeting our bare needs for survival and showing lavish kindness to the people in our lives. Not so. Judas is wrong. And so are all those clamoring to close our borders to refugees, strip food assistance and medical care from the poor and scuttle programs like the Special Olympics. The arguments supporting such measures derive from Judas’ flawed and truncated economics-an economics too many have accepted uncritically as “the American way.” All who follow Jesus must recognize Judas’ economics for what they really are: a thinly disguised excuse for unbelief. Furthermore, although our myopic fixation on money valuation might blind us to this fact, play, song, graphic and performing arts as well as lavish hospitality with meals, entertainment and simple acts of kindness are vital to human well-being and to every viable human economy.
I think it is significant that our gospel lesson constitutes one of relatively few stories about Jesus found in all four of the gospels. Though the details differ, Jesus makes the same point here as in the other gospels. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is heard to say of the woman who anointed him, “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” Mark 14:9. The irony here is that the woman remains anonymous in Mark’s account. But that only serves to illustrate the point: The value of this woman’s small act of kindness is incommensurate with any monetary measure.
I can only speculate as to why the story of this woman’s act, which is incidental to the over all plot, is so elevated in all four gospels. Could it be that Jesus was on the verge of giving up? Could it be that his disciples’ continued failure to understand him, the growing opposition to his ministry and the increasing probability of his death in Jerusalem had nearly convinced him his mission had failed? Is it possible that Jesus was about ready to call it quits and return to Galilee? Was Mary’s faithful act of hospitality, compassion and devotion the tipping point? Was it the simple act of love that brought everything back into focus for Jesus and reminded him what was at stake?
Nobody, myself included, can answer these questions. But perhaps it is enough to say that human actions changing the course of history do not always take the form of sweeping programmatic reforms, groundbreaking legislation or inspired political campaigns. Sometimes history is made by ordinary people showing ordinary kindness in ordinary ways to someone who desperately needs a little kindness. How many such persons were there, I wonder, in the lives of St. Paul, St. Augustine, Saint Teresa of Ávila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr.? You can’t measure compassion in dollars or cents. Yet Jesus assures us that it is of infinite and eternal worth to the economy of the Kingdom whenever and however expressed.
In the following poem, Diane Wakoski describes the gift of music given her by her mother and how this parental act of love enabled her to thrive even in a toxic family and school environment. The power of love, the power of kindness, the power of music, art, dance and poetry-they don’t have a monetary price take, but they are valuable beyond measure.
Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons
Source: Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987 (C. 1899 by Diane Wakoski, pub. by Black Sparrow Press) Diane Wakoski (b. 1937) is an American poet. associated with the beat poets of the 1960s. She grew up in California and studied at the University of California, Berkeley where she graduated in 1960 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Her poems have been published in more than twenty collections. Her book, Emerald Ice: Selected Poems 1962-1987, won the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America in 1989. You can learn more about Diane Wakoski and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
 To their credit, supporters of this event have pressured the government to reconsider this move and it appears, for the moment at least, that funding for the Special Olympics will remain in the national budget.