Monday, January 24, 2011

Lent 5, 2010

Last week, as you will likely recall, our Gospel Reading was the familiar tale of the ‘prodigal son.’ This parable of Jesus in which a young man demands his half of his inheritance, and burns through it in wasteful living—‘prodigal living’ as it were…
The story ends, then, with the long awaited return of this son, who is greeted by his father, and his reluctant older brother. In the end, the return is marked as a festal occasion, and a grand celebration is given in honor of the son’s return.
This word, ‘prodigal’, because of its particularly well-known usage in this story, has come to only be defined as wasteful, and careless. However, the word prodigal also means extravagance or profuse generosity. So, were we to commend the father’s loving response to his son’s return, we may also consider him a kind of prodigal himself. In such a case, we see extravagance as an out-pouring of love, rather than a wasteful misuse of one’s resources. This is the kind of prodigality that we see in Mary as she anoints the feet of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading.
We do not need the help of the Gospel writer to explain to us that something extraordinary is happening in this story. Mary’s act is not simply obeisance to an honored guest, but we are not led to believe that she is fully aware of what it is that she does, either. What is clear is that this act of hers is one of deep love and devotion to Jesus. Likewise, once we realize the expense of the oil; we begin to see at what cost her offering is given. But what speaks to the mystery of this moment is the great show of humility, as Mary wipes the teacher’s feet with her hair. It is then that we recognize not an act of hospitality, but one of sacrifice.
What could have been the thoughts of the disciples? Perhaps there was an initial feeling of anxiety. Why would she do such a thing? But, then I imagine, as the place was filled with the scent of perfume; the humility of Mary’s sacrifice made it clear that they had been drawn into sacred space—a space which has been facilitated by this beautiful, generous gift.
We’re given only a brief moment to consider Mary’s act when Judas raises the question: ‘Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?’ Our narrator is quick to point out that this is typical Judas. He is a man that the Gospel writer maligns as a liar and a thief. This man who has become synonymous with betrayal—he whose name has become a moniker for any person given to sinister acts—even here in the Gospel is made a caricature, or even a personification of all that is darkest in the soul.
Therefore it is his very modus operandi to raise a query which might imply the self-same pretense and deceitfulness in others that dwell in his own heart. After all, we’re assured that Judas cared nothing for the poor, and was himself a thief. So, by the merit of his infamous nature, we’re not to be taken in by his false concern.
But now that the question has been raised, we might actually wonder the same thing. While his intent was wrong, Judas still makes an interesting point… Was the cost of this perfumed oil worth the brief moment in which it was used, when it easily could have been sold for the benefit of the poor?
It is a sensible question. In fact, there are some of us who wish that the Gospel writer had spared us the parenthetical statement about Judas. In fact, it seems like a poor attempt at ad hominem logic to discredit the man’s question.
I cannot estimate how much help three hundred danarii might be to the poor in Bethany. But in this context, where Mary has offered such a rich gift, and has displayed such humility to Jesus; we find that we’re missing the point if we linger too long in Judas’ camp.
After all, the oil was not his. It was not something held in common that Judas should have any say about how it should be used. And if we pay attention to the generosity with which Mary offers this expensive oil, or her humility in wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair; we begin to see how Judas missed the point.
It is true that the oil was an expensive gift, however, when given in love and devotion to Jesus, it became a sacrifice. And as is necessary of any true sacrifice, it is always something of great value which is given. This particular sacrifice was Mary’s prodigal act of love, and is one which should challenge us in our own devotion to Jesus Christ.
For most of us, sacrifice is something that we only talk about in abstract terms. Sacrifice is the subject of having to choosing one thing over another or the offering of time in our day. But when we begin talking about those things which are due to God, we become far less comfortable. Somehow talking about giving things over to God sacrificially, and no longer maintaining control or claim on them makes us very nervous. After all, we can always reschedule our time, but to offer something to God is far less superficial.
What is more difficult is that in our call to follow Christ we’re asked to offer nothing less than our whole selves. Perhaps it is because it seems like such a tall order that we rarely think of the high cost of our faith. What we cannot ignore, however, is that by our prayer and participation in the sacraments of the Church, we proclaim ourselves to be living sacrifices to God. By such a proclamation, we say that we are no longer our own, but are marked as Christ’s own forever.
It is far from simple to respond to a call to Christianity, especially when we count the cost of choosing God. But then, Jesus Christ was the cost for God to choose us…
In the end, as a people of faith, how does Mary’s act of love and humility speak to our hearts? What would a life given more generously to God look like? How prodigal might our worship become? How extravagant could our love for Jesus Christ become? It’s my hope, that like Mary, we’re willing to try and find out at any cost.

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