The manifesto of extravagant generosity

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
22 Mar 2010

Lectionary texts: John 12.1-8, Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126.

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair… But Judas Iscariot said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’” – John 12.4, 5.

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Not so long ago, a friend of mine was involved in a door-to-door neighbourhood collection for a well know international development charity. Going to the largest house on the street she was greeted with a frosty stare and the recitation of that well-known rebuttal: “No thank you. I believe charity begins at home.” Bright as a button, she replied. “That’s fine. Perhaps you’d be interested in supporting a local organisation working with homeless people, then?” Another frown. “By home, I mean mine, not someone else’s.”

That gets to the nub of it. What this particular householder meant, of course, was not that charity begins at home, but that for them it ends there. It’s one of those phrases that has often been used with scant regard for its actual meaning – just as the word ‘charity’ has come to imply giving a bit away when we feel like it, rather than developing a community of mutual support, gift exchange and genuine concern for our neighbours. This is what it denoted in many early Christian communities, where contributing to a common purse was about creating an economy of and for all, not skimming a bit off the top for those 'less fortunate', while we satiate ourselves.

In today’s Gospel reading [1], we see the difference between a self-serving attitude to wealth and one rooted in abundance and generosity. Indeed, to understand the story of Mary and her costly jar of perfume, and Jesus’ famous response to the manipulative criticism she received, we also need to get a handle on the promise of the realm of God that Jesus proclaimed and embodied in his life, death and risen life – what might be termed “God’s transforming invitation to excess.”

Now it has to be said that “excess” is not the first thing most of us associate with Lent, or for that matter with this sub-season of Passiontide, the two weeks preparing for Holy Week. In Germany, Passion Sunday is even called Black Sunday in some churches, because its liturgical actions remind us of the impending envelopment of the darkness of the Cross, when the forces of death, violence and division claimed Jesus and appeared to have conquered him. How in this moment can we possibly talk of excess or abundance? How can we really celebrate Mary’s wild extravagance in the midst of torment and want? Doesn’t Judas have a point?

Well, the Gospel writer is naturally quick to point out that (rather like those who seek to evade the claim of their neighbour by lauding a charity that it is claimed begins at the household, when actually it stops there) Judas is condemning Mary’s act of excess towards Jesus, and claiming a virtuous concern for the poor, precisely in order to detract attention away from his own dodgy financial dealings and his failure to support a common treasury.

But Jesus will have none of it. This gesture of love is not to be denied. Indeed, in Mark’s version (14.3-9) of the same or a similar story, where the woman is unidentified and the objectors are the disciples as a whole – not just the one we know will be the betrayer, and from whom we can therefore conveniently distance ourselves – Jesus gives this act of perfumed abandon an extraordinary, beacon status. “Truly I tell you,” he says, “wherever the Good News is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (There is a further parallel in Matthew 26. 6 -13.)

Note that the phrase is not “in remembrance of me”, but “in remembrance of her.” This woman’s action is dignified beyond all reckoning. Indeed, the phrase “in memory of her” has since become the title of a remarkable book by the theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza [2], which looks at the way in which the nascent movement around Jesus re-ordered the world and opened the way for what she calls an ekklesia of equals, especially in relation to men and women.

This is a vital part of the Gospel story. As Brenda M. Johnson [3] among others points out, many women in Jesus’ era were mostly relegated to the domestic sphere and forbidden to mix socially with men in public. Indeed, they were suspected of lust in any social contact with men and were not allowed to meet even close male relatives unchaperoned. Greetings were not to be exchanged between a man and a woman in public, even through the agency of a third party.

In his dealings with Mary, Martha and many other women, Jesus challenges and reverses this unequal order. In Mark as in John, the woman with the perfume does not speak, but her presence and decisive, reckless action forces those at the table to look at her and, furthermore, to speak to her. The words John attributes to Judas are those of condemnation and dismissal. But Jesus turns the tables on him. “The poor you have everywhere around you,” he says. Don’t try to pretend that this is about them, or that Mary’s act of generosity to one who will soon face suffering and death somehow cancels out the obligation to address poverty. No, it is part of the same circle of unbounded generosity that creates the true solution. Share what you have with abundance, spill out your goods with excess, and there will be no poor in the land.

Now the Gospel texts do not contain that last phrase, but their hearers would have known, in a way that we, fatally, have forgotten, that Jesus’ saying about the poor remaining with us is actually a reference back to Deuteronomy 15 and following, where the existence of poverty is taken as a sign of the people’s failure to live as God desires, and where there is a further promise of prosperity – when debts are cancelled, the enslaved are freed, strangers are welcomed and the needy satisfied… then “there will be no poor among you; for the Sovereign One will bless you in the land that your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

Jesus’ words are therefore no complacent acceptance of continual, unabated and irreversible poverty – of the kind that pessimistic politicians and economists are inclined to give. Quite the reverse, they are a reminder, built on the indelible memory of this woman’s act of excessive personal and economic act of love, of the Deuteronomist’s injunction: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet their need, whatever it may be.” For the time that is approaching is the Jubilee, the ‘Year of the Lord’, which is the heart of Jesus’ first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4), when financial inequalities will be removed and debts cancelled. Here, then, is an echo not just of personal generosity (what we call ‘charity’ today) but also of neighbourly love reflected in a radical overhaul of the whole system, the oikonomia.

Here is “a word from the Lord” which cuts right to the heart of the challenges we face in our age, too. The Gospel calls us to a new way of living, a new way of estimating one another, and a new way of serving God in and through “the least of these, my brothers and sisters” (as Matthew has Jesus putting it).

“I am about to do a new thing,” declares God through the words of the prophet Isaiah. This “new thing” will entail laying aside chariots, warriors and armies; it will include making streams in the wilderness; and it will involve the creation of a people “formed for myself” whose love of God and neighbour will open up fresh paths of justice in a world racked by poverty, conflict and the despoliation of the environment – so that, in the words of the Psalmist, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed, will come back with shouts of exultation, bearing their sheaves with them.”

The promise is one of abundance, based not on exploitation but on sharing, and, yes, overflowing generosity. “In the kingdom of God,” says the wonderful Scottish theological provocateur Ian Fraser, “we shall be joined together in one giant, feast... We’ll be well and truly stuffed. So, from time to time, we need to get some practice in!” He adds that 'feast days' are not wanton gluttony, but joyous communion, and that the same God who calls us to share Eucharist together, to be filled with thanksgiving, bread and wine, at the sametime calls us to remove all the restrictions that exclude others from the feast.

“Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love,” said Martin Luther King Jr. That expresses the transformational impact of the Gospel perfectly. But it can only happen if we human beings are also changed, transformed, brought alive to the possibilities of living differently in the totality of our lives. That is what Lent is about. Not a time to be miserly and miserable, but by cutting back to the essentials for a period, to understand not just the hardship of others but the discipline that is required to attend the beckoning of the Way, the Life and the Truth.

I’ll close with sage words from my friend again. In an unexpected Lent pub conversation, the landlord asked her why she was forsaking alcohol for a time. After all, he knew that, like Jesus, she could be a bit of a party animal too! “I like to think of it as necessary pruning back, so that the roots, shoots and leaves can press forward again to new life,” she declared. Similarly, Mary would certainly have had to go without in order to buy the perfume she poured out so generously, and which should be for us, along with bread and wine shared round, the sacrament of the new world Jesus invites us to receive, starting here and now.

References:

[1] This is an address given at the Anglican church of St Mary the Virgin, Mortlake, London, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the beginning of Passiontide.

[2] Brenda M. Johnson, ‘The Anointing Woman, Mark 14. 3-9’ - http://tinyurl.com/ybpvfcc (Adobe Acrobat *.PDF format).

[3] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins, (SCM, 1983). See summary at: http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/sf1.html Books by this author available through Ekklesia: http://shop.ekklesia.co.uk/search.php?keyword=In+Memory+of+Her+Fiorenza

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia (www.simonbarrow.net). He has recently become an associate of the Iona Community (http://www.iona.org.uk/).

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