From Scarcity to Abundance

Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume was an act of extravagant love.  It challenges us Mennonites who value frugality and resourcefulness to be extravagant and generous in loving others.

Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: John 12:1-8


In our scripture story today, we find Jesus back at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ house.  It’s not long after Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, and it’s a familiar scene in their house:

Martha is running around serving and showing hospitality, and Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet.  Before, Mary was listening to his teaching. (Luke 10:38)  And here, Mary takes a jar of expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet, then wipes it off with her hair.

What Mary does here is kind of surprising in a number of ways:

First of all, house servants were usually the only ones who attended to the guests’ feet.  They would wash the dirt off of them after a day’s journey of walking in the dusty roads with sandals.

Also, Jewish women rarely took their hair down in public; it was usually kept bounded up.

To add to the surprise, Mary pours this jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet.  It was worth about a day’s wages.  It seemed like a big waste, which Judas pointed out.  And he protests: “why was it not sold and the money given to the poor?”

Now Jesus knew that Judas had ulterior motives in saying this; he knew that Judas didn’t really care about the poor; he just wanted to pocket the money himself since he had control of the purse.

Then Jesus said, “the poor you will always have with you”.  Now I’ve heard people use this verse as a justification to not help people who are poor.

I’ve heard people and politicians say that people are poor because of their bad choices.  It’s their own fault and we have no responsibility to help them.

And they say that if poor folks want to get out of poverty, they can do it on their own, pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, stop being lazy and get a job.

While it’s true that poor choices and laziness can certainly affect a person’s financial situation, there are also factors beyond people’s control that can keep them poor—low wages, high cost of housing and other basic necessities like childcare.

The Bible has many verses that call us to care for those who are in need.  In Deuteronomy 15:11, God says  “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.”

So I think what Jesus means when he says “the poor you always have with you” is that there will always be opportunities to help those who are poor, to honor God by being generous with those in need.

But he says here that “you won’t always have me”, He’s alluding to his death, which is coming soon.  Jesus points out that Mary’s act of anointing Jesus with perfume is a foreshadowing of how Jesus’ body will be prepared for his burial.

What Mary did was an act of extravagant love.  Both because the perfume was costly, and also because she was modeling the love and care shown by close friends and family when they prepare a person’s body before it is buried.

I wonder, do you identify more with Mary or Judas here?

If we’re honest, many of us, especially if we’ve been formed with a Mennonite worldview, would have been right there with Judas, saying “what a waste of good perfume!”

Now sometimes we can justify spending a good amount of money for something, especially if we know that it’s well made and will last a long time before we have to replace it.

I’ve got a couple of shoe brands that I buy from, the shoes cost more up front, but they last forever.  In the long run, I end up saving money because I buy less shoes.

Our church recently agreed to spend a lot of money for some really sturdy playground equipment that we know will hold up well over time with the wear and tear of kids climbing around on it.  It’s worth the investment.

These kind of purchases aren’t seen as extravagant, but are what we call good stewardship, a good use of our money.

But as a general rule, we don’t like to spend a lot of money on things, especially things that are “wants” and not “needs”.

We Mennonites traditionally shun extravagance.  We pride ourselves on making do when resources are scarce.  We love to do more with less, heck, we even have a cookbook by that name!

Now we are not as frugal and simple in our living as our spiritual cousins the Amish, but we’re good at stretching things as far as they will go—and then some!   One of our sacred mantras is reduce, reuse, and recycle.

How many of you wash out Ziploc bags to use over and over again?  We try to do that as much as possible.  And this past week when we were in Indiana, I saw a plastic bag story that could top them all.

Karen’s dad, Roger, spent most of his career as a banker, but before that he worked at Graber produce, which was a chicken and turkey processing plant.  He ended up with a bunch of leftover plastic bags when the plant closed down about 60 yrs. ago.

He gave all his children a bunch of them, and had a bunch himself.  When we were in Berne last weekend, I saw he had one in the trunk of his car, and inside it was a set of jumper cables.

We have the Beating Guns event coming up on April 23.  And what will take place there is the epitome of what we’re all about—repurposing a gun, a tool of violence, and turning it into garden tool, an instrument of peace and harmony with nature.

But as much as we love frugality and resourcefulness, this scripture passage is inviting us to become more like Mary, and not Judas.

It’s an invitation to live out of abundance, not scarcity.  It reminds us that there is a time to be extravagant with the resources we have as a way of showing our gratitude to God for all that He has given us,

Last week in the story of the prodigal son, we saw what God’s extravagant, prodigal love looked like in forgiving and showing unconditional love to his son who had turned his back on his family and squandered the inheritance he got from his father.

And here Mary is performing an act of gratitude and abundance as a way of showing her deep love for Jesus. To Mary,

This is the Jesus who had taught her so much wisdom as she sat as his feet listening to him when he came to her house.

This is the Jesus who had just recently raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, restoring him to life.

This is the Jesus who showed so much love and compassion for people who were considered “unclean” or “unworthy” that he would soon be tried as a criminal, beaten, and crucified on a cross, sacrificing his own life for the sake of the world.

Mary was touched and moved so much by Jesus’ abundant love for her and for all of humanity that her response was an act of abundant love as a way to show her gratitude to him.

Mary showed so much love to Jesus, because she experienced so much love from him. 

In the most recent issue of Anabaptist World magazine, there’s a story of a man in British Columbia whose house filled with water after a flood, and how Mennonite Disaster Service recently came to help him clean up all the mud and debris in his house.

The guy was so grateful for the work of MDS that after his house is all repaired, he said, I’m going to volunteer with MDS.  It’s something I have to do when I look at what they’ve done for me.”

Abundant love blooms when the seeds of abundant love have been sown.

I witnessed a beautiful example of this kind of gratitude and extravagant love this past week in Berne, Indiana.

One of the families who came to Karen’s stepmom’s viewing was an Amish family who had lived next door to Karen’s dad, Roger and her stepmom Mary, when they lived out in the country before they moved to a retirement community.

The Berne area has a very large Amish population, and most of them are Old Order Amish who are among the most conservative and simple living of all the Amish.

They don’t allow people to ride bicycles or to have covered buggies.  And probably like many other Amish, the Amish around Berne don’t have any plants or  bushes that would be considered ornamental, to beautify their properties.

Everything is bare around the houses, there is nothing colorful, and all plants are for functional purposes.  So they will have a big garden that produces fruits and vegetables, but they do not plant flowers anywhere on their property.

Anyway, Roger and Mary’s Amish neighbors are Noah and Adeline Schwartz, and they have 10 children.  They were not only good neighbors to each other, but they became good friends over the years.

They would help each other out in a number of ways, and do favors for each other.

Twice when our extended family was in Berne, Karen’s dad arranged for us to all go out to Noah and Adeline’s farm so our grandkids could see all the animals and we could learn more about Amish life on the farm.

They even invited us into their house and served us bread and cake that were right out of the oven.  Our group size even outnumbered their family!

It was so great to see Noah and Adeline and about 5 of their children visiting with Roger at Mary’s viewing.  I think they were the only Amish who were there.

And not only did they go to the viewing, they also had a big bouquet of flowers sent to Roger from a florist in town, kind of like the bouquet that you all sent to Karen this past week.

That bouquet of flowers from Noah and Adeline was truly an extraordinary act of love.  They wouldn’t have something ornamental like flowers for themselves, let alone buy them from a flower store and pay to have them sent to someone.

But their relationship with Roger and Mary was so close, their love for them so deep and abundant, and they had so much gratitude for their friendship that they expressed it by giving Roger a beautiful arrangement of flowers.

They showed extravagant, abundant love, just like Mary did with the jar of expensive perfume that she poured over Jesus’ feet.

I’ll admit that I sometimes don’t live with the kind of gratitude and love for God like Mary did.  Sometimes I operate out of scarcity rather than abundance, in my relationship with God and in my relationships with other people.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel and act like I’m shortchanged and bitter, rather than blessed and joyful.

This season of Lent is a time to confess the times when we feel barren in our experience of love from God and others, which leads us to withhold love from them.

And it’s a time to remember God’s faithfulness and steadfast love for us, even in times of scarcity in the wilderness of our lives,

In a minute, we’re going to sing the hymn ‘The Love of God’.  The words of this hymn are some of my favorite words describing how enduring and how abundant God’s love is for us.

I especially love the imagery in the last verse, comparing God’s love to the ink in the ocean, and how filling a pen with it like ink to write of God’s love on the sky would drain the ocean dry, there would be so much to say about it.

As we sing, I invite you to open up our hands and your hearts a little more to receive God’s abundant love for you, and open yourself up a little more to share it with those around you in extravagant ways.

May we be as generous in sharing God’s love with others as God is with us.