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Wasteful extravagance in devotion to God.

29 March 2010

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I have never actually read the novel, Pride & Prejudice, But I did see a film version of the story that I enjoyed. …At one point in the story there is an exchange that occurs between Caroline Bingley & her brother. It begins with Caroline saying, “I should like balls infinitely better, if they were carried on in a different manner. . . . it would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day.”   To which her brother replied, “ much more rational, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball.”

Caroline had a point. Dancing is extravagant and wasteful when examined from a practical perspective. But then it is the nature of balls to be extravagant and wasteful, isn’t it? If you reduce dancing or music to mere efficiency, and you destroy it. Devotion to God is also by its very nature extravagant and seemingly wasteful. Worship both private and corporate involves a redundancy of words and ritual intrinsic to the very nature of worship. Reduce worship to sheer efficiency, and you destroy it also.

The story in John’s Gospel (12:1-11) sets forth this theme in its contrast between the attitude of Mary and the attitude of Judas Iscariot. Mary took expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet while he was at table in her home. The cost of it was almost equal to a whole year’s income. On the other hand, Judas Iscariot, the resident efficiency expert, grumbled that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.

When we look closely at this story, we discover the very heart of the Christian faith. What we see in this story is remarkably parallel with what would occur within the next week. The dinner in Bethany was six days before the Passover. At the time of the Passover Jesus would have his Last Supper with the disciples and within hours he would be arrested, tried, and put to death.

In Bethany Mary took on the role of a slave and anointed Jesus’ feet. At the Last Supper a week later Jesus would take on the role of a slave and wash his disciples’ feet.

In Bethany Jesus was anointed in life. A week later he would be anointed in death.

In Bethany Mary demonstrated extravagant waste in pouring out costly perfume in devotion to Jesus. A week later Jesus would demonstrate extravagant waste by pouring out his life for the sake of the world.

Mary is set forth in the Gospel of John as the model for Christian discipleship. On the other hand, Judas is presented in sharp contrast with Mary. Judas is not merely efficient. He is deceptive and cynical. Mary is generous, but Judas is greedy. Mary demonstrates her faith with actions, but Judas only talks piously about giving money to the poor, and we know he doesn’t mean it. Mary prepares Jesus for his death and burial by anointing him, but Judas is preparing Jesus for his death and burial by laying the groundwork for betraying him. Mary’s actions model the life that will characterize all the sheep who follow Jesus, but Judas’ words model a kind of self-centered disdain that threatens to destroy and scatter Jesus’ flock. Mary is extravagant and wasteful in her devotion to Jesus, but Judas is narrow and calculating in devotion to his own agenda.

The history of the church is the history of men and women who have dared to waste their lives in devotion to God. The Bible is filled with stories of extravagant waste. The Psalmist says that God made Leviathan “for the sport of it.” Jesus told a parable about an unfaithful man who refused to invest the money entrusted to him but instead buried it in the ground because that seemed the more reasonable thing to do. And now we have the story of Mary pouring out costly perfume on the feet of a man who would soon pour out his life for the sake of the world.

So it is that the cross which stands as the culminating symbol of our faith represents the extravagant wastefulness & inefficiency of God who gave his only begotten Son for our salvation. It also represents the pattern of wasteful self expenditure expected of all who are by baptism united with him.

Our society is filled with people who are frustrated and angry because they want to give themselves away and nobody seems to want them. Unfortunately, the church in many places has taken an attitude which only makes the situation worse. . . . Instead of expecting great things of its members, too often it apologetically requests small favors. Instead of challenging people to make personal sacrifice in order to attend an important effort, it becomes accustomed to absenteeism and tardiness. Far too often the church fails to care for people by offering them opportunities for significant self expenditure. But there is some stirring within society from which the church might learn a lesson.

Take Habitat for Humanity, for example, which challenges people to give themselves away for a week or two, without pay, in hard labor for others. Or take the incessant successions of walk-a-thons and 5K runs that are so popular these days, to which people flock in great numbers in order to wear themselves out for some cause.

When the abundance of the human spirit is prevented from overflowing, when self expenditure is frowned upon, when creative moments are sidestepped for fear of appearing to be wasteful and inefficient, then life will soon go sour and godly faith will dissipate. When a dance is reduced to an exercise in efficiency, then the hall will soon be empty and no music will be heard.

But when Jesus praises Mary for her wasteful extravagance in devotion to him, then life returns just as surely as life returned several weeks earlier for her brother Lazarus when Jesus called him out of the tomb. And when you and I have the sudden impulse to give ourselves away in devotion to God the way Mary did, we do well not to listen to any disciple who would curb that impulse in the name of efficiency. We do well to listen rather to our Lord Jesus Christ, who freely gave himself for the sake of the world, in order that we might be united with him and then do the same.

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