Burning money

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

John 12.1-8

Last Sunday’s gospel reading told the story of how Jesus shared a meal with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And we hear how Mary behaves quick shockingly. Here’s what I said.

I’m going to begin with a story – a true story. It is told by William Carter [1], a Presbyterian Pastor from Pennsylvania. He writes:

I will never forget the furore sparked at a stewardship conference at which an ecumenical group of pastors gathered to discuss generosity. One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.”

The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that [banknote] go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.”

“Do you not understand,” said the speaker. “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.”

Would anyone like to lend me a twenty pound note to help me with my sermon? (Not surprisingly, no-one did!)

I quite seriously thought about burning a £50 note in front of you this morning to see what reaction I got, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. 

Today’s gospel is about burning money.

The story we have heard today is one of the most shocking – and challenging – in the whole of the gospels.

I want you this morning to imagine you’re back in first century Israel. You live in Bethany. And you are the next-door neighbour of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. You’ve known them for years. Nice, respectable people. Somewhat unusual, perhaps, for two sisters and a brother to be living together at their age when they all ought to be married – but pillars of the community nonetheless. Though to be honest, you’ve never been quite sure about Lazarus since that business of dying and then emerging alive out of his tomb, but he seems to have got back to normal.

And here they are, entertaining this travelling preacher and miracle-worker that everyone has talked about so much. So being only human you are doing your best to see what’s going on – no curtain-twitching, of course, as people didn’t have them. But the door was probably open – that was the usual custom when having an important person as a guest so that passers-by could see and hear what was going on. 

As usual, it’s Martha who is doing all the work. Lazarus is at the table with Jesus. And just as you are wondering what Mary is up to, here she comes. But instead of just listening and talking with Jesus and Lazarus at the dinner table. As you watch her off she goes and does something really quite bizarre. She pours a jar of perfume over the feet of Jesus and then wipes them with her hair. Very easy to do as it was the custom to recline at a low table for a meal like this so Jesus’ feet would have been stretched out. Don’t get a picture in your head of Mary crawling around under the table! 

Well – there you are watching this amazing scene – what on earth do you make of all this! There’s really only one reaction that you can have – you would have been deeply shocked by the events and by Jesus’ reaction to it all.

Well – the first shock is that all this is happening in the first place.  This is Mary – the sister of Martha and Lazarus – a well-respected and well-off member of the community. And she’s behaving in a way that no self-respecting woman ought to behave. A woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband – never anyone else. And as for letting her hair down and then using it to wipe the feet of someone to whom she was not married – I suspect that no-one there could think of a thing to say, so taken aback would they have been. Her reputation would never recover.

And It seems that everyone, apart from one person, is – quite understandably – speechless.

And then comes the second shock. It’s Judas who manages to find something to say. He’s shocked not by the act itself but about the cost of the perfume. And I reckon that if you were there looking in on this scene, that as soon as you heard how much the perfume was worth you’d be with Judas on this one. What a waste. Give the money to the poor where it can do some good.

Well, how much are we talking about here? More, I suspect, than you realise. We are told that the perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii, three hundred pence. How does that equate to today’s money? A working man’s wage was one denarii a day so – allowing for the Sabbath – we are talking here of a year’s pay for an ordinary working man. Given the average working wage today this perfume was worth the equivalent of twenty to thirty thousand pounds. It was exotic stuff, imported from far away – Nard is made from a plant of the honeysuckle family that grows in the Himalayas.

And this perfume had probably cost Mary her entire life’s savings. Every last penny she has, spent on a jar of perfume to pour over the feet of Jesus. Every last penny she has – gone, in a moment, and nothing to show for it. Judas probably had a point – just think how much could be done for the poor with that kind of money for the poor.

Now thinking back again – remember, you’re imagining that you’re the neighbour of Mary and Martha and Lazarus – and having got this far you are now waiting with bated breath because you want to hear what Jesus is going to say. 

Because presumably however respectable Mary might be Jesus is going to tell her off – no-one who is doing the rounds as a teacher and healer, claiming to be a man of God, is going to want to be associated with this appalling and shocking behaviour. But no, Jesus says not a word and lets her carry on.

And then when Judas raises the question of cost and possible other uses for the money, presumably Jesus – who after all has talked a lot about this kind of thing – is at the very least going to say, “Judas, you might have a point there!” But no. He says “Leave her alone.”

And that’s the third shock. Jesus does not condemn this dreadful behaviour, this apparent wastefulness. Far from reacting in the way that we might have thought any normal person would, he positively encourages Mary. 

I began with the story of the person who burned a $100 dollar bill for God – and how people reacted. Just think what your reaction would have been if you had watched Mary take out, in front of Jesus, thirty thousand pounds in fifty pound notes. And she says to Jesus, this is for you, and promptly sets fire to it. And Jesus says that’s fine. Thirty thousand pounds, her life’s savings, all she has, has virtually gone up in smoke because she spent it on a bottle of perfume. And her reputation is in tatters because she has wiped his feet with her hair. And Jesus says that’s fine.

Mary gave everything for Jesus. How much would we give? Would we risk our reputation? And our life savings? That’s the question we are faced with today.

 [1] William G Carter, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania – writing in Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume , published by Westminster John Knox Press