Alabaster Extravagance


As a preacher and worship leader, I'm often fascinated and intrigued by how the stories of scripture and the hymns of the church can offer us theological surprise when we change their context. It often feels like a fresh breeze of the Spirit. For example, in my congregation, if we have a funeral service during the season of Christmas, we'll sometimes sing the famous Christmas Eve hymn, "Silent Night." We seldom hear or sing that hymn outside of evening worship on December 24th. When we sing the words "sleep in heavenly peace" in the dark with our candles burning, we know we are singing about baby Jesus, sweetly asleep in the manger. When we sing it the morning of a funeral, say on December 29th, as the casket of a loved one rests before us and voice the words "sleep in heavenly peace," it suddenly becomes a prayer for one who has died rather than a lullaby for a newborn. But singing this hymn at a funeral causes us to remember that the one who was born would also die for us and because he died the one we have lost will have new life. Change of context gives us fresh insights that we don't always get when we use the same things in the same places.

In the story today from Luke, we witness a context change. Clearly the story of a woman who anointed Jesus with expensive, extravagant ointment was cherished by the early church. In all four gospels there is a story of a woman who at a dinner party comes and anoints Jesus' feet with a jar of ointment so expensive it's like she won the lottery. You might want to look at all four stories to compare them. When you do, you'll see that the woman is imagined differently by name and by whether she is shamed or honored. In each case somebody protests the use of such a valuable substance for anointing Jesus. In each story Jesus' credentials as a prophet or as a socially-minded person are called into question. And in each telling of this story, Jesus defends the action of the woman. As we've come to expect from the four gospel portraits of Jesus, each is a little different, and one is very different. Usually when we say that, we expect the "very different one" to be John, but with this story John hangs with the majority. It's Luke who decides to sing "Silent Night" during a funeral to thicken up our theological thinking.

Luke is the only one who doesn't put this well-remembered story immediately before Jesus' passion. He doesn't put it so close to Jesus' death that we make the connection between the anointing and the preparation for burial. In his portrait of Jesus, he paints with a color of his own creation. He fashions a new color by taking this story of anointing, placing it in the house of a Pharisee, mixing it with a parable and other teachings, to give us a startling image of forgiveness projected directly from the heart of God.

All accounts of this story agree that the ointment the woman used to anoint Jesus wasn't just expensive but was extravagant. It was so pricey that those who witnessed the act of anointing were shocked, so shocked they remembered it well and kept it in the memory of the church. It's the extravagance of the story that draws us in and makes us pay attention. I tried to think of when we're extravagant, when we pull out all the stops, when we spend lots of money without complaining. It seems to me that we mostly do it at times of celebration. Since it's June, many of us are surrounded by weddings of family and friends. Weddings are surely times when families spend thousands of dollars to celebrate the birth of a new family. It's extravagant spending for two reasons. One is that it's not necessary. The final product is the same no matter how much we spend. Couples are just as married if they elope to Las Vegas or have a $100,000 wedding paid in full by Mom and Dad. The second reason weddings are extravagant is that they are celebrations of the day that don't necessarily insure the future. Spend that much money on a car or a house and you'll have an investment that might pay off in the future. But we celebrate extravagantly anyway out of love and joy and gratitude, not out of practicality or even good stewardship. That's what this story seems like--extravagantly odd.

Luke makes the connection between this extravagantly odd action in Simon's house to something that's extravagantly odd about God. For Pharisees like Simon and for all others who attended the same Sunday School program, God has been taught as one whose righteousness cannot endure sinners but saves only those like Simon who uphold the laws of God in all their purity. But Jesus teaches a different lesson. He says that the depth of gratitude is proportional to a person's need for forgiveness. The math is so simple Simon can't disagree.

Luke connects grace and gratitude as Jesus reveals himself to be the one who has God's authority to forgive sins and as the one who shares God's generous intention to heal life, restore relationships and forgive the sinful. For a creditor to forgive a debt simply out of grace is indeed extravagant.

But is it too extravagant to be possible, to be doable? Let's face it, even as Christians, we lean more toward Simon's interpretation of scripture, toward his understanding of what God is like. Justice rather than forgiveness simply seems more practical in the real world. I guess that's the tough challenge for us whenever we smell that extravagant ointment in the air. Are the core values of the Christian life--grace, love, mercy, forgiveness--really possible in our world or are they simply things that we hope God will bring about one day or maybe they're just wishful thinking.

Have you witnessed extravagant love by ordinary people like the woman who anointed Jesus' feet?

My Mennonite friends recently introduced me to one of the greatest heroes and martyrs in their tradition--Dirk Willems who died in 1569. Dirk, like other Anabaptists, rejected infant baptism, and for this he was arrested. You might know that the three foundational beliefs of the Mennonites are the belief in adult baptism, in the separation of church and state, and in the practice of non-violence in all circumstances. Dirk was held in prison for these beliefs but one night managed to escape using a rope of knotted rags. I know it sounds like a movie! The moat around the prison was covered with a thin layer of ice, but Dirk who had lost a lot of weight in prison was able to scamper across the ice. The prison guard who came after him wasn't so lucky. The guard fell through the ice and yelled for help. Dirk turned back even though he was nearly to safety. He pulled the guard out, was promptly recaptured and was shortly thereafter burned at the stake. Incredible!

Extravagant acts are not fairy tales. Remember October 2006 when a shooting happened in that one-room Amish school house? The gunman took hostages and shot ten girls, killing five of them. Remember how America watched in amazement as the Amish community responded with acts of forgiveness and reconciliation? I remember how many of us watched our TVs in disbelief just as Simon watched that extravagant act unfold in his home.  

Just because things are unbelievable, seem impossible, doesn't mean they aren't both real and possible. This is the Jesus message--with God all things are possible. Jesus showed us what it looks like, what it can be like. The tough sell is that extravagance never seems practical and it seldom seems like good stewardship. It's hard not to side with the protestors--this ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor or sold and used to repair the church basement. I guess there's a thin line between extravagance and wastefulness. As Christian disciples we are still shocked to realize that we have been claimed and called by a God who is unapologetically extravagant. This is God's lifestyle and we glimpse it in other places like the story of the Prodigal Son and on the cross. God's dream is that this extravagance will be the core of your story too and that one day people will stand on the shoulders of your story of extravagant generosity and forgiveness. We are called to transform the world, one alabaster jar at a time.

Let us pray. O God who makes all things possible: we confess that we love to sing about your amazing grace but often doubt that it can be real for us. We often treat stories of forgiveness as if they are fairy tales. Make us as extravagant and generous toward our neighbor as you are toward us. Help us to celebrate with joy rather than nervously counting the cost. Thank you for all the ways you anoint us with the oil of gladness this day and forevermore. Amen.