When I was growing up, my family didn’t have a lot of money. We weren’t poor. We managed to live from pay-cheque to pay-cheque; there wasn’t much money left towards the end of the week. When the pay-cheques came, sometimes they didn’t quite stretch far enough to pay all the bills. So, unexpected expenses could mean trouble. The kind of trouble where your parents are so worried about how they are going to make ends meet that tensions run pretty high. If something broke, my Dad was the first line of defense. If Dad couldn’t fix it, hopefully he knew a guy who could fix it. The idea of calling a repair man, who would present us with a bill for his services was simply out of the question. When the do-it-your-selfers required a part that required actual money to get, well they’d have to figure out some way of making do. If it couldn’t be fixed for free, it stayed broke, cause we were broke.
When a car broke down, my Dad could fix it with chewing gum and nylons if he had to. There wasn’t much Dad couldn’t fix. But when something came along that Dad couldn’t fix, like a car that simply couldn’t go another mile without several hundred dollars worth of parts, well that could mean that Dad and Mom wouldn’t be able to get to work, to earn the money, to fix the car, or pay the rent. So, each and every time something broke there’d be hell to pay; especially if I happened to be anywhere near it when it broke. Blame was directly related to proximity. Worrying about money and the lack there of, meant that tensions ran high. To this day, Carol will tell you, if something breaks around the house, I get a little crazy. I forget that we have money in the bank and good credit, so calling a repair person is a real possibility. I forget that my car is under warranty, or that we can afford to fix the water heater, and if worse comes to worse we can liquidate some equity to put a new roof on our house. All these situations would have been a major catastrophe when I was growing up, and try as I might, when stuff breaks, I still panic. Some fears die hard.
I remember when I first moved into the parsonage, the dishwasher wasn’t working. Money was tight, I had big student loans that had come do. But I didn’t own the dishwasher, you all did and there was money in the budget for parsonage repairs. But it took me two years to get up the courage to call a repairperson. I’d never called one before and I was afraid that it would cost more than I could afford. Besides there was a perfectly good sink, and I had two good hands, a dishwasher is an extravagance. So, two years passed, and even though I used the parsonage for all sorts of congregational events, I never called a repair person. It wasn’t until our chairperson found out that the dishwasher wasn’t working and told me that not using it could be bad for the dishwasher in the long run that I mustered up the courage to call a repair person. The bill for the repair was just $35.00. I was so delighted that I paid it myself. Not because I should, it wasn’t my dishwasher, it was the church’s bill, I paid it because I could. In the grand scheme of things, a dishwasher is an extravagance, but it was oh so sweet to line those dirty dishes up and push a few buttons, and hey presto, clean dishes! What an extravagance!!!
When I read the anonymous gospel-storyteller that we can John’s story about the anointing of Jesus, the word extravagance comes to mind. Extravagance in the face of danger and poverty. Of all the stories that this anonymous gospel-storyteller could have told about Jesus, why did he tell this one, and why did he tell it the way that he told it? What is the storyteller trying to tell us about the character of Jesus?
I’ve studied this passage for decades and I’m still surprised at how full and lush, how extravagant the details of this story are. I’m also aware that most of those lush and oh so extravagant details are all too often lost on 21st century ears. We are not first century Jews, so the pungency of this particular extravagance can all too easily elude us. There are details that first century Jews would have been overcome by, details that we need to sniff out if we want to smell the pungent aroma of the spikenard that oozes, soothes, and anoints the feet of the one we claim to follow. This story has but a dozen sentences, but each and every sentence positively oozes with details; details that can open us to a kind of extravagance of our own. “Six days before Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the village of Lazarus, whose Jesus had raised from the dead.” Continue reading