37And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment.
Many years ago we had set up an outreach service for young people in Brisbane. For a range of reasons we were moving on to another life and the young people decided to throw a party to say farewell. They went around to the shopping centre and returned with a range of goodies. Now one young man put his contribution on the table and I was aware he had no money except his bus fare. I suspected, tightly as it turned out, that he had in old the five finger discount system to acquire his contribution.
I challenged him, and after a little encouragement he admitted he had pinched the goods. I said we have a couple of choices here, take the goods back and apologise and not put anything on the table or spend your bus money and pay for it. Now it was a wet, windy, horrible, no good very badinage of day. He had over 2 miles to walk home. He would have been soaking. Yet he decided he would pay for the goods with his bus money and get wet. His reasoning, you have helped change my life, it is what I need to do. By the way he was 12 and was on charges for being an accessory to arm robbery. There is more to that story than meets the ear.
Gratitude won the day.
Our gospel today is about gratitude. It is about what happens when our lives are broken open and we find a relationship, a community, a person who provides an anchor point in the chaos. All four people depicted in this passage have reasons to be grateful, and, at one level or another they all are. Yet it is the depth of gratitude that matters.
It seems that Jesus suggests that some people will by the nature of their case be more grateful than others. They seem to have had more to be grateful for. Their debts and their past mistakes seem to be in a greater need of recognition and forgiveness than others and therefore they are more grateful. It is obvious isn’t it that a reformed alcoholic or drug addict, an excused bankrupt, a welcomed outcast will be more grateful than an ordinary person with an ordinary load of life stuff?
Yet, just perhaps, Jesus is suggesting something else, something more pertinent and challenging for those in the room who thought they could get away with a modicum of gratitude. Most of us have not committed any major ‘sins’, no murders, sex crimes, child abuse etc. Yes we have at times behaved a bit dodgy but really who hasn’t? Therefore we are grateful for the forgiveness of God and the community of the church but we are not about to bring an alabaster jar of ointment to church.
What was the alabaster jar of ointment worth in real terms? It was Life, a fulfilled life is the answer. Such a jar of ointment signified the availability of a young lady for marriage and was given to her by her family. It was her dowry and signified her families wealth. It was Death, and could also be used to anoint bodies of loved ones as a sign of the esteem in which they were held.
This jar of an expensive ointment which is broken and therefore of no further use, is poured out in the totality of love or gratitude. This is no I’ll keep some for myself and use what’s left over approach to life. This is not about ‘well, god knows how grateful I am and that I have worked hard and deserve to keep back some for myself, holidays, children’s needs, new house etc, you know how it is. Can’t be too careful.’
Next week we will be filing out our pledges, our commitment for weekly giving. It can be a challenging time. Our community is older and smaller but the needs of the wider community and the church community continues to grow. Everything from repairs and maintenance of, wage, new projects to outreach and connect and more need to be funded. In the coming months we face the loss of the ballet school, not a disaster, but a reminder that nothing lasts forever and we will need to make up for the loss of income.
We are not to panic if we understand like the woman in the gospel that all good things come from God and that God can be relied upon to provide our needs if we demonstrate our love and gratitude through our costly giving.
Simon the Pharisee thought there was no need for more than the cursory application of the conventional rules. He fulfilled his obligations and that was enough. What this woman did was extravagance and drawing attention to herself. Unnecessary in his opinion. Give what convention decrees and keep the rest for yourself was his motto.
Giving to God demands we give to God first, the best, not the leftovers. It is the biblical principle of the first born, the lamb without blemish. And it is hard.
We live in uncertain times. We are living longer, how much money will we need? We are living in an age of adventure and rewarding ourselves with overseas holidays to places we could only dream of when we were young and had children and a mortgage etc. Coming to grips with giving as the outcome of love and gratitude for all we now have asks us to recognise the grace of God that has made all this possible, who gave us the gifts, skills and opportunities necessary to acquire what we now have. And perhaps not taking the overseas trip or extensive Australian holiday.
God does not ask us to leave ourselves destitute, that would be just as foolish and ungrateful. But we are asked to give of our life and our death, the totality of our being, as the women does and to continue to trust in the grace of God to provide for our personal needs.
The young man I referred to in the opening story walked home in the rain. I resisted the temptation to drive him. He had made a decision which had a cost and he bore the cost of getting very wet and soggy out of gratitude of the compassion Gaye and I had shown him. It has remained a powerful image watching him walk joyfully out into the rain, comfortable with himself for he had done all he could do to say thanks. Amen.