The Fifth Sunday in Lent – John 12:1-8
When was the last time you did something for someone else without any expectations, with no strings attached, without any conditions or preconditions? There was no why to what you were doing. You were just doing what you were doing because that’s what you were doing.
Angelus Silesius, a seventeenth century German priest, writes this:
“The rose has no why; it blossoms because it blossoms.
It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.”
What if we were to live like the rose, without a why? What if we blossomed simply because we blossomed. What if there was no motive or seeking to our blossoming; to be noticed, to be praised, to accomplish? What if we fragranced the world because we couldn’t do anything but fragrance the world? The rose is going to do what it’s going to do regardless of whether anyone sees or smells it. It’s beauty and fragrance are not means to an end. It has no why.
I want to live without a why. I want to give and do unconditionally (at least that’s what I want on my better days). I think that’s often how we see ourselves and how we want to be and live, to live unconditionally and without strings attached, but it’s harder than it sounds. We live in a world of economy, exchange, and transaction. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch your back. We live in a world in which you pay for what you want. There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as a free lunch. We’re expected to return the favor, pay off the debt, or reciprocate in some way. In short, you get what you pay for. And we pay in all sorts of ways.
Think about all the ways that happens and how commonplace and acceptable it is.
- We exchange our time for money, sacrifice our families for success, and trade our dreams for the practicalities of making ends meet.
- When I was practicing law we took clients to lunch or sent gifts. What do you think that was about? It was about more than a shared meal or friendship. I remember one client who told me how much he and some others liked to hunt doves. He encouraged me to get a hunting lease, said it would be good for my future.
- Have you ever received a gift and felt indebted, obligated to return the favor, or at least send a thank-you note? Even the best intentioned gifts can leave the recipient with an unintended debt of gratitude. And how did you feel when you did not receive a thank-you note or other acknowledgment after giving a gift, or did not receive an invitation to dinner at their house after you had them to dinner at your house.
- Have you ever sent flowers after an argument? Were you giving a gift or working a deal?
- Have you ever argued over the lunch bill? “You paid the last time, it’s my turn” or “I’ll get it today, you can get it next time.”
- Regardless of what side of the campaign finance issue you’re on everyone knows that big time donors expect big time returns. And it’s not just in politics, sometimes it’s in college admissions. If your charitable gifts are charitable enough you get rewarded with a tax deduction.
- Have you ever said or done something as a means to an end? Have you ever wondered why somebody was doing something for you, wondered what was in it for them?
- It’s even in church and our faith. Theologians call it “the economy of salvation.” Believe in Jesus, follow his way, and you too can have salvation. Sometimes we believe that our prayers and good behavior are the currency that pays for God’s favor.
I say none of that as a criticism or judgment but simply as an observation that there are thousands of ways in which we daily transact the business of life. We can’t escape that. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to give a pure gift. Economies are a part of our world and our lives. As much as I love being a priest and say that I am not in it for the money, I still want and need to be paid. I am not suggesting economies are inherently wrong or that we need to rid ourselves of economies, but maybe we need to be more aware of them and the power and influence they have. Maybe we need to lessen and loosen the stranglehold they tend to have on us.
We cannot always do everything for the payoff, and sometimes we don’t. There are times when we do or need to do something simply for the sake of doing it; things like love, forgiveness, truth, hospitality, justice, compassion. In those times something is being affirmed for itself not for what it might achieve or accomplish. There is no why.
I think that’s what’s going on with Mary in today’s gospel (John 12:1-8). She loves because she loves. She anoints because she anoints. She fragrances because she fragrances. There is no why. It is gift, “grace upon grace.” There is nothing in it for her. It is unconditional, without measure or calculation. And it looks reckless and irresponsible. She is not invested in a result or seeking a particular outcome. She’s just doing what she’s doing because that’s what she’s doing. She breaks the chains of means and ends. And it makes no sense to Judas or any other economist.
Gift stands in contrast to economy, even as Mary stands in contrast to Judas. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” I don’t know what Judas’ real motive was. Maybe he was, as our text says, a thief and wanted it all for himself. Maybe he really did care about and want to help the poor. Or maybe our gospel writer was seeking paybacks and revenge (another economy) and portrayed him in a negative light. There are multiple ways of interpreting what Judas says.
In any event Judas is calculating and practical. He knows the market. He’s an investor looking for a return. He wants to turn Mary’s gift into a profit. Judas has a why. He’s aligned himself with a means and an end. In the economies of our life everything has a why, life is calculable, and we become calculating, expecting a return on our investment whether that investment is money, time, love, or a good deed.
Let’s not draw any conclusions here about Mary or Judas. It would be easy to oppose them. Mary is good, Judas is bad. Mary is right, Judas is wrong. But here’s the thing. I know times when I have lived as Judas and times when I have lived as Mary, don’t you?
What if they are not two opposite lives or people but two aspects of our lives, two ways of living and relating? What if we hold both Mary and Judas within ourselves? What if they are images of ourselves, images of our charitable self and our economic self, images of our unconditioned life and our conditioned life? When have you been Mary and when have you been Judas? What’s your experience of the two? In what ways have they shaped or misshaped your life?
I don’t think it’s a question of choosing one over the other, gift or economy, Mary or Judas, but of living in the tension of the two. That tension is what sometimes keeps us up at night, calls us into question, awakens us to how we truly want to live. That tension is the call to be discerning and thoughtful about how we respond to others and engage life. That tension pushes us to look within ourselves at our motives and desires. That tension reveals that Mary and Judas, gift and economy are interwoven, and each has the possibility of the other. It reminds us that the fragrance of life can be neither bought nor sold. It’s priceless.
I don’t know if we ever truly live without a why. I can’t answer that but I know that’s the direction I want to go. I know that’s how I want to shape my life. What about you?