Mary’s act of love and devotion does have a sense of the extravagant about it. In our story from John’s gospel, Mary makes a sacrifice to honor Jesus. She takes the costly nard, a whole pound of it and anoints Jesus’ feet, much to the chagrin of Judas, who kept and pilfered from the common purse.
The poet H.D. describes this way:
Anyhow, it is exactly written,
the house was filled with the odor of the ointment;
that was a little later and this was not such a small house
and was maybe already fragrant with boughs and wreaths,
for this was a banquet, a festival;
it was all very gay and there was laughter,
but Judas Iscariot turned down his mouth,
he muttered Extravagant under his breath,
for the nard though not potent,
had that subtle, indefinable essence
that lasts longer and costs more;
Judas whispered to his neighbor
and then they all began talking about the poor;
but Mary, seated on the floor,
like a child at a party, paid no attention;
she was busy; she was deftly un-weaving
the long, carefully-braided tresses
of her extraordinary hair.
According to Judas, the nard that Mary spread over Jesus’ feet was worth three hundred denarii – that would be nearly a year’s wages for a laborer. Her gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother from the dead and her terror of the rising anger against Jesus were so great that she didn’t count the cost. Drastic times call for drastic measures.
When you rush your beloved pet to the vet’s office, when you scrape the money together to pay for your child’s college tuition, you muster all the resources you can and you act. You don’t stop to count the cost, because what you may lose is of much greater value than the dinner party you’ll miss or the new car you can no longer afford.
In our culture, in many cultures, however, we often expend our resources wantonly, without stopping to count the cost, even when we should. Several years ago in her book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich observed that if hotel employees were paid a living wage, room rates would increase substantially. What we pay to sleep in a clean room with fresh sheets and towels every night is subsidized by low wage workers. We fail to count those hidden costs, just as we fail to count the cost to the environment of laundering towels and sheets after every use.
Nothing in God’s beautiful creation is cheap. When we perceive things to be cheap, it’s because we fail to count the true cost. At the Westshore terminal near Vancouver, British Columbia there are, at any given moment, about 1.5 million tons of coal stored in piles 8 1/2 stories high. “The big job is to keep it here,” says Ray Dykes, a spokesman for Westshore. “That’s why all these sprays and new equipment are coming on.” Westshore has just spent $7 million upgrading the series of pumps, rain guns and misting devices around the site used to dampen and control dust from the coal piles. They use $1.5 million worth of water on containment of this dust each year.
According to the website powerpastcoal, proposed coal export terminals in Washington state would result in a dramatic increase in the number of mile-long, open-car coal trains traveling across Washington – one new terminal would mean up to eighteen coal trains a day through communities near the terminal. That means countless open coal cars traveling through our communities, leaving a trail of coal dust behind. Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) railroad studies estimate up to 500 pounds of coal can be lost in the form of dust from each rail car en route. Coal dust and diesel exhaust from coal trains and cargo ships can cause serious long-term health problems like lung and heart disease and cancer.
The coal then arrives at the terminals where it is kept in large piles, exposed to wind and weather, where it spreads for miles into the surrounding community. Coal dust has been linked to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and emphysema.
In addition to coal dust, there are the impacts of the coal trains themselves, which generate noise, create collision hazards, and impede rail crossings. Increased traffic delays at busy rail crossings would clog commuter traffic and could slow response times for emergency responders and limit access to neighborhoods, schools and business corridors. A single slow-moving coal train can obstruct a rail crossing for 6 minutes or more. Adding just 20 trains to Washington’s rail system would mean blocking some crossings for 2 hours every day. These are some of the true costs of exporting cheap coal to energy-hungry countries. Despite vocal opposition and financing problems, proposals for coal terminals at Longview and Cherry Point are still on the table.
The Huffington Post reports on the true cost of cheap high-impact junk food, Examples of costs not currently factored into our food supply include the environmental outcomes of chemical-intensive and petroleum-intensive agriculture, costs for soil erosion, water and irrigation costs, pesticide and waste runoff that creates dead zones in our waterways and then affects the livelihoods of fishermen. For example, there’s a "New Jersey-sized dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico" that stems from nitrogen runoff from the Corn Belt.
Hidden health costs like our global obesity epidemic and the food-related public health issues of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are certainly not included in the cost of our fast food meals. Not to mention unpaid externalities like low wages for food workers that often mean government subsidies like food assistance. A study showed that fast food workers are getting $7 billion taxpayer dollars in food assistance, which provides a huge, additional subsidy to fast food companies (on top of the corn and soy subsidies that allow them to buy cheap ingredients with government help.)
The truth is that the "value" and "low prices" of cheap food that we see at the cash register, are not the whole story. We are paying today in our health and our taxes and our children will be paying tomorrow with a degraded environment, dirty water, decimated communities and jobs, and denigrated health.
Thankfully, humans are at last responding to these issues and many others caused by our squandering of resources and failure to count the true costs of our actions. Our consciousness has been raised about blood diamonds mined to support war lords, exploitation of child workers in the production of chocolate, the lack of fair trade practices in the coffee industry, and there’s no going back.
We are finally starting to understand that we must learn to live gently on the earth, taking into account its fragility, its finitude, and the well-being of all its creatures and systems. We are starting to understand that we must be extravagant in tending to one another and all of creation, rather than profligate in our consumption.
Mary’s extravagant gesture is both an act of devotion and a preparation of Jesus’ body for burial, a foreshadowing of his death. She is responding gratefully to Jesus’ raising her brother Lazarus from the dead – the very deed that incited Jesus’ enemies. After Jesus raised Lazarus the Pharisees and high priests met, and from that day, the gospel of John tells us, they planned to put Jesus to death. When it comes to extravagant gestures of love, even Mary’s act of self-giving has nothing on the act of God pouring Godself out on the cross.
When we give something up for Lent, we may miss eating dessert or watching TV for a few weeks, but if we are sincere the cost is much greater than that. If we are sincere, we are giving up our sense of ourselves as righteous and self-sufficient. We are admitting that we are in need of God’s grace. The cost of following Jesus, of being in right relationship with God, is dying to our old selves, our old habits, our old ways of being in the world – not so we can earn God’s grace or demonstrate to God that we are deserving of grace, but so that we can perceive God’s grace, be receptive to receiving that grace, get our egos and appetites out of the way to make room for God’s grace in our lives.
At one UCC church I attended, there was a lot of resistance to the prayer of confession. “I'm not a bad person,” people would grumble. Or, “it makes me feel guilty.” The purpose of the prayer of confession, to my mind, is not to admit how unworthy and sinful we are, but to admit our reliance on a higher power, our need of grace. It’s a chance to let go of guilt, to let go of whatever we imagine God is holding against us, to set down the baggage we use as a barrier between us and God. It’s hard for most of us to admit that we’re in need of grace – that we’re in need of anything. But what is the cost of refusing to allow grace, abundant love that endures forever, the sacred, into our lives?
God’s grace is not earned, but freely given. Our choice is whether to avail ourselves of that grace. Living in an open-hearted, grace receiving way is challenging. We know we can’t do it by ourselves, but somehow it’s hard to remember we don’t have to do it by ourselves. Somehow it’s hard for us to hold out our hands and receive the grace that rains down on the just and the unjust, on Mary and on Judas. And on us. Hold out your hands. Close your eyes. Take a long slow breath. Remember. Receive. Amen.