“Mary took a pound of costly ointment and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair…”
Many, many years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at LSU, I had a poster stuck with magnets on the side of the refrigerator of my small apartment. It bore a quote by the brilliant and renowned French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “The heart has reasons which reason knows not of.” He was talking about another way of knowing, another way of wisdom, another source of truth, besides the kinds of truth we ordinarily reach exclusively through science, data, facts, logic. It is the knowledge that goes beyond rational analytic understanding, beyond the usual categories of human thought, which plumbs the depths of our very spirit, heart, and soul. When I read our scripture lesson for this week, I thought of this quote for the first time in many years: the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.
Try to picture this scene if you can: Jesus and his disciples were at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, three of his dearest friends, in Bethany, just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. It was dangerous for them to be that close to Jerusalem where there was a dangerous plot afoot to kill Jesus. But he had come, remember, when he heard that Lazarus was sick and had died. It had been only a few days since Jesus had stood outside the tomb of Lazarus weeping for his friend and then in a loud voice calling, “Lazarus, come forth!” and incredibly the dead man rose up and lived again. It was a like a preview, a dress rehearsal, of all that would happen on that first Easter when the love of God would conquer death once and for all time. But for the enemies of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus was the last straw, the tipping point. Now, more than ever they were out to bring his ministry to a violent end.
But one can only imagine what it must have meant to Mary and Martha to have their brother back again. It only served to strengthen the bond of love they already shared with Jesus. And now here they were together, having supper in their home. Martha, as usual, was in the kitchen. Lazarus and Jesus were at the table. Imagine Mary looking at her brother Lazarus, whom she thought she had lost, but was alive again, looking at Jesus, the one who, at great risk to himself, had given her brother back to her. I can only imagine her heart overflowing with inexpressible love and gratitude. And so she took it out, the jar of expensive perfumed oil, the kind that was used sparingly and only for the most special occasions, the kind we might just dot behind our ears maybe on each wrist, the kind that sells at Harrod’s in London for hundreds of dollars per ounce, the kind that cost 300 denarii a pound. When you consider that 1 denarii was a day’s wage and that Mary had spent 300 denarii on this oil, you are looking at a year’s salary. In today’s terms, even at only $8 an hour, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, you do the math: you are looking at bottle of perfume worth about $18,000. What was this?—some kind of tax write-off? Surely she could have used some of the oil, not all of it. But she poured out the whole thing on his feet. And as if that was not dramatic enough, she did something no decent 1st c. Middle Eastern girl would ever do in public—she took down her hair, and with her hair she bathed his feet in this fragrant, soothing oil. It was an act of extravagant, self-giving, sacrificial love.
That’s when Judas spoke up. And I have to admit, I have some sympathy for his point of view: “What a waste!” he said. “We could have sold that oil for 300 denarii and given the money to the poor!” This is the voice of logic. This is what makes sense. I mean, if you were at the next Finance committee meeting and we reviewed the current deficit in our budget and you saw on the monthly report an $18,000 expenditure for perfume, wouldn’t you speak up? I hope you would speak up! We just don’t do that! FEMA might do things like that. The Pentagon might do things like that. But we don’t! Besides, isn’t that what the followers of Jesus are supposed to really care about, to pour ourselves out for, not for pedicures at the day spa, but for the poor? But John explains that concern for the poor was not really Judas’ motive. His protest, in the language of logic, was a thinly veiled concern for his own bank account. For Judas was the treasurer of the group. Judas was an embezzler. Turn the page in scripture and see that only a few days later Judas would betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. That’s the price they put on Jesus’ head. I wonder how many mouths of the poor could he have fed with 30 pieces of silver?
You know I’d like to blame it all on Judas, point fingers at him, and make him the hypocrite. But he is not the first, nor would he be the last, person in human history to confuse WASTE and WORTH. As Kathleen Norris has so perfectly summed it up: people “who know the exact price of things, as Judas did, often don’t know the true cost or value of anything.” All of us struggle with that. We are the ones who can spend $500 on Magazine Street in a heartbeat. But when we put $15 in the collection on Sunday, we go ouch–it hurts. It is a fact, a disturbing national statistic as well as a deeply spiritual problem, that “the richer we become the less we want to share with others.” We who say we are concerned about WASTE must be honest with ourselves about this whole matter of WORTH.
For instance: how many times have I heard someone say, “Why rebuild New Orleans?” Last week I even heard someone say, “God willing, New Orleans will flood again.” There are those who say this whole recovery is a WASTE of time, a WASTE of resources, a WASTE of blood sweat and tears. But have they asked the question of WORTH? What is it worth to us—the life and death and resurrection of a 300 year old American city, this unique cultural center, this major port, the preservation of the coastal wetlands. What is it worth—the home of thousands of people who have no place else to go? Why do we want to rebuild this devastated place below sea-level? It doesn’t make sense. I guess I’d have to say: the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.
Why do we rebuild this sanctuary to the tune of $5 million, with an Aeolian Skinner organ that had $60,000 of damage, and why do we need a concert quality piano for this sanctuary? There are some who might say, what a waste! All this for one hour, once a week on Sunday morning? But what is it worth?—to worship, to praise, to give thanks to the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the author of all that was, is, and ever shall be, the Giver of life, the Lover of My Soul, My Savior, the Eternal and Most Holy One? What kind of price tag do you put on something like that?
This is where LOVE and LOGIC sometimes have to part ways. There are depths of love that logic simply cannot fathom. Logic clutches its calculator and says, “This costs too much.” Love pours out the whole priceless bottle and says, “This is worth so much.” How many times have I gone to the hospital where someone was very near death, and the caregiver, who has been there day and night for many days, is exhausted, poured out, and have heard myself utter the voice of logic, “Go home. The nurses will be here. You need to rest. You are tired. You are only human.” Only to hear the voice of love say, “I can’t leave now. I cannot imagine being anywhere else. This is where I belong. ” It is logic that says, “This wedding costs too much, an arm and a leg. This cake cost more than college tuition!” But it is the voice of love that says, “this is a once in a lifetime celebration of life and love for those whose lives are more precious to us than gold or silver.” It’s the voice of logic that says, “That money could have been given to the poor!” But it was the voice of love that said, “The poor you will always have with you…” Wait a minute. I know Jesus said that, but it doesn’t sound like love to me. But do you know that he was quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, a verse that every one in that room would have known by heart, a verse that we too ought to know by heart: “the poor you will always have with you, so open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy, to the poor.” Open wide your hand.
“For you will not always have me.” In other words: there are those things that we have only one chance to do and the chance will never come again. This was one of those precious and unrepeatable moments, one of those once in a lifetime occasions. Mary could see that: she might never have Jesus in her home again, that she might never see him alive again. She put down her calculator. She ran to her room. She let down her hair. She found the bottle, the most valuable thing she owned, and she poured it out for him, the most important person in her whole life. Judas tried to stop her. Jesus said, “Leave her alone!” For the heart has reasons that reason knows not of.
Do you remember the movie A Beautiful Mind, the story of John Nash, the brilliant mathematician, whose work in game theory and differential geometry earned him the Nobel Prize. It is the story of his amazing discoveries and his debilitating schizophrenia . It is the story of his wife, Alicia’s self-giving love in spite of his delusional madness, without which he might very well have spent his life institutionalized in a strait-jacket. There were those who told her repeatedly: leave him, he’s crazy, he’s nuts. There was a day when she counted the cost, and they were right. It didn’t add up. She packed her bags and left. But she came back. And she stayed. And she stuck by him through it all, long enough to see the victory.
For she saw in him something in him, in his beautiful mind—or was it his heart?—something that was worth pouring herself out for. She was there, in the audience the day he accepted the Nobel Prize. This is what he said, his speech verbatim: I’ve always believed in numbers and the equations and the logic that lead to reason. But after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask, ‘What truly is logic?’ ‘Who decides reason?’ My quest has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional — and back. And I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life: It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found.” And then looking at Alicia he said, “I’m only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”
On that day in Bethany long ago, when Mary poured out that whole bottle on Jesus’ feet, it was as if she was saying: “I am only here tonight because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.” And on that last night when Jesus broke the bread and poured the cup, and said, “This is for you—broken for you, poured out for you, ” it was as if he was saying to us: “I am only here because of you. You are the reason I am. You are the reason I came. To show you the heart of God, to demonstrate the mysterious equations of God’s love for you.” It does not make sense that he should go so far, go to the cross, to give his life, to save a wretch like me? What a waste. It doesn’t add up. Why?
Can it be that he sees in me, that he sees in you, something of such worth?
Can it be that the heart of God has reasons that reason knows not of…