SUMMARY: John Bunyan once said, “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” And today in history the generosity of a lone woman would become one of the great stories of all time. Discover the power of generosity as we dive into Wednesday of Holy Week.
Today is Wednesday of Holy Week and I think is a noble task to spend time this week reflecting on the Passion of Christ and the final events of Christ’s life.
This week I want to guide you through a few thoughts as we head into Sunday. You know I think we often unintentionally cheapen resurrection Sunday when we don’t take the time to reflect on the events of this week. This year I want to challenge you with a short thought each day, as we travel the passion week with Christ. Now I am going to be drawing attention to a few details of Jesus’ last week, but I especially want to consider how Jesus might have felt this week. I wanted to do this with you so we can create a rich spiritual connection to resurrection Sunday.
Each of the coming days I want to give you a short thought that will give you something to reflect on and act on each day. And it is my hope that you might also share these thoughts with a friend or family members to influence their experience this year as well.
Today is Wednesday. There were only a couple of occurrences on this day in Jesus’ life. Today:
- Jesus predominantly stayed in the town of Bethany
- The disciples prepared for the Passover meal, which was the final meal of Jesus.
- Mary anointed Jesus.
With I want to focus our attention today on the anointing of Jesus. It is one of the rare stories that we find in all four gospels, and there is a reason for this, which you will see in a moment. Here is how the text reads in Matthew chapter 26 verses 6-13.
“6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
What I love about this story is the symbolism of this moment. Mary Magdalene, a known prostitute, has a personal saving. It is a small jar made of alabaster stone containing a very expensive oil-based perfume. Often this little jar would be worn around the neck for carrying and the contents, although small in weight, were very expensive. Well over one year’s wages. In today’s commodity, this would be around $50,000 in priceless perfume. Mary takes this and anoints Jesus with it, as was a regular custom.
Since this story appears in all the other gospels, we learn a few other details. But the essence of the story is here.
What has always captivated me in this story is three items.
First, the symbolism in the pouring out of something to Mary that was valued, onto someone of greater value. Mary, who was known for being a woman who lived a sinful life, at this moment takes everything that was once valuable to her and pours it out onto Jesus. And while I do not want to allegorize this text, how can we miss the picture of Mary surrendering her occupational earnings and the scent of allurement from her former life completely before Jesus. This is a sign of deep generosity but also one of gratitude.
Second, we must see the contrast in the disciple’s response to the action. What the disciples perceive in this act is solely the monetary value of the contents, not the reason for and in the act. To them, it is value wasted. And because they have a confirmation bias around money (as we know for sure Judas does), they miss the incredible beauty of Mary’s gesture.
Third, there is another story unfolding that is not yet realized by any observer, and it is how this sacrificial act connects with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In just hours Jesus would make a far valuable sacrifice, that would spill out his blood on the cross — which was also misunderstood by the disciples. I am sure later they would all look back on both these sacrificial acts with prophetic gratitude at the extent of the generosity.
Men, please do not miss the point. It is that we often have no idea how powerful our sincere, willing, and sacrificial generosity will play a role in the kingdom.
In 2002, as I was working as an area director for Young Life. Young Life is a community outreach ministry that seeks to share Christ with junior high and high school students. I had planted a branch in the southeast metro of the Twin Cities, and our program was flying. Within a couple of years, we were experiencing significant success. Hundreds of kids were coming to the weekly gatherings, and we were looking to expand. Everything we did seemed to succeed; hundreds went to our camps and ski- trips and new campuses were experiencing youth ministry, some for the first time. There was only one thing that wasn’t working: the financial support.
Money was slim for everyone due to events on September 11, 2001, which led to an economic standstill. It took time for this economic slowdown to catch up to us, but when it did, it was painful. Before we knew it, we were $18,000 in debt as a ministry, yet with a booming ministry. It was not a small undertaking to try to raise money for this deficit plus what was needed to begin operating in the black again; therefore, it was time for a radical decision. And since I was the only paid staff person, the only option to deal with the cascading deficit was to eliminate my salary.
This period was a difficult time for my wife and me. We were a one-income family, and taking this type of financial leave was going to be painful for us. In leaving, I would be putting the ministry I loved on hold, and since I was the only fundraising agent at the time, this looked like an impossible situation. We had two young children, and my wife was pregnant with our third; it was a moment full of anxiety and fear.
It is hard to explain the fear that was present in that moment; everything was racing through our heads. Finances. Bills. Health coverage. The future. Debt. Work. Children. And a child on the way. We had never experienced a moment like that before. Our fears were numerous, and these often led to disagreements in our marriage and with God.
After difficult discussions, my wife and I decided to make a change. I would take three months off and work labor on a construction team, and then evaluate the future of the ministry if the money came in.
Those three months were painful on our marriage. To hold the income level I had been making, I had to manage long and physically exhausting days working on a demolition crew. Even though I was thankful for the job, I went to work early and came home late in the evening and often exhausted from the day. I usually would jump right into the shower and then head off to bed. I felt like I missed three months of time with my wife and kids during, which took my anxiety to a new level—anger.
Since my anxiety was high, this led to some bizarre conversations with God. For example, one day I was driving home from work so tired, so worn out, that I had an out-loud discussion with God about the current situation. I am not quite sure how this looked as I made the drive, but I didn’t care at that point. I remember ending one of my sentences with God with a grievance, “After all, I have done for you, this is how you treat me!” After verbalizing my grievance to God, I did not feel much better—in fact, I felt a little convicted and concerned that God might strike me dead.
Well, on the way home, I decided to stop by the ministry office. I had not been to the office in weeks and figured it was at least time to pick up the mail and pay the bills if need be with whatever money we had in the cash account. When I got there, I made a phone call to a friend on the cell and began riffling through the mail. Most of the mail was insignificant, except for one letter that I almost tossed in the garbage. But since I was stuck at the desk anyway for the duration of the phone call, I decided to kill a few seconds and open the letter.
The letter was from a local law office and looked inconsequential. As I talked on the phone, I opened the envelope and found a formal letter neatly folded inside. I removed the letter, and a check from inside the envelope fluttered out and landed face-down on the ground.
Getting a check in the mail was not unusual. Sometimes dozens of small checks would come to the office each week from local donors, and I assumed this one was the same.
So instead of bending down to get the check, I read the letter I was holding in my hand. As I unfolded it there was a very brief note on it with just two lines.
Dear Mr. Miller,
Clients of mine wish to make an anonymous donation to your ministry. Enclosed you will find a check for $18,000.
Well, this sure was a jolt. In shock, I hung up the phone with my friend mid-sentence. I am certain I did not say goodbye. I then reached down and picked up the check and just looked at it. And then I re-read the letter again. And again and again while looking back and forth between the letter and the check.
My first thought was who did this? But after the desire to know who is was from fleeted, my second thought was even more troubling:
“Uh, God, about the conversation on the way here…”
Talk about feeling stupid.
In one swift moment, God had me right where he wanted me. At that moment, he taught me a great lesson. I think it is the same lesson that the disciples would have to learn here. It is that God uses our generosity, to draw attention to his.
To this day I have no idea whose generous gift this was, but the effects of this jolt have yet to wear off. The change in my outlook has been different after this day. Through this, my wife and I found hope again, found peace again, and grew to trust God even more than before with our time and money. All this resulted from a simple act of another person’s generosity that was impeccably and supernaturally timed in our life. All I had to do was receive it.
But no-one outgives God’s generosity. While we don’t always recognize it because of our biases, or understand it because we are short-sighted God’s generosity is extravagant. Mary’s small act is nothing compared to Christ’s. However, when we are generous, motivated by the right reasons, and out of the right identity, we reflect the extravagant generosity of Jesus Christ.
So today my challenge for you today is this. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your money. Maybe give sacrificially, by buying someone lunch, sharing a gift, writing a thoughtful letter. You know this morning my neighbor called me because they were both out of town on business trips and they needed someone to take their trash out to the curb. Why not? I would love to… and why? Because these small acts of generosity are just manifestations of love that resemble the beauty in what Christ has done for us.