The last week of Jesus’ public ministry he was witness to two acts of extravagant giving, and he calls our attention to both. O. Henry, is his most famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi” writes that repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love is “always a tremendous task…a mammoth task.” Jesus observes both acts of extravagance and calls us to appreciate the faith, and the heroism they both represent.
You can read about them within a page or so of each other is the Gospel of Mark. We meet the first, a widow in Mark 12.41-44. Jesus has just indicted the scribes because they “devour widows’ houses,” (v.40). And then we meet such a widow. She is undoubtedly a street person, although what she was before her widowhood we are left to imagine. She has two lepta – the smallest coins in circulation. Street venders would sell two sparrows on a stick for one lepta (Matthew 10.31). She has two. She comes into the court of women where there were large boxes for donation. One of those boxes would have been a widows fund. The rich are giving large sums as it is Passover week. Some have traveled from the far ends of the empire to bring their offering. I doubt they noticed her at all. If she did draw their attention it was the negative attention street people are used to receiving.
Jesus notices her though. He notices that she put in both coins. Both! If she had kept one she would have had enough for one meal, but she put in both. Jesus draws attention to her – makes His disciples SEE her as a woman of value, as a hero. “Truly I say to you this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty put in all she owned, all she had to live on,” (vv. 43-44).
The second act of extravagance happens later in the week. Just before everything got hectic – the night before the last supper – Jesus was hosted at a banquet in Bethany by a man named Simon. Jesus’ dear friend Mary comes in (Her sister Martha is serving at the banquet – John 12.1-3) carrying an alabaster bottle of pure nard. Nard is a perfumed resin, very costly, produced at the foot of the Himalayas. This alabaster vial cost a year’s wages. In its pure state it would be used sparingly, and would have been mixed with something to thin it. The bottle would be stoppered – sealed with wax to preserve the precious content. Mary however does an amazing thing, a seemingly senseless thing – she breaks the neck of the bottle so its contents cannot be preserved (Mark 14.3). She pours the nard on Jesus’ head and feet. Then she does an equally extravagant thing – she lets down her hair, and uses her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. This level of intimacy was not permitted publicly or privately between a man and a woman who were not married – but she does it anyway. Jesus understands this gesture for what it is intended to be – an act of pre-embalming. A sort of giving-one-roses-in-life and not after death. She was saying to Him – “I know what is about to happen to you, and I care as much as my heart is able to care.”
Again, Jesus forces his disciples, despite their indignance, to really SEE her as a woman of value, as a hero. “She has done a good deed to me…she has done what she could, she has anointed my body beforehand for the burial. And truly I say to you wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world that which this woman has done will be spoken in memory of her,” (vv.6-9).
Two coins and a broken bottle –given as the offerings of true faith, real love, extravagant devotion. They teach us the courage it takes to truly love, to truly give. They teach us that although humans refuse to see, or to see correctly, God sees.
He sees. He knows. He cares. He understands. He appreciates. He says so.