Monday, November 11, 2013

Perfume and Pennies

There are a couple of stories in the gospels that at first glance seem unrelated, and yet I think they have a powerful lesson to teach.  The first occurs when Jesus is people watching and notices what appears to be an insignificant contribution into the temple treasury.
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21:1-4 NIV
This little old widow lady dropped two pennies into the offering plate and receives a resounding commendation from Jesus.  The second takes place while Jesus is a dinner guest shortly before his crucifixion.
While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Matthew 26:6-13 NIV
 Here a woman, likely Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, dumps a jar of expensive perfume on Jesus head and then has to endure the criticism of Jesus disciples because of what they viewed as a waste of resources.

So what do these two accounts have in common?  In both of them you have a woman who gives her best.  Neither one of the gifts given were likely to make a big difference in the kingdom, or in the world around them.  After all, how much good can two pennies accomplish.  And how does pouring perfume on Jesus, no matter how good it was, help to feed the poor or bring lost souls into relationship with God?

The problem with this approach is that we are thinking like business men with profit/loss ledgers, always looking to maximize our investment.  But what was significant here is that both of these women gave selflessly out of love.  It wasn't what could be done with the gift that is commended.  It was the attitude with which it is given.  It was the love they gave with that Jesus found to be commendable.

I might be able to give much more than two pennies, and I might sacrifice a great deal to take care of orphans in a third world country.  I might leave behind everything I own and go to a strange place to preach the gospel.  But if I am not doing it out of love, what good does it do me.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NIV
Remember that what you do is not nearly as important as why you do it.  It's not the size of the gift, or what it can accomplish, or what other people think of it.  What is important is why.  Do it out of love for God.

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