As a young pastor, I started a war on flowers in the church sanctuary because I thought the money spent on flowers should be given to the poor. A saintly woman reminded me with considerable firmness that beauty was part of God’s creation, and I had no right to deny the expression of someone’s gift for flower arranging, especially in the house of God. I quickly called off my war of the roses. Some time later and after only a few years of marriage, I realized that my very own lady actually preferred flowers on her birthday rather than the two football tickets I had been giving her.
Now you need to fast-forward with me through 40 years to the time when Margaret came back from a two-day conference in Chicago. On her return, I was standing at the bottom of a ramp at Greater Pittsburgh Airport holding above my head a large sign which read “Welcome Home, Margaret” and a huge presentation bouquet of cut flowers. I knew I looked absolutely ridiculous, and I fervently hoped no one in the large crowd recognized me. I could tell they were wondering who in the world that besotted old geezer was meeting.
When Margaret came bounding out of the plane and saw me and the sign and the flowers and hundreds of people grinning up at her, she blushed a fiery red and took an instinctive step back toward the plane. However, in a split second she realized that in that tiny move she had perfectly identified herself for everybody in the concourse. As she walked on down the ramp, I thought, “Oh boy, I have really messed up now,” but she took the flowers, with the grace only women can manage, and said, “That was nice. Message received. I may keep you around a while longer.”
Flowers to your wife or a contribution to a worthy charity? The fact is we Presbyterians are better at “order” than we are at “ardor.” We find it easier to express careful, economic accountability than wild, heartfelt devotion. However, I suspect there are times, even in the life of a Calvinist, when we had rather have a kiss than a check. Still, the anointing at Bethany is especially hard for us to interpret.
The event is reported by all four Gospels (Mark 14, Matthew 26, Luke 7, John 12) with a bewildering variety of details. For example, Mark and Matthew say the ointment was poured on Jesus’ head; Luke and John say the ointment was poured on Jesus’ feet. Still, on the surface at least, the major point seems to be that Jesus receives a lavish gift which is the equivalent of a full year’s wages. When this acceptance is challenged by the disciples, led (in John) by Judas, to the effect that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor, Jesus defends the action by going on the attack.
Predictably, this passage made John Calvin quite uncomfortable. He declares that the anointing appears very much a matter of luxury and unnecessary indulgence, and insists that while some particular, and even silly, acts may please the great God, they should not properly be taken as an example to follow, but represent a clear exception to normal Christian behavior. I get the distinct impression that if Jesus Christ himself had not given his approval to the anointing at Bethany, then John Calvin, and maybe most Presbyterians, would join Judas in condemning it.
The proper use of money is, I believe, the single most difficult issue confronting the ordinary Christian in America. Jesus talked a lot about money, including the statement that where you money is there you heart is also (Matthew 6:21). I took that statement very seriously. Therefore, when I was a pastor I always preached four (!) stewardship sermons in November. These sermons wonderfully unified each of the congregations I served. They made everybody mad. When I was a child I assumed “We were taking up a collection for the church.” By the time I became a pastor I knew “We were making an offering to Almighty God.”
Still I have often wondered if the money I spent on that poster board and those flowers was proper stewardship. Clearly, Christian obedience requires careful use of the resources which God has entrusted to our care. We must avoid the self-indulgent luxuriousness that destroys character and denies our responsibility to and for God’s world.
At the same time I believe that the anointing at Bethany is a reminder to overly cautious people that it is also appropriate to express our love and devotion to God and to each other with beautiful things. After all, none other than our Lord Jesus Christ himself said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her/ She has done a beautiful thing to me. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”