Dissing Gifts

Dissing Gifts

April 07, 2019 | Ryan Arnold

Passage: John 12:1-8

To get someone’s attention give them a gift. And to get millions, or perhaps billions to take notice? Make the gift huge. Perhaps expensive. And definitely make it extravagant.

But watch out, because your motives for the gift just might be questioned.

Here’s a few eye-popping examples of epic gifts, some old, others new.

In 2013 Angelina Jolie treated her beau and hubby hunk Brad Pitt to quite the gift for his 50th birthday: she bought him an island. Petra Island to be specific, a heart-shaped secluded oasis, a short 15-minute helicopter ride to New York City. What makes the gift even more amazing is what’s on the island – not one, but two houses designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The first house is a cottage. The other is the main residence dubbed by those in the know as “one of the most spectacular designs of (Frank Lloyd Wright’s) career.”

The 11-acre private island and historic homes didn’t come cheap; Angela Jolie paid a reported $12.2 million for it.

We might wonder to ourselves, couldn’t this money have been used for a better, more altruistic purpose?


Tho consider this: prior to this gift hubby Brad claimed the master architect had changed his life. And when someone has changed your life, and you love that person, it’s natural you want to bring them closer to what means so much to them. Angelia had, after all, acted out of love for her man.

Next, consider this other rather famous gift from another pair of American socialites.

This big gift is actually rather small, size-wise – at least compared to an island – we’re talking about the Cartier Diamond.

When the 69-carat diamond was auctioned in 1969 it had a flurry of interest, including large bids from the likes of Aristotle Onassis, the Sultan of Brunei, and Richard Burton. Bidding started at $200,000 and quickly got much higher.

Richard Burton had a max bid of 1 Million on the diamond, and asked his lawyer to do the bidding. When he found out the jewel had sold for 50 thousand more Burton was terrified. He immediately contacted Cartier to see what could be done to buy it. After a slew of calls arrangements were made, and the diamond was his. Final cost? 1.1 Million – that’s over 7.5 Million in todays dollars. It set a record price for a publicly sold jewel.

It’s natural to want to critique this as just another example of the uber-rich only thinking of themselves. And on this surface, perhaps you’re right.

But consider this.

Burton bought the item as a gift for his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Reflecting on this moment, in his diary, Burton wrote:

“I wanted that diamond because it is incomparably lovely. And it should be on the loveliest woman in the world.”

Burton had, after all, acted out of love for his wife.

Then there’s one of the biggest gifts in all of history, both literally and figuratively. And it arguably also centers on another one of the loveliest women in the world. This one you definitely know – we’re talking about the Statue of Liberty.

Size-wise it’s massive, the statue is 151 feet high and made of over 200,000 pounds of copper. Including the pedestal it’s mounted on the structure reaches over 300 feet high, from the ground to the tip of the torch. That’s about the length of a football field.

Designed by French sculptor Frederic Bartholdi, with the metal framework built by Gustave Eiffel, it was initially conceived of in 1865. Which was right after the abolition of slavery in the US.

While many believe the statue was a gift, from one government to another, that isn’t technically correct. When given the opportunity neither the French government nor our US Congress decided to financially sponsor it.

Instead it was the people, of both countries, that made it happen. First French citizens raised the equivalent of 2.7 Million in today’s dollars for the statue. Then US citizens raised 2.3 million in today’s currency to construct the pedestal and install the lovely Lady.

This gift, too, was criticized by many at the time. Some felt it was too expensive. Others that it was too large. Or that it was simply bad art. Several cities turned Lady Liberty down not wanting her in their town.

Yet, despite all those challenges, Lady Liberty finally found a home on an island in the New York harbor. She was dedicated in 1886.

Looking back, this gift, too, was an act of love. Love from the citizens of one country, to the citizens of another. And accepting the gift reflects a shared love from our country, founded on freedom, toward another country thousands of miles away, beginning to experience new freedoms of their own.

Today’s text in John 12 features another big, and controversial, gift.

The narrative features a story of two people and their relationship to Jesus. Mary, the faithful disciple, and Judas, also a disciple, but one we soon learn is something less than faithful.

The setting for this gift-giving was a dinner party at Lazarus’ house; his sisters Mary and Martha were also there. A chapter before, in John 11, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.

After someone brings you back to life I suppose the least you can do is to throw a party.

And to invite the giver of life to it.

During dinner Mary brings out a valuable possession, a bottle of perfume, and anoints Jesus’ feet. But this is no normal perfume. It is made from a plant only found in the Himalayan mountains of India. Coming from such a distance it wouldn’t have been easy, or cheap, for her to acquire. Theologians suggest a pound of it was worth about a year’s worth of labor.

After someone brings your brother back to life perhaps a big gesture like this was in order. Mary, after all, loved her brother. And she loved Jesus. She wanted to show appreciation for all he’d done for their family.

Scripture tells us the house was filled with the fragrance, the scent of perfume at the party would have been impossible to miss.

Now I’m no perfume expert, so I asked my wife about this. For her, normally a squirt or two of perfume is plenty. More than that and it gets to be too much. And when it gets to four of five squirts you can really tell.

Imagine your favorite perfume, and putting on 100 or 200 squirts of it.

It must have gotten the attention of everyone there.

The disciple Judas, watching, and smelling this grand gesture chimes in, asking:

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold, with the money given to the poor?”

At first blush it’s a reasonable question. A year’s salary goes a far way in feeding, clothing, and caring for those that need it.

But Judas’ motives weren’t pure.

  • This is the Judas that would soon betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver
  • This is the Judas that managed the funds for Jesus’ ministry
  • This is the Judas that was known to steal from those funds

Judas had no intention of helping the poor. Instead his motives were to line his own pockets.

Jesus then responds, defending Mary, telling Judas to leave her alone.

This perfume foreshadows Jesus’ upcoming death. In no small way it helps prepare him for it.

Christ ends this passage by saying you always have the poor with you. But you do not always have me. Incredibly, this verse at times has been used to imply nothing should be done for the poor.

It’s worth noting that the Old Testament text Jesus references here, from Deuteronomy 15:11, speaks to this more clearly.

“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

This passage is reminiscent of the greatest commandment, which has two parts. First, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind. And secondly, to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is out of a selfless love, for her God, who was in that moment also her neighbor, that Mary gifted perfume to her savior.

It is out of a selfish desire, for more, that Judas greedily chose to critique her gift.

In these two archetypes, of Mary, and Judas, today’s text asks much of us.

As Lutherans, we of the saint and sinner variety, with the knowledge that we have both the capacity for good and evil, it is we who understand well that we all have Mary and Judas tendencies baked right into us.

It is the Judas qualities we harbor that cause us to judge others for their lavish gifts.

And when that happens we forget some important details.

We forget that Angelina Jolie is a well-known philanthropist. She consistently funds the care of refugees from over 20 war-torn countries across the globe. In 2006 alone she gave 8 million of her own money that helps many, many others.

And we forget that when Elizabeth Taylor later sold her famous diamond she gave much of the proceeds away, to an African medical charity.

And hopefully we don’t forget the lasting legacy of the statue of Liberty. Despite the historic critiques of it. Let us not forget this statue contains a broken chain at the feet of Lady Liberty as she walks forward. It is a symbol of freedom that we readily embrace.

And let us not forget the more than 12 million immigrants, who entered the US through Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. As they entered they saw, for the first time, the Statue of Liberty, welcoming them home.

The most lavish of gifts, like what Mary gave to Jesus, are not given with our own self-interests in mind.

Instead they are given from a place of love. Not for us. But for others.

And it is this love, for the whole world, that Jesus models through his life, death and resurrection. It is this love, for the whole world, that culminates with our Easter celebration.

While we each have the broken nature of Judas in us, let us aspire, instead, to be like Mary. Who gave lavishly, out of love, to her savior. A savior that gives lavishly, out of love, to the world.

A savior that beckons us to give lavishly, out of love, to our neighbors, whomever those neighbors may me.  Amen.