Enticed: By Greed - Rev. Louis Timberlake

Enticed: By Greed
John 12:1-8
Louis Timberlake
March 13, 2016

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

I stumbled upon an interesting article this past week. The real estate website Trulia did a ranking of the most saintly and most sinful cities in the US, based upon data about these cities around the seven deadly sins. If you’re from the Catholic tradition, you may be familiar with the seven deadly sins. Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Now, the methodology isn’t perfect, but it’s a pretty entertaining study. There was an overall list of the top five most sinful and most saintly cities. Now, it’s interesting that Las Vegas didn’t make the list of most sinful, though New Orleans topped the list. North Carolina was represented, as Raleigh made the list as the fifth most saintly city. I’m pretty sure Duke and UNC fans would disagree with that.

They also did a ranking for each of the seven deadly sins and Greensboro actually made one of those, but not in a good way. It turns out that Greensboro is the fourth most envious city. They got that ranking by measuring the inequality in home values. Again, their methodology isn’t perfect, but it is an interesting statistic. Apparently the difference in home values here is much greater than most places in the nation.

Anyways, today our topic is one of the seven deadly sins--greed. Now, in my mind, there’s a connection between greed and another of the seven--gluttony. They’re both about insatiable appetites. Whether it’s for food or for things, it’s about consumption getting out of control. And I’ll tell you, I understand that. Gluttony has always been a struggle for me, particularly as a kid. As a kid, I liked to eat beyond what I needed to eat.

You know, I debated telling this story this morning and hope I don’t offend anyone’s sensibilities, too much.

Growing up in Atlanta, we used to go to a restaurant called Lettuce Souprise You. It was basically a buffet with a big salad and soup bar. Nothing fancy, but good for a family with four kids. Anyways, when you tend to overeat, buffets can be particularly challenging. I remember one time we were eating there and I think my parents were distracted by my three sisters, because they didn’t realize how much I had eaten. Eventually, I ate more that my kid-sized stomach could hold. And it began coming back up. Not once, but six times, as my parents were frantically rushing me out of the restaurant, while all of the other patrons and staff watched. Not one of my better moments. You know, we never went back to that restaurant. But, after that, my dad nicknamed it, “Let Louis Surprise You.”

We have limits in our ability to consume. But, sometimes we don’t respect those limits. Sometimes, whether it’s food or things, we consume beyond what is healthy.

I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to this most recent presidential race. The North Carolina primary is on Tuesday and, with Christ Church being a polling site, things will be a little busy around the main entrance that day. I’m struck by something John Wesley said on election day, 1774. He said,

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them.

  • To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
  • To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
  • To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

Now, when he says “our society,” he isn’t referring to all of England, he’s referring to the Methodist society–basically, a large church community. But, that’s not bad advice for 2016. Vote for the person you deem most worthy. Don’t speak evil about those you vote against. Don’t have ill feelings towards those that voted for somebody else. I wonder how John Wesley would respond to the current political environment in the US?

Now, if you are a talk show host or a comedian, you’re loving it. If your job is to make people laugh and capitalize on the absurd, it feels like every election cycle brings better and better material. Of course, more absurdity may not be what we’d hope to see in our politics. I always enjoy watching Saturday Night Live’s political impressions. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation is still one of the best of all time. Darrell Hammond’s version of Bill Clinton is hilarious. But, I think one of my favorites is Dana Carvey’s impersonation of George HW Bush.

His line, “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent,” became one of the most memorable lines from SNL, right up there Chris Farley as Matt Foley, motivational speaker, talking about “living in a van, down by the river,” and Christopher Walken as a record producer asking for “a little more cowbell.”

And, I wonder if prudence is a better word for what we see in this passage. Greed is a strong word. I hear greed and I think about Ebenezer Scrooge from a Christmas Carol. Or, for the younger crowd, Mr. Krabs from Spongebob. But, I doubt that many of us would relate to Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Krabs. They’re caricatures of greed. So, maybe prudent is a better word. Wise, sensible. To be prudent means to think about the future, to think about the consequences of our actions. We are a prudent people, aren’t we? We strive to make the right decisions. We strive to make sure our loved ones have all they need. We think about the future. We save and plan.  We are a prudent people.

But, this is a difficult story for prudent people. You have Mary, who uses 300 denarii worth of perfume to anoint Jesus. Now, a denarius was equivalent to one day’s wages. So, in today’s terms, a $8 an hour wage for eight hours a day for 300 days come in just south of $20,000 dollars. This is not cheap perfume. It isn’t even extravagant. It’s beyond extravagant. In fact, we might even want to ask why Mary had $20,000 perfume in the first place. But, it does tell us that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were people of means. This is interesting, because it shows that Jesus truly spent time with everyone. Wealthy and poor. Accepted and rejected. Religious and political leaders and social outcasts. There is no us and them with Jesus.

But, the part of this story that might trouble us is Judas. Mary uses an entire pound of incredibly expensive perfume to anoint Jesus’ feet and, not only that, but she uses her hair to wipe his feet. When you consider that this was likely a formal dinner at the house of a wealthy family, this is surprising. But, what might bother us even more is that Judas’ reaction is probably the exact reaction that many of us would have. Why would you use up such resources in one act, when you could feed and house a struggling family for a year?

Mary’s action seems reckless, but she’s labeled the faithful one.

Judas’ response seems prudent, but he’s labeled the unfaithful one.

If you’re like me, you almost don’t know what to do with this passage. Wouldn’t Judas’ response seem to be more in line with what we know of God? It’s an odd story. But, the writer of John gives us a hint. The writer offers some commentary on the story, saying that Judas “said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it..” Judas’ words did not match his heart. His words sound like that come from a concern for the poor, but ultimately he cared for himself. Judas does not speak out of love, but greed. Mary, on the other hand, acts out of love for Jesus.

This passage does not call prudence into question, but it does complicate it. We are a prudent people. We plan, we save, we strive to make right decisions. We don’t tend to be reckless. And yet, if we do not operate out of a spirit of love, then it is easy for prudence to slowly turn to greed. It’s a subtle shift.

We don’t hear much about Judas beyond his betrayal of Jesus, but I imagine that he wasn’t always a greedy person. Jesus called him as one of his closest followers. He was entrusted as the Treasurer of Jesus’ little group, likely because he was a prudent person. And yet, at some point, he stopped operating out of love.

You know, just as there are seven deadly sins in the church tradition, there are also seven virtues, each corresponding to a different sin. Many early church fathers believed that resisting the temptation of a particular sin meant cultivating the corresponding virtue in your life. The corresponding virtue to the sin of Greed is Charity. But, we’ve lost the true meaning of that word. The Latin word is caritas. Thomas Aquinas, one of the most renowned theologians in the history of the church, called it “the most excellent of the virtues.” Caritas, or charity, in short, means love. The highest love. True love of God and neighbor.

Greed is about looking towards one’s own needs and desires to an unhealthy extent. To an extent that is at the expense of the needs of others and, ultimately, that is detrimental to oneself. And, the only cure for that is to cultivate love, love of God and love of neighbor. Because, love leads to generosity. Generosity that puts the needs of others and the will of God above the desires of self.

This passage doesn’t give us a clear answer about how we can be prudent in how we live, in our relationship with things, and still be faithful to God. Instead, it forces us to ask a question. Are we operating out of love, or something else? Whatever it is we do, whatever it is we save, whatever it is we give, whatever it is we sacrifice, is it out of love, or something else?

There are times that being a disciple of Christ calls us to be prudent and times that it calls us to be reckless, so that we might grow in love and so that we might be ambassadors of that love. Being a disciple means answering that call when it is easy and when it is difficult.

Similarly, there are times that being the church, the body of Christ’s people in this community, calls us to be prudent and times that it calls us to be reckless, so that God’s justice, mercy, and love can be made real here in Greensboro, NC. Being the church means answering that call when it is easy and when it is difficult.

Discussion Questions

  • What is your initial reaction to this passage?
  • What does it mean to be prudent? What is the difference between prudence and greed? What does it take to shift from prudence into greed?
  • How do we cultivate love in our lives?
  • When does being a disciple of Christ call us to be prudent? To be reckless?
  • When does being the church call us to be prudent? To be reckless?