Sermon, 4/3/22: 300 Denarii! What is the going price for love?

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5 Lent

Psalm 126; Isaiah 43:16 – 21; Philippians 3:4b – 14; John 12:1 – 8

“Could not this perfume have been sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
John 12.5

Over various centuries, the measure for mercantile exchange, locally, nationally and internationally, has changed. I recall the Gold Standard, that enduring precious metal, against which currencies of different nations was measured or evaluated. There was also the Pound Sterling. I recall from my various international travels that at some point, our nation, the United States, declined to have it currency evaluated against the Gold Standard.

International mercantile exchange needs a commonality, against which national currencies are measured, in order to be able to conduct its business. Today, it is the American, i.e. US Dollar that provides that trusted basis. And I know this because the president of Russia has declared that his nation shall no longer accept the US Dollar as payment for energy commodities. You may relax, for this is not a political speech. If the cost of one barrel of imported crude oil is $112, what is the going rate for love? Is love a commodity that can be priced? In his day, Judas Iscariot set it at 300 Denarii!

In my youth, one could hear the older generation speak about the good old days, when people bargained, negotiated, haggled over the price of things. Often, as the story goes, little money exchanged hands. By the time I decided to grace this planet with my radiant, effervescent presence, this method of buying and selling and honoring debts had all but disappeared. Except for seasonal sales, when prices are reduced, in order to make way for the next newest thing, stores in 2022 operate on fixed prices, and those prices are hidden away in bar codes and they are nonnegotiable. The now ubiquitous bar codes and electronic scanning devices have all but eliminated live, interpersonal exchange at the till. Indeed, commonplace in some supermarkets today is self-check-out, with a mechanized voice. This is not my version of “the good old days.” Rather, I observe merely the changes that take place in the world of mercantilism.

Prior to the pandemic when I travelled once, sometimes twice each year to visit family in Hong Kong, I needed on one occasion to purchase a hat, in order to protect myself from the brutal rays of the sun in that region. Chaperoned by my then 9-year old grandson, I set out on my quest. This gave me opportunity to experience being among the locals, although I understood nary a word of Cantonese, the language of the 8 million Chinese who inhabit the island of Hong Kong, or Mandarin. He and I walked down to Stanley Market.

Although covered, Stanley Market is not a high rise department store. Rather, it is a bazaar, an open-air, pedestrian way where individual operators own or lease space to offer merchandize of various sorts. I purchased a hat, the main objective of my outing, and without a moment’s hesitation, I paid the price stated on the tag. The owner of the boutique spoke perfectly good English with me. I was satisfied with my purchase. In fact, I was really proud that I had gotten the hat. I was pleased with myself, with my success in mingling with the locals. That self-satisfaction lasted not long at all, and not because the baseball-like cap was deficient. When my daughter’s housekeeper asked whether I had bargained with the shopkeeper and I replied in the negative, she, calmly but with a tone, that diminished my self-satisfaction, informed me that I had violated a cardinal principle of Stanley Market. I did not understand, for the price of the hat was very reasonable, far less than what it would have cost me in Boston, and besides, I could easily afford it, given the exchange rate.

She proceeded to explain to me that the price was not the issue. Rather, contrary to my intention to mingle with the locals and do as the locals do, unintentionally I had failed to engage in and with the community of Stanley Market. Shopkeepers like to boast of the quality and value of their merchandize, some of which, as one might expect, was of excellent and some of not so good quality. And this they do through their good natured negotiation of the price, which is, as the housekeeper explained to me, deliberately overpriced, so that the shopkeeper can have conversation, can connect with locals, with foreigners like myself, as well as with the hoard of tourists from Mainland who flock on weekends and holidays to Stanley, with its sandy beaches, a kilometer-long boardwalk, and an unobstructed view of the South China Sea.

What, you may well ask, do bar codes and my personal travel reflections have to do with Lent and the lessons which we have heard this morning? The lesson learned is this: The value of an item is not necessarily defined by its price. Rather the value lies elsewhere, in how the item contributes to the building of connection between individuals and, hence, the broader community. The Old Testament lesson from the prophet Isaiah speaks of making things new. Paul, formerly Saul, discounts all his credentials as nothing worth, compared to the joy of sharing with real live and living people the message of good news of Jesus whom he never met and whose followers he had previously persecuted. While reading Paul’s comparison of his new life with his old, I was reminded of a pithy saying of Albert Einstein who once said “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” (Einstein Quotes @ A new way of thinking about God’s will for humankind came about, because Paul, no longer Saul, perceived that adhering to the old language of rules that had to be followed zealously did not bring him closer to God. A new way had to be found, and Paul found it in the language, in the message which Jesus proclaimed. But it is the exchange between Jesus and Judas in John’s gospel which most vividly causes us to reconsider how we place value on things. John paints for us a picture of Jesus who, at least on the surface, would seem to deny the very group of people whom he has championed from the very beginning of his ministry, the poor, by rebuking Judas with counter observation: ‘the poor you have with you always.’ And how can that be so? That Jesus did not. Rather, Jesus was expressing the virtue and necessity of demonstrating love in and through action.

The observation posed by Judas is what we call a conundrum, a puzzling and contradictory riddle. Lay aside for the moment John’s snide remark that Judas was a thief, Judas’ behavior and Jesus’ response raise all kind of questions. Can or should we calculate love? And if so, how do we calibrate love? Can we monetize love? And as I thought about this puzzle, a difficult and challenging corollary came to mine: Should our devotion to Christ and the sharing of his love be governed by the question ‘What’s in it for us?’ Should we expect to benefit from sharing with others the gospel of Christ that motivates us? Do we have the right to set ourselves as a gold standard?

Look again at what transpired during this visit with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus had come to the house of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, dear friends by all accounts, for some R and R. He had on a prior occasion revived Lazarus from a death-like condition. Lazarus was crucial to the welfare of Martha and Mary, for without him, the household had no male head and without that male head, Mary and Marth stood exposed to financial and social isolation and danger. For a clear perspective, recall, if you will, the moving story of Naomi and Ruth. Naomi, aware of the social standing in her era of a woman without husband, urges Ruth, her daughter-in-law, to return to her own tribe, because there perhaps she stood a fairer chance of regaining financial support and social acceptance, than even as a young widow in a new tribe. Ruth remained with Naomi, and together they succeeded by the grace of God. As a show of thanksgiving for the miracle which Jesus had performed on their brother, thereby securing their welfare, and because in the culture of the time it was an act of respect for soothe the feet of the traveler, Mary performed her social duties. What Mary did, was different only in kind from the widow at the Temple who gave her last penny, while those around her gave more. What Mary did, was different only in kind from the woman who gave Jesus to drink from a well. What Mary did, was different only in kind from the father who killed the fatted calf and prepared a feast for an errant returning son whom he had thought dead.

Love, the cornerstone for a building called community, love a commitment to recognizing the dignity of every human being, no matter place of origin or social status—that love has no price; that love cannot be calibrated and that love cannot be bought. That love means humbling oneself, often to receive from someone of lesser rank and social status. That love means receiving when we have nothing tangible to give in return. On this fifth Sunday in Lent, thanks to an observation made by Judas, we are brought one step closer to hear again those words “crucify him,” those words which even spoken in a liturgical setting, cause the hair on the nape of our necks to rise, because, when we shout out those two word, “crucify him,” as we shall in seven days’ time, we shall be reminded of the price which the God of true love and who gives life to all was, willing to pay, that we, you and I, might lay aside our old ways of thinking which got us into the predicament that necessitated the crucifixion of God’s Messiah. And so it is, that I stand in these last days of Lent in awe of that awesome and awful cost of love. Amen.