THE FRAGRANCE OF A LOVELY DEED by Rev Bob (Robert) Smith
Like many people who were born before the end of World War 2, I was raised in a time of frugality and taught to always put something away for a rainy day. Extravagance doesn’t come easily to me, even now, living in a far more affluent environment than my parents did.
But I often wonder what it would be like to throw caution to the wind and do something that didn’t make good economic sense.
The famous American writer O’Henry wrote a story about this. Jim and Della were a young married couple who lived in a dingy apartment in New York.
Apart from their love for each other they had very little of value – except for two things: one was Jim’s gold pocket watch, which hung from his jacket by a leather strap, and had been passed down from his grandfather and father. The other was Della’s gorgeous brown hair, which, when let down, fell like a cascade reaching below her knees.
One Christmas Eve, Della emptied all the money she had onto the table. It amounted to $1.87. She wanted to buy Jim a Christmas present. But you can’t buy much for $1.87. So, she just sat and cried.
Then suddenly she had an idea. She put on her old brown coat and rushed out into the city streets to a shop owned by Madam Sofronie, who dealt in products made from human hair. She ran inside, took her hat off and let her hair fall in a rippling cascade.
‘Will you buy my hair?’ she asked.
Mme Sofronie looked at it and said: $20
‘Give it to me quick:’ said Della
Minutes later she set off again, now with $21.87 in her purse, and found the shop where she seen the one gift she’d always dreamed of buying for Jim; a platinum fob chain worthy of his precious watch. They charged her $21, and she hurried home with just 87 cents left.
Her one worry was what Jim would think about her hair. So, she got out her curling irons and went to work repairing what Mme Sofronie had done, and soon her head was covered with tiny curls that made her look like a Coney Island chorus girl.
At 7 o'clock she heard Jim’s steps coming up the stairs. She whispered a prayer: ‘Please God, make him think I am still pretty.’
The door opened and Jim stepped in. He stopped, his eyes fixed on Della with an expression she couldn’t read, and it frightened her.
‘Jim, darling,’ she cried: ‘don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold it because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. ... You don't know what a beautiful gift I've got for you.’
‘You've cut off your hair!’ Jim said
‘Cut it off and sold it,’ said Della. ‘Don't you like me just as well? I'm still me without my hair.’
Jim came out of his trance and drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table. ‘Dell,’ he said, ‘I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package, you’ll see why you had me going a while.’
She tore at the string and paper. And then gave a scream of joy; which then changed to tears and wails. For there lay the set of beautiful tortoishell combs with jewelled rims that she’d long worshipped ever since she first saw them in a Broadway store. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned were gone. Finally, when she’d stopped crying, she said: ‘My hair grows real fast, Jim!’
And then she remembered that Jim hadn’t seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him and said: ‘Isn't it a dandy? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it.’
Well, Jim flopped down on the couch, put his hands under the back of his head and smiled. ‘Dell,’ he said. ‘Let's put our Christmas presents away and keep ’em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. You see, I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs.’
And O’Henry finishes the story by saying: ‘And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.’
It’s a wonderful story all about the extravagance of love that makes no practical sense but captivates the imagination of generation to generation. And I tell it to introduce the greatest of such stories; that of how Mary poured out her most valuable possession in one extravagant act of love for Jesus.
It took place just a few days before Jesus was crucified. The setting of was the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Mary and Martha – the closest thing that Jesus had for a home of his own.
They invited him and his disciples to a meal. Lazarus, as the host, reclined at the table with Jesus and the other guests, while Martha, always the practical one, served the meal, showing her love as she always did by practical service.
But Mary, true to her sensitive and intuitive nature, did something that both surprised and shocked everyone – except Jesus. She brought out a vessel containing half a litre of pure nard – a very expensive perfume worth the equivalent of a man’s annual salary – and poured it out on Jesus’ feet, then used her own unbound hair to dry them.
The effect was electrifying. Judas Iscariot – the man who a few days later betrayed Jesus, was appalled, and voiced everyone’s unspoken opinion when he said openly: ‘What an unconscionable waste! It could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’The other gospel accounts of the story show that the others all agreed with him, although John cynically adds that Judas didn’t care two hoots about the poor; as treasurer he’d been helping himself to the offerings and would have liked to have got his hands on that generous donation.
Not only that, but the way she did it would have shocked them even more. For a young woman to unbind her hair in public like an immoral woman, and then use it to wipe a man’s feet, would have been positively embarrassing.
But Jesus immediately turned on them all and said in effect: ‘Leave her alone. God intended that this should happen.’ He then explained that she’d actually anointed his body in advance for burial.
You see, despite everything he’d been trying to tell them for weeks, none of them had accepted that he was on his way to a horrible death, and he'd been carrying that burden alone – except for this one sensitive, loving woman who alone realised the truth.
And then Jesus added something that has troubled Christians ever since: ‘The poor you always have with you.’ He said.I say this because I suspect most of us agree with Judas; that the money would have been better used as a charitable gift rather than poured out in one extravagant and wasteful action.
However, we need to be careful not to jump to conclusions here. Jesus is certainly not minimizing the importance of generous giving to the needy. In Matthew 25 he actually said that to do so is to give to him. The point of this story is that there are times when our love can only be fully expressed by acts that to others may seem embarrassing and foolishly extravagant.
But, as Thomas Aquinas once said: ‘Man sees the deed, but God sees the intention.’Jesus understands, and Jesus approves.
In Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus then pays Mary the ultimate tribute. He says: ‘Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’ And John’s account adds: ‘And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ Both of which led someone once to sum it all up by saying: ‘The fragrance of a lovely deed lasts forever.’
So, what does this enigmatically beautiful story say to us? Well, first of all it says that love is not love if it always counts the cost. Yes, I know, you’re thinking about how Jesus told people to count the cost before deciding to follow him. But that’s the very point! He’s not advocating mindless and impetuosity, but rather, knowing the cost and being undeterred.
The second thing is love’s unselfconsciousness. What Mary did was outrageously extravagant, but the way she did it was embarrassingly unseemly – unbound hair wiping a man’s feet. That was the sign of an immoral woman.
But as we know, when love takes over, we are in a world of our own, and what other people think hardly crosses our mind. Mary probably never even thought of how the others would react, and if she had she probably wouldn’t have cared. It’s a challenge to us not to be so self-conscious about showing our love for Jesus and commitment to him.
And finally, it teaches us that we may not get a second chance to do for Jesus what our hearts tell us to do. That dinner party took place just before what we call Palm Sunday. Which means it probably happened a week or so before his crucifixion. Jesus was on his way to the Cross. Mary was the only one who realised this. None of the others was prepared to accept it.
It leaves us all with one great question: is there something that you, in your heart of hearts, know is to be your act of extravagant love? And will you have another chance to offer it?