Money, Poverty, and Perfume




The disciples were really upset about the perfume incident.
Apparently Mary (of Martha and Mary fame) dusted off an alabaster jar of perfume worth $10,000 (a year's minimum wage) and drenched Jesus in it as an act of worship not long before his final meal and eventual crucifixion. Imagine buying Jesus a $10,000 bottle of wine for the Passover supper. Such a scandalous luxury! The next event that Matthew records is Judas negotiating a price to betray Jesus. It must have been the last straw for him.

The indignation the disciples felt at this extravagance is one I have felt many times. Especially after coming home from a trip to the developing world. I am constantly converting the price of things here into the currency of the country I have just visited. I think, "With the price of this cup of coffee I could buy a meal for Patrick and his family in Malawi."

In the end, these sorts of currency conversions are not helpful to me. There are scads of statistics showing how much Americans spend on pet food, or golf, or books and how that money might feed nations, educate thousands of children, or provide basic housing for the poor. I advocate simple living, but I'm not sure resources like these can get re-distributed quite so neatly. Stuff like this serves to stir up indignation or guilt, but generally doesn't convert into real help for the poor.

I love Chris Heuertz, Executive Director of Word Made Flesh. He says he doesn't like the taste of fair trade coffee so he doesn't buy it. He also shops at the GAP because he gets gift cards from there and likes the clothes. That's just the practical truth of how he lives, though he deeply loves the poor and connects his life to theirs. However, he is initiating a self-imposed tax. For everything he buys at the GAP he is taxing himself an additional 12% and setting up an account to distribute this money to factory workers in the developing world.

We need more creativity like this. How can we live in this incredibly bifurcated world where the rich live on islands of affluence surrounded by oceans of poverty? How can we break the alabaster jar for Jesus (and let him break it for us - he is always more extravagant with us than we are with him) while living fasted lifestyles?

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