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April 3rd, 2022

Generosity is good for us. Giving social support to other people is associated with better health, higher quality of life, and less loneliness. Spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves, although we don’t always realize it. As a species, we have no doubt evolved to be generous – I help you, you help me. Altruism developed, some researchers suggest, as a way to keep communities working together. But giving and helping another person also gives our lives meaning and purpose, and that’s good for our mental health. Where and how we choose to be generous tends to follow patterns. We are more likely to help a specific person than an anonymous one. We prefer to help individuals rather than groups. We tend to be more generous with people who are like us. If we have only so much to give in our day, we like to know it is well spent. If someone notices, all the better; we like our generous acts to be witnessed. At the heart of the gospel this morning is a dissertation on generosity. Who should receive? What kind of generosity matters most? What should it look like? Especially, if there is only so much to go around. In our gospel, we find Jesus at the home of his friend Lazarus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with the disciples, including Judas, who is just days away from betraying Jesus to the authorities. Martha serves dinner. But when Mary uses some expensive perfume to anoint his feet, Judas protests angrily. That perfume should have been sold and spent on the poor. To which Jesus says quite firmly, leave her alone. “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, Judas, who is a few days away from betraying Jesus, is the last disciple we’d expect to be standing up for being selfless with the poor. We might more likely suspect that he wants the coin for himself. Right away, then, we get the signal that his objecting is wrong. It’s a kind of virtue-signalling we see all the time in society, a kind of surface generosity for show. Judas wants to be seen as generous, but he is only play-acting at it. Let’s consider, more importantly, the response of Jesus, which is, on the surface at least, a bit confusing. These lines have even been used to justify a certain ambivalence about poverty – if it is always with us, what can we do about it anyway? And is Jesus, a minimalist by every account, justifying an extravagant expense? Let’s start with the line – “You will always have the poor.” In fact, Jesus is quoting a line from Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. It’s the second part of that sentence that changes its meaning entirely: That is why I am giving you this order, 'You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land.' In other words, if there will always be need, we must be constantly generous. And yet, Jesus goes on, there is space for different kinds of generosity. If we see poverty as a larger issue that needs to be addressed, we may also be generous on an individual level, just as Mary was doing for Jesus. Compassion is meant to be boundless, not restricted. It comes in many forms; Mary, knowing the path he was on, was doing him a kindness, one showing how much he was loved and valued. Perhaps this act of generosity helped bolster him to keep going; perhaps it showed him that his ministry had made a difference, and that he had a community. Given that it was also to be used in his burial, as Jesus himself says, it also reinforced that he would be remembered when he was gone. Surely, Jesus, in all his humanness, would need to hear this. In that respect, then, Mary’s generosity is a powerful act of love. What’s more, it likely made Mary feel better, as all that research has found. We shouldn’t feel badly when generosity makes us feel good – it is no less reason to do it. The positive emotion we receive when we are giving to people should only reinforce that it is the right thing to do, that the gospel is speaking through us when we act generously. Mary’s giving to Jesus was her response to his ministry. And when we actively respond to the gospel, we give our faith, and our lives, meaning. As it happens, though, that line from Jesus, is not entirely correct. We do not always have to have the poor with us; we do not have to accept poverty as a reality we cannot change. Some cities, such as Medicine Hat in Alberta, and countries, such as Finland, have been extremely successful in eliminating homelessness. They have done so using a Housing First model, which finds homes for people first, and then offers them supports as individuals. Isn’t that the wide definition of generosity that Jesus is describing in the gospel? We must try to solve the larger problems, but also see the individual opportunities to provide comfort and care. In this way we become the fully generous people that Jesus envisioned: people who see not only the big picture of the larger world, but also the unique stories of each person, and respond with generosity. Amen

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