Giving and Receiving Love

By D. Stuart Dunnan

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” —John 12:4

Whenever I read this passage from St. John’s gospel, and especially when I preach on it, I always think of my chaplain at St. Albans, Father Downes, who was a particularly hilarious and often irreverent priest, who was therefore a big hit with teenagers.

In any case, he loved to tell the story of his homiletics class at seminary when the professor would give them random passages from Scripture and expect them to preach a five-minute homily without any warning.

When his turn came up, he was given this passage, which Father Downes always referred to as that “kinky passage about that woman drying Jesus’ feet with her hair,” and all he could do was turn bright red and start to giggle. His professor was furious and told him to sit down. “But what did he expect, Dunnan? How can you possibly preach on this passage and keep a straight face?”

But that is exactly what I intend to do, as it is in fact a very rich passage, which teaches us several important lessons about ourselves and thus challenges us to be better disciples of Jesus in some quite particular and very helpful ways.

So, I dedicate this homily to Father Downes, who encouraged me with his bigger-than-life personality and his very human approach to ministry to believe that I could be a priest and a preacher myself: maybe not as funny as he was, but certainly just as human.

So, bear with me as I make three points: the first about Judas and how we are all tempted to be Judases ourselves, the second about Mary and her sister Martha and what they teach us about human love, and the third about honoring the occasion and receiving the gift.


Now, as I am sure that you all remember, Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the temple authorities for “30 pieces of silver,” so greedy and disloyal, and he shows these traits in this story when he objects to the cost of the perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet, saying: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” And John tells us that “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.”

Judas was, then, a selfish and deceitful “taker” who was in no way a “giver,” and even used the giving of others to enrich himself.

Now, my students will tell you that I have a very simple view of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ. I am always telling them (and telling myself, frankly) that Jesus is simply telling us to not live our lives on the take, but to live our lives on the give.

Because it is only by living our lives on the give that we can join in the creating and restoring power of God as it has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ and thus build with our lives his kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” And this is indeed the only way we can live meaningful lives, do real good with our lives, and be truly happy. As a wise man once told me: our cups are half-empty when we are drinking, and half-full when we are pouring.

Show me someone who is always unhappy and miserable, and I will show you someone self-centered and demanding. Show me someone joyful and fulfilled, and I will show you someone self-giving and generous.

One of my pet peeves as someone who raises money as part of my job is the way wealthy people who are not generous expect us to fawn all over them, even though they will never give a significant gift. I remember a young headmaster once told me at a conference that he had discovered a very wealthy alumnus whom he hoped would build a building for him. “Does he give?” I asked. “No,” he answered. “Then he won’t. You will build your building with many smaller gifts from much more generous people.”

We know the type: the colleague who always stiffs you with the check when you eat out at lunch; the friend who always comes to your parties, but never invites you to anything; the adult sibling who still expects to make a profit at Christmas; or the adult child who never visits his mother in the nursing home.

They are much more prevalent than we realize and often quite successful: living in nice houses and driving nice cars, but never really giving anything generously to anyone who is not useful to them or just an emotional extension of themselves. And these people feel no compunction about taking, either. Consider those celebrities who used the cover of a “charitable” foundation to steal a place for their undeserving child at a very prestigious university — a place from someone else.

This false giving, real taking strategy is inherent and endemic in our neo-pagan, self-serving, consumerist America.

So, the question that we have to ask ourselves is this: are we in any way guilty of this as well? Are we in any way false givers? Are we always taking, and never really giving? And have we somehow convinced ourselves and even those around us that we are “better” and “more Christian” than we actually are?

And surely now is the time to ask ourselves this very question before we die, and God asks us: “What did you do? What did you give? How have you built my kingdom?” Judas, after all, once he realized what he had done, had the self-awareness to hang himself and not plead a false innocence.

Mary and Martha

The other part of the narrative that is interesting is the relationship between Mary and Martha, who were the sisters of Lazarus, all three of them close friends of Jesus.

You will remember that in St. Luke’s gospel we see the same pattern: Martha is doing all the work while Mary just visits with Jesus. In Luke’s story, Martha complains: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me.” Jesus’ answer in this story is like his answer in John’s story, and it is an arresting one: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need only of one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (10:38-42).

Again, when Jesus raises her brother Lazarus from the tomb, it is Martha, true to her personality, who marches out and confronts him “while Mary stays at home”: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not had died.” And because she confronts him and he answers her, she is one of the first of his disciples to profess her faith in him: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:17-27).

So we see in Mary and Martha two sisters with two very different personalities, who because of their personalities relate to Jesus differently. To use the paradigm of the four languages of love I often use when I am counseling a couple before their marriage, Martha is a “doer” and a “speaker,” and Mary is a “toucher” and a “giver.”

And what is important here is that each engages Jesus intimately and powerfully, and that Jesus relates to them lovingly as they are.

Surely, this is good news for us as we relate to Jesus with our own personalities and the right example for us to follow as we relate to each other: understanding each other, forgiving each other, and loving each other as we really are.

Honoring the Occasion and Receiving the Gift

Which takes me to my final point, the whole point of this story perhaps: Jesus loves Mary, and he receives her gift. He honors the love which inspires it.

I have a good friend who is one of the most admirable people I know. She is a very sincere and committed Christian, but earnest and driven in her personality: a real Martha, if you will, a real doer and a talker. She is one of those busy Christians who is always doing for others and anxious to help: ready with advice and keen to help with her words and deeds. But there are no hugs and kisses, and there are no gifts — just wholesome dinners without wine and self-help books, which her daughters-in-law understandably find insulting.

This is a huge challenge for her husband and her children: they cannot give her anything, and they cannot help her in return. Her husband told me once: “I cannot even buy her a dress. She won’t let me.” And he cried.

I can be guilty of this as a headmaster and as a priest, always loving everybody else, the teachers and the students, taking good care of them, doing for them always, giving them advice whether they want it or not. And so, it is hard for them to love me back, and that is my fault. I rarely give them the opportunity; I rarely allow the gift. I think that it is a power thing, and therefore a sin.

But one of the truths that I have learned is the same truth I am sure that many of you have learned in marriage or as parents, or even as friends: we need to empower those we love to love us. Otherwise, we just spoil them, and we fail to receive the appreciation and the encouragement that God intends for us. This is what Jesus models for us when he stands up for Mary, first to her sister and then to Judas: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” And the time of his burial had come.

He was in a lonely place, and he welcomed his friend’s response to that; he honored her love for him — just as he honors our love for him in the Eucharist, and we honor his love for us.


In my lectionary, which I used to prepare this sermon, I have a leather bookmark which was carefully burned and decorated with images of flowers, embellishing a few carefully chosen words. It was given to me by my scout at the college at Oxford, where I was the chaplain before I came to Saint James School.

A “scout” at Oxford is the person who cleans your rooms and looks after you, and mine was an older, gentle, and loving woman with a beautiful faith who took good care of me in her quiet and unobtrusive way when I was a very young priest in a challenging job far from my family and my home.

When I told her that I was returning to America to run a school in my native Maryland, she told me that she was sorry to see me go, and on my last morning before I left I saw that she had left me a gift: this bookmark which she had made so carefully herself.

And what it says is simply this: “Remember Mary,” because that was her name, and underneath her name it says: “Lincoln College, Oxford — 1992,” because that is where she took such good care of me. And so I do, even now — 27 years later, every time I open that book.

God has made us as his children to live in love together, and this is what Jesus teaches and shows us how to do: to give and to receive.

The Rev. Dr. D. Stuart Dunnan is headmaster of St. James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.


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