Have you ever been bothered by someone’s extravagance? Allow me to make that question even more specific. Have you ever been bothered by the way in which someone’s extravagance interferes with the accomplishing of your pre-established agenda?
It is an interesting word, extravagant. It is a derivative of two Latin words: “extra” which means, literally, “outside;” and “vagari” which means “to wander.” Extravagant, then, means wandering outside, or, more specifically, wandering outside of what is normal. Traveling beyond what is expected. Doing something that takes us outside of the typical routine.
Based upon that definition, have you ever been bothered by the way in which someone’s extravagance (i.e., someone’s willingness to wander outside or beyond what is normal) interferes with the accomplishing of your pre-established agenda?
When I was a small child, my mother always allowed me to put the family’s envelope in the offering plate during Sunday morning worship. In fact, beyond allowing me to do it, she expected me to do it. I think that she saw it as an opportunity to teach her son something about the urgency of investing in the church’s ministry.
One day, when I was 5 or 6, I looked closely at the envelope as the offering plate came around. For some reason, on this particular day, the mathematics and the economics of that envelope began to make cognitive sense to me. My mind, by that point in time, had developed to such an extent that I was able to realize how large an amount of money was in that envelope. (My parents have always been faithful and generous givers to the church’s ministry.)
What do you think my initial reaction was to my recognition of my parents’ substantive offering? Do you think that it was a joyful and supportive reaction? Do you think it was “Wow, Mom and Dad, God bless you for your generosity to the church and God bless you for raising your son to understand about the centrality of generosity in the life of discipleship to Jesus Christ!”
Rather, my initial reaction as a five or six year old boy was something like this: “What a stupid idea to put this much money into an offering plate! Do you know how many comic books this money could buy? Do you know how many GI Joe accessories this money could provide? Do you know far this money would go in the purchasing of the Atari Pong Game?”
I essentially thought to myself that day, “Mom and Dad, I don’t like the fact that you are giving away this amount of money because I have some very clear ideas about how this amount of money could be used in the enhancement of your son’s life.”
It may have been the first time in my life that I resented what I perceived to be my parents’ extravagance. Extravagance was probably not even a word in my vocabulary at that point. But I knew that my parents willingness to put that amount of money into an offering plate every week represented an effort to go outside of what I perceived to be reasonable. And, on that morning, I resented it.
It reminds me of Judas’ reaction to Mary’s eagerness to anoint the feet of Jesus with expensive perfume—an act of extravagant adoration described in the 12th chapter of John’s Gospel (John 12:1-8). Do you remember Judas’ complaint in that moment? It was something like this: “What’s the meaning of this?! We could have sold that perfume for a lot of money, all of which might have been used to minister to the poor.”
Judas, you see, is eminently practical in his view of ministry and seems to have the best of intentions. He sees Mary’s behavior as needlessly extreme, especially given the practical needs of the poor, and he resents Mary’s extravagance. He resents it, much as I resented the extravagance of my parents’ Sunday morning offering envelope.
“Hey, Mom and Dad, this money could be used to take care of your family, what are you doing putting it into an offering plate?”
“Hey Mary, that perfume could be sold to feed the poor, what are you doing it pouring it onto the feet of Jesus?”
Jesus graciously accepted Mary’s extravagance as an act of worship, but Judas attempted to prevent it. Jesus seemed to sense Mary’s eagerness to go beyond what was normative in order to render an expression of adoration that was as dramatic as it was doxological. But Judas was not pleased with the offering because it did not align with his preconceived agenda.
The pondering of that biblical moment makes me wonder how frequently I talk myself out of extravagance in my personal discipleship. How frequently do I allow myself to become so idolatrous about the practical that I forget about the sweetness of doing something prodigious— something out of the ordinary, something practically wasteful—in my adoration of God.
From 1984 until 1990, my father was the district superintendent of the Johnstown District of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference. During a portion of those six years, Johnstown led the entire nation in unemployment. (Some of you remember those years and how difficult they were around these parts.)
But here’s the interesting thing: During that same period of time (1984-1990) the Johnstown District frequently led the entire conference in the percentage of its mission share giving. (The mission share is an amount of money that the local church offers to the general church for is ministry around the world.)
Did you get that? In the mid 1980’s, when Johnstown led the entire nation in unemployment, the Johnstown District offered, by percentage, more money to the ministry of the church than any other district in Western PA.
I once asked my father how he explained this inconsistency. “I don’t,” he said. “because it defies logical explanation.”
“All I know,” he said, “is that not even a troubled economy can prevent God’s people from wanting to be extravagant in their generosity.”
That was the first time that I had ever heard the word extravagant in connection with the church’s ministry. And the context for that extravagance was a hurting city in Western Pennsylvania called Johnstown, where many were unemployed, but where the Holy Spirit was still inspiring an uncommon generosity.
Here’s the point, I suppose: The extravagant generosity of those who have been transformed by Jesus Christ is not at all dictated by the condition of the economy. Rather, the extravagant generosity of those who have been transformed by Jesus Christ is dictated by the transformational work of the Holy Spirit in the depths of a human soul.
These days, I find myself praying for a spirit of extravagance in my discipleship. If I may borrow the biblical metaphor, I am praying my way into the kind of discipleship that will inspire me on occasion to anoint the feet of my Savior with the sweet perfume of spontaneous and profligate generosity. Does that sound right to you?