You are probably familiar with a short story called “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry, even if you’ve never explicitly read it. It’s a story that’s been remixed and updated dozens of times. It’s too long to print, but I’ll give you the gist of it.
A poor, young couple are barely scraping by. The wife has little more than a dollar, mostly in pennies scraped together, and the next day is Christmas. In her love for her hard-working husband, she goes to hunt for a present worthy for him. Knowing that she will need more money, she sells the one treasure she has—her long, lovely brown hair. With $20 more in her pocket, she shops and finds the perfect gift. It’s a silver chain that would look just lovely with the treasured antique pocketwatch her husband carries. Do you see where this is going?
That night, they exchange presents. The young wife gives her husband his new chain, but his face isn’t filled with pure delight, but a complicated mix of emotion. It turns out, that he also sold his treasure to buy his wife something.. He traded his watch for a beautiful set of tortoiseshell combs to wear in her perfect hair.
Alas, they had each given their greatest treasure to give to their beloved. Each received a present they could not use. Nevertheless, the present wasn’t the gift, was it? The author concludes with the lines: “But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest…. They are the magi.”
Many have come to love that old story written over a hundred years ago, now. Because it gets at the heart of giving. When we give something to someone we love, it’s not the material, the present, the money that matters. It’s the spirit of giving, the love communicated in the act. That is the beauty of giving.
Henry’s story will help us to understand the Scripture passage today. The temptation is to get bogged down with details of the gift—what is nard, how much money is it worth, where did she get it, etc. The truth of the matter is that those questions, while interesting, are distracting us from the beauty of the gift. The love behind her act, THAT is the gift. Read John 12:1-3 on the next page and look for the love in the giving.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Did you see it? Did you see the love in the giving? I’m betting you pictured Mary rubbing this fragrant oil onto Jesus’ feet. It’s not even a question of whether or not we see her wipe it off with her hair. John provides such a shocking detail that we can’t help but to picture it. For sure, we can see the love and devotion, the tenderness and grief in Mary’s arresting act of giving to Jesus. But did you see the other gift in this passage?
It’s Martha serving dinner. Mary’s gift floods the whole room with scent and her jarring act of wiping his feet with her hair seizes the eye. But, Martha is quietly stirring and seasoning and simmering in the background. She is giving, too. They both give, out of their love and out of what they have to give to God. The text doesn’t tell this, but I’m guessing Martha is the better host and cook. Mary is many beautiful things, but she doesn’t have what Martha has when she has her game face on. Likewise, Martha doesn’t have a pound of perfume in her possession. They both give of what they have. That makes them both the wisest of givers. They are the magi.
If we are to build our lives into something Christ shaped, then giving must be a part of it, and I’m not talking about money. Giving money will happen, but the most important aspect of giving is what these two women show us. It’s about giving of ourselves, the best of ourselves. We give of what we are. That is the essence of giving.
Activity: Give What You Have
On a sheet of paper, write down all the things that God has given you, no matter how small or big and draw a box around all of it. In another box, write down some of the needs you see in the world around you. When you have filled out both boxes, circle any common words in both. This is what God could be calling you to give.
Prayer: God, giver of all good gifts, help me to give to others as generously and lovingly as you have given to me. Amen.