Random Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty

THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT – St Matthew’s, Guildford – 17th March, 2013

“Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

American writer, Anne Herbert, is credited with coining this phrase which has become something of a cliché in recent years. And there are whole organisations across the world which have jumped on the band-wagon, encouraging people to do random acts of kindness, and some which actually do such acts.

In the “West Australian” this past week there were several stories – I think in the “inside Cover” column – of people who were the recipients of such acts of kindness. There was an elderly lady (I think) who, when she came to the register at the supermarket, found that the previous customer had left some money with the “checkout chick” to pay for the lady’s groceries.

And I was reading elsewhere an article by a journalist who was left standing at Denpasar Airport check-in with, somehow, no money for her fare home to Australia. A young surfer came over, asked her what she was crying about, and paid her fare ($550) outright. She was able to pay him back later, but the random act of kindness had an immense impact on her.

And I well remember some years ago, KT and I were eating dinner at a Chinese Restaurant in Redcliffe, when an elderly couple (we’re the elderly ones now, I suppose!), obviously travellers, came in, sat near us, and asked the waitress for a bottle of wine with their meal. When told the restaurant was only licensed for BYO, they asked resignedly for soft drink. We had almost finished our meal. So, after we had paid our bill, we drove to the nearest bottle shop, bought some wine and took it back to the restaurant, gave the bottle to the waitress for the couple and left rapidly. I imagine there was a smile on the couple’s faces, and we certainly felt pretty good too!

One of the problems with “random acts of kindness” is that many people misread and misinterpret them. Comments from readers beneath the article about the journo stuck at Denpasar Airport, suggested that all “random acts of kindness” are done so that the giver/doer of the act can feel proud or praise-worthy, and that altruism is a myth of self-aggrandisement. I suppose there will always be “knockers” and detractors – especially, it seems, in Australia.

Today’s Gospel story is that of an apparently random act of great kindness and of senseless beauty. A woman – Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead a few days previously – brings in “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” We are told that “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” and we are left wondering why Mary should do such a seemingly extravagant act of kindness and senseless beauty. Talk about “over the top”!

Judas Iscariot, disciple, treasurer and future betrayer of Jesus, protests at this senseless waste. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” he asks indignantly. And we rightly infer that he considered himself “the poor” who could benefit most!

Many is the time someone has offered themselves to serve God – as a priest, monk, nun, missionary or as some other servant of God through the Church – giving up the possibility of wealth or career or marriage or children – to be told by families, friends or others that “you are mad to do that for God and the Church”. Yet many have given their lives in such devotion to the One who, as St John reminds us, “first loved us.” And many still give even life itself to serve Jesus and his Church.

And such offering will always be regarded by some folk as wasteful. In last week’s Gospel story we read of the “wastefulness” of a father welcoming home his wastrel son with a robe, a ring and shoes, with a party and a fatted calf on a spit-roast. The elder son’s complaint was of the wastefulness and “unfairness” of his father. And, perhaps, we had some sympathy for him!

And it may be this morning that we want to agree with Judas. 300 denarii is a year’s pay for a farm labourer – thirty or forty or more thousand dollars in our money. How many meals for the poor, how many nights in cheap accommodation, how many medical check-ups, could that much money buy for the needy of our cities and streets? Many, of course.

But here is a particular set of circumstances which we may never understand. If you’ve ever been truly in love, there will have been many times when you would give everything you had to benefit the object of your love. We would perhaps happily walk to work and save the train fares for a while to buy her that ring she likes so much, or to buy him a ticket to the Grand Final. And would any giving or giving-up be too extravagant to save the life of the child we love?

If we keep this story of Mary’s act of kindness in its context in John’s Gospel, we might regard it as an act of thanksgiving for Jesus’ raising of her brother Lazarus. And a gift of gratitude would not be inappropriate. But I don’t for a moment think that this gift was tied to any past event.

There is another saying which often appears in the same context as Anne Herbert’s instruction about random kindness and senseless acts of beauty. It is “Pay it forward”. In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” I remember seeing a movie called “Pay It Forward”. The book, by Catherine Ryan Hyde, and the movie describe “pay it forward” as an obligation to do three good deeds for others in response to a good deed that one receives. Such good deeds should accomplish things that the other person cannot accomplish on their own. In this way, the practice of helping one another can spread geometrically through society, at a ratio of three to one, creating a social movement with an impact of making the world a better place. A great idea, no doubt, but even one good deed “paid forward” could change a world.

Jesus seems to understand Mary’s act of pouring this pricey perfume over his feet as a sort of “paying it forward”. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”, he says. And we realise she couldn’t wait for his actual death and burial. She needed to show her love for him now! How often after a person dies do we wish we had said or done something more to express our love while they were still alive? It is not unusual to see at a funeral that vast sums of money have been spent on oversize floral tributes or grandiose coffins, as though we can make up for the omissions of the past. And I’ve so often heard people say, “I wish I’d told him/her more often how much I loved him/her”.

Jesus is one whose whole life was a case not only of apparent “random kindness and senseless acts of beauty”, but also one of “pay it forward”. Today’s Gospel story takes place just a few days before Jesus gives his life in the ultimate act of extravagance and generosity. At the cross he dies that we might live; he makes peace between a sinful world and an all-righteous God; and he enables eternal life for all to spring from his own death.

On Maundy Thursday evening, we will hear Jesus saying, “As I have washed your feet, so you should wash one another’s feet” and “Love one another as I have loved you”. This is our calling – “Pay it forward”. Jesus has given us much so that we will give to others, and loved us so much that we will love others. “You always have the poor with you”, he reminds us; so there will always be the opportunity to pay it forward.

“You don’t pay love back”, said the lady, “you pay it forward”. We have been, and are, greatly loved. Pay it forward!

The Lord be with you!