Christmastime is a time of extravagance. In décor, gifts and spending we see overindulgence everywhere. Many of us spend all we have or more than we have budgeted, often going into debt with credit cards to ensure the season is lavish.
International Business Times recently reported that 42% of people are in debt due to Christmas expenditures and that Christmas is forcing 15% of people to sell jewelry and other items to afford the festive season. How can we keep the ghost of Christmas past from ruining our New Year when the credit card bills start rolling in? How can we tell when a lot is too much and how does God feel about extravagant gifts and displays of splendor?
In John 2:11, after turning the water into fine wine at the wedding of Cana, the Bible says, This beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee, and manifested forth his glory; and his disciples believed on him.
This scripture makes it clear that the reason God shows extravagance is to manifest his glory and cause the hearts of men to believe in him. He’s not just showing off for the sake of displaying his splendor, but his extravagance has purpose. He wants his children to believe in him.
That’s fine, you may say. Jesus was divine and even though the wine was expensive, it didn’t cost him anything. How can I tell if I am spending too much?
Let’s look at examples of two people in the Bible that extravagantly spent all they had. One was justified and one was considered to be wasteful. What was the difference?
John 12:3 tells the story of Mary’s extravagant gesture. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Judas (as well as all the disciples as indicated in another gospel account of this story) was furious. He demanded to know why the perfume wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. After all, it was worth a year’s wages.
I have some decent fragrances, but I can guarantee you that I don’t, nor will I ever have, a perfume worth over John’s annual salary! That’s mega extravagance. But Jesus knew her extravagant expenditure had great purpose. Even though the perfume was costly, he knew it was an act of worship to prepare him for burial. Others may have perceived it as an extreme act of wastefulness. But Jesus did not!
Mary’s extravagant gesture was not in vain. She had a very strong motive for doing what she did. It wasn’t selfish ambition that caused her to spend all she had. Her gift communicated her love for Jesus. Her actions drew attention to Jesus.
Let’s compare the apparent extravagant Waste of perfume to another person in the Bible—the prodigal son, who also spent his entire inheritance. The story of the prodigal son is told by Jesus in Luke 15. And by the way, the meaning of prodigal is extravagant wastefulness.
Jesus told us of a man who had two sons. The younger one was ready to sow his wild oats and didn’t want to wait for his father to kick the bucket to get his money, so he told his father, “Give me my share of the estate now!” Then he proceeded to fly off to Vegas and spend all his money on prostitutes and wild living. I’m just kidding. He didn’t fly to Vegas. They didn’t have airplanes back then. But they did have prostitutes and his older brother was pretty mad about that.
When the prodigal son finally returned home after he gambled all his money away and realized his father’s servants lived better than him, his merciful older brother was quick to point out his prideful perfection when he said to his father, “Look! All these years, I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered our property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”
It’s obvious that the younger son’s extravagant waste was not acceptable, but it looks like the older brother had some self-righteousness and pride issues going on. I’m just saying.
But here’s what I want to get at. Even though the prodigal son and Mary both spent all they had, what was the difference between his lavish lifestyle and Mary’s extravagant use of expensive perfume?
They both spent all they had in extreme ways, and yet only one was considered acceptable. Let’s see what the Bible has to say about that.
You know, though, sometimes when we are trying to find answers in the Bible, it makes it difficult when words we commonly use today don’t even appear in the Bible. For example, the words extravagant and prodigal do not appear in the KJV or NIV version of the Bible, not even once. Interesting. That’s when we have to do a little research.
Besides meaning extravagant, prodigal also means wasteful and reckless. The prodigal son squandered or wasted his father’s money. His extravagant expenditures were all for his own sensual pleasures. His “wild living” as the NIV puts it, or “riotous living” according to the KJV, means that he profligately (without principle or shame) engaged in debauchery (extreme indulgence in sensual pleasures).
But Mary’s situation was different. Her motives were not selfish. When she poured out her costly perfume, her lavish gesture was an act of love and worship. To describe her extravagant gesture, the KJV of the Bible uses the word costly. Costly comes from Hebrew and Greek words meaning precious, rare, splendid, glorious, very valuable, something of great price. So, when Mary poured costly perfume on Jesus, she was doing something precious, glorious and very valuable.
Waste comes from a Hebrew word meaning end or destruction. As frugal as this bargain-hunting garage sale queen is, I used to assume that cost and waste go together, but just because something costs a significant amount does not mean it’s wasteful. On the other hand, something can cost very little and yet be extremely valuable. We can even obtain something for free and yet it is irreplaceable. Something we didn’t even pay for can be priceless.
By these examples of extravagance, as we prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth, let’s do a little self reflection.
Let’s examine our own motives for displaying splendor and giving gifts so we can keep extravagance balanced during the holidays. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to evaluate whether or not your Christmas is too extravagant:
• Are your spending habits more like Mary who spent all she had for a greater purpose, or are they more like the prodigal son who wasted his money on himself?
• Do your displays of splendor draw attention to Christ?
• Does your extravagance promote purpose?
• Do your lavish expenditures communicate Christ’s love to others?
God’s love is extravagant. He lavishes his love on us to show his glory and draw men to himself.
Have a beautifully extravagant Christ-filled Christmas!