While Jesus was in Bethany…a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume…. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold … and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
(Mark 14:4-6 NIV)
“Ungulukke – it is for you,” says Kabita Akka as she hands me the mauve saari, accentuated with a delicate pink floral design. What do I do? My face grows hot. How do I handle this? My hands begin to sweat as I rub the smooth material between my fingers. Surely, I cannot accept this expensive, extravagant gift. My eyes move from the saari to Kabita’s face, beaming at me. “Ungulukke – it is for you,” she repeats. An extravagant gift…. What do I do?
Here in India, I witness the world’s extremes existing side by side. In nearby Vellore, I see the wealth of a small upper class: expensive cars, colorful clothes, ringing mobile phones, flashing digital cameras, and glass buildings reflecting the hot midday sun. Outside of the gleaming buildings, across the street from the expensive homes maintained by several servants, I see the poverty of a large under class: dangerously over-loaded public transport for those who can afford to ride, walk-worn bare feet, the sinewy bodies of men straining with each pedal as they pull enormous loads on their bicycle rickshaws, women selling flowers, fruits and snacks to eke out a meager living with which to support their children. These people live in smoke-blackened shelters made of woven palm fronds, cement and iron, plastic and cardboard.
Kabita, a cottage mother working with me here at MBKG Pannai orphanage, earns a modest salary by Indian standards, about US $15 a month. Kabita is not poor as I see the poor in Vellore: here at Pannai, she sleeps under the protection of a sturdy roof, eats nutritious food and receives basic health care for free, but by no stretch of the imagination is she rich. I know that the saari she is giving to me cost at least a third of her monthly salary, probably more.
I retrace the last few minutes in my mind…. Kabita Akka calls me to her room, removes a plastic bag from her cupboard, pulls out a mauve and pink saari and asks me, “Idhu nallairkide? Is it nice?”
“Akka, rombe nallairkide. Yes, it’s beautiful,” I respond. She holds the material up to my cheek. “Super,” she tells me. “Saari super, color super, nee [you] super.” She smiles and hands the saari to me.
I rub the material gently between my fingers: soft. I examine the design: subtly striped with slightly raised pale pink flowers, beautiful. “Rombe nallairkede. It’s beautiful,” I repeat.
“Ungulukke. It’s for you.” Kabita pushes the saari further into my hands explaining that she bought it specifically for me.
An extravagant gift, what do I do?
“The saari is beautiful, Kabita. I like it very much, but I cannot take it. It is too big a gift!”
She repeats, “It is for you. I bought it for you,” and she pushes the saari back into my hands.
“Thank you, but I cannot take it. It is too much.” I watch as Kabita’s lips draw together, and the smile lines around her eyes fade. “You do not need to give me anything,” I say trying to appease her. “Your friendship is the best gift you can give me. You care for me like I am your own sister. My family is far away, but it is okay because you are here, and you are my sister here,” I assure her. “That is the biggest and best gift you can give me.” I cannot tell if she understands, and I find that I have to work to keep the smile on my own face. I touch her hand gently, but her face remains closed.
“Okay,” she murmurs softly. She replaces the saari in the plastic bag.
I leave the cottage my mind a jumble of thoughts, a confusion of feelings rattling about in my chest. Clearly, I have saddened Kabita by not receiving the gift she has offered me, but I do not feel comfortable accepting such a gift. I have never given anything close to the equivalent of half of my salary to anyone. And I already have so much more than she has.
An extravagant gift, what do I do?
Relationships can get complicated, and gifts within these relationships can complicate matters further – especially when two cultures and traditions are involved. Questions fill my mind: Is there an unhealthy exchange of power? Are there strings attached? At what price comes the generosity? From whose perspective is a gift extravagant? I wonder if my refusal to accept the gift is because Kabita is “poor” according to my standards. I painfully realize, if Kabita earned plenty of money and had a great deal to spend on herself and others, I would find it much easier to accept such a gift, for it would no longer seem “extravagant.” I remember the saari my grandmother gave me, a gift I easily accepted, considering it generous but not extravagant. Knowing that Kabita has spent a significant portion of her monthly salary on her gift has created a dilemma for me.
I think of others who have offered extravagant gifts and those who have received extravagant gifts. The Bible story of the “Widow’s mite” comes to mind:
“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she [the widow] out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
(Luke 21:3-4 NIV, or Mark 12:43-44 )
And the account of the woman showering the expensive perfume upon Jesus’ feet:
“Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold…and the money given to the poor. And they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
(Mark 14:4-6 NIV)
Extravagant gifts. I think of God’s extravagant gifts to us: Immanuel, God with us; Grace: God’s forgiveness and love for us, the opportunity for redemption and renewal in God. We have not earned these gifts. We do not deserve these gifts. God gives these gifts freely, and we are to receive them, recognizing the community and the common humanity that we share. As I consider the saari, the material gift Kabita has offered me, I am awed by the greater gift she offers me, the gift of her friendship and love, to me, an outsider, a stranger here at MBKG Pannai.
I realize that part of my job being here in India is to learn from the people here. Talking to others, I learn that by refusing Kabita’s gift, it is likely that she will not accept gifts from me in the future. My action now will impact our relationship in the days and months ahead. I learn that to refuse her gift is an insult, like the disciples chastisement of the woman generously pouring the oil on Jesus’ feet. I realize that my refusal claims the power of the situation for myself – my refusal (which stems from my wealth) puts a limit on her generosity (which she extends in spite of her modest means). I am still confused, so I ask for guidance from a colleague whom I trust.
“You accept the saari and give something in return,” my colleague tells me. “But only if she tries again to give it to you. You must not go and ask for it.” I see the wisdom in her advice. I realize that I have made a mistake in not simply accepting Kabita’s gift, extravagant or not.
The next morning, Kabita Akka calls me into her room again. When she tries to give me the saari, I feel no confusion. “Thank you,” I say. She tucks it into my hand bag and tells me to wear it for Christmas. She smiles at me, and I feel blessed – not because I have one more saari but because of the extravagant love and care this saari represents, and because I have received the courage and grace to accept such love.
Relationships are complicated, but so worth the growing pains. I look forward to finding my reciprocal gift for Kabita. But this evening, it is enough to be together. I sit with Kabita as her cottage children plait her hair. She teaches me a Tamil song and a prayer. Together, sisters, we watch the afternoon sun. “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
Almighty God, thank you for the people who fill our lives with abundant love and fellowship. Help us to receive gifts and generosity with grace and gratitude. Empower us to be generous to others and to express our love to them abundantly. We give thanks for your abundant generosity and love for us. Amen.