That was the wisdom my father offered me back when I was an avid baseball card collector.
Background: My friend and I would wait breathlessly for the mail towards the beginning of every month when the baseball card price guide was due to arrive. In it, we would find out if our latest acquistions had been worth the investment we had put into them - whether by trade, purchase or luck of finding the card in a pack. And it's not even that we wanted to sell the cards. We just wanted to find out whether we had struck gold and would be able to further build up our collections.
But the quote stayed with me. And it's been useful in understanding a story recorded in the gospel of John:
Background: Jesus is the guest of honor at Lazarus' house. The dinner is going well; Martha's preparing and serving, Lazarus is still taking strips of linen off as he and Jesus converse, when all of a sudden Mary pops open a bottle of perfume. And it's not a cheap one. My notes say the jar was worth a year's salary. Before you can say "recession!", the contents have been poured on Jesus' feet and the house smells stronger than a french perfume shop in Paris.
But the act is a serious one. It's not often that Jesus is the guest of honor. Do we ever see another time in the gospels when his friends get together to throw him a party? Mary, Martha and Lazarus are celebrating their close friend. Mary goes to an extraordinary effort to honor Jesus.
Enter Judas the Party Pooper. Straight from the Law, Judas recites how God's people are to provide for the poor: "Therefore I command you to be open-handed to those of your people who are poor and needy in your land."
What a nice law-abiding citizen Judas the Just has turned out to be. I'm sure Martha and Lazarus thanked him for the reminder. Jesus also must have turned to Judas, red from embarrassment, and apologized for not stopping the thoughtless woman from committing such a foolish act.
No, of course not. Because rather than being open-handed to the needy, Judas the Thief reached inside that money bag whenever he got the chance and snatched whatever he wanted. Jesus knew that and so did the author of the Gospel of John (Lazarus?). Judas' concern wasn't the poor. Just the opposite. He looked for money wherever he could find it. Hence the irony of the story and the lesson we're supposed to learn.
Think about this: The amount of money Judas The Traitor will make by betraying Jesus (30 silver coins) is close to a four month salary. Compare that to the yearly wage Mary gave up (300 deneri) by pouring the perfume over Jesus' feet and you've got yourself two completely different reactions to the same guy. It couldn't be any simpler.
Don't get me wrong. We're not talking about the value of salvation or earning grace. Nowhere in this story does salvation even come up. Rather, we get a glimpse of how extraordinarily valuable Jesus Christ is to Mary. And we see that through the sacrifice she makes.
Is he worth it? Mary gave up a year's salary, Zacchaeus 4 times what he had cheated, Stephen - his life. But Judas gave nothing - because he had no use for Christ in his life.
Isaac Watts summarized it well in When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,that were an offering far too small;love so amazing, so divine,demands my soul, my life, my all.