Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sunday Scripture: Mark 14:1-11

Mark 14:1-11 

14:1-11 – Here we have the story of the woman in Bethany who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume at the house of Simon the Leper. Within the scope of Mark’s narrative, this episode is clearly chosen to represent a ceremonial preparation for Jesus’ death, an anointing before the sacrifice. Mark goes to great lengths to describe the perfume, stringing together evocative descriptors so that the reader comes away with a deep impression of just how precious, rare, and expensive this substance was (a level of detail uncommon for Mark, who tends to favor rapid sequences with lower levels of descriptive exposition). Jesus calls this act, this extravagant outpouring of devotion without regard for the cost, “a beautiful thing.” It calls to mind the staggering numbers of animals that Solomon sacrificed at the dedication of the Temple—an act of devotion which demonstrates the value of our devotion to God as being incommensurate with any other earthly value. Some of the disciples, however, object to this lavish outpouring. And many of us, raised in churches where the management of the budget was a notable topic on everyone’s mind whenever decisions were being made, might have the same objection. Why use this perfume, which could have been sold, and the profits given to the poor? Couldn’t much greater good have been done with a more discerning use of our resources, with a higher sense of the obligations of faithful stewardship? Couldn’t a cheaper perfume have been used by this woman, which would have served her purpose just as well? Isn’t it a little wasteful? These sorts of objections, as natural (and seemingly rational) as they appear to be, miss the mark. God has lavished unthinkable blessings on us, with an overpowering generosity that has no bound or scope—in giving us life, our very selves, our world with all its beauties and wonders, and the food and shelter and warmth that it provides, to say nothing of the innumerable spiritual blessings poured out on us in Christ (Eph. 1:3). If God uses such a lavish, unmeasurable depth of generosity towards us, then there is no scope to our devotion that is too high or too much. We can and we should also be giving to help the poor, as Scripture makes very clear—but the exercise of Christian generosity is not a zero-sum game, not a self-contained economy. We need not think that we are robbing a thousand worthy charities by our act of choosing to give lavish gifts toward merely one. No, any gift towards God and his kingdom is a worthy one, and if we give in the right spirit, God will enable us to become fountainheads of blessing to all those around us—the poor, the disconsolate, and the lost. Jesus’ rebuke to the disciples is not so much of an argument against giving to the poor as it is a chastisement of the disciples—who, it sounds like, might have been a bit more faithful in giving to the poor—and who ought not have been acting judgmentally over another person’s generosity. Another person’s giving to God is an act of their devotion alone, and it is not subject to your oversight. That’s worth remembering. I myself have fallen into this trap on occasion. I recall visiting some of the great medieval churches of England, and remarking to my friends that I would have rather worshiped in a simple church, and given away the funds saved from having to build a cathedral to missions or to the poor. It only struck me later that my response was the same as the faithless disciples’: I was acting judgmentally towards those medieval Christians’ act of lavish devotion. (Now, incidentally, my sentiment has reversed: I much prefer to worship in churches whose very architecture and artistry are vehicles of outpoured devotion.)