Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cathedrals or Soup Kitchens

What does God most desire from the Christian believer, devotion to Himself, or service to those around us. There is a story in Mark’s Gospel that might lead one to believe that God is most desirous that we expend our resources and energies in worship of him. In Mark 14:3-11 we can read the following story:

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. 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 for more than a year’s wages 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. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

The details of this brief story can be fleshed out by looking at parallel accounts in the Gospels of Matthew and John. It becomes clear that Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, was the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with the expensive perfume. And we learn that, although the dinner was in the house of Simon the Leper, it was Martha who served the meal.

Mark tells us (above) that many of those present objected to the “waste” of the perfume, which could have generated money for the poor. Matthew identifies those objecting as the disciples, not necessarily the apostles, but very likely they were among the objectors, along with other followers of Jesus. But John tells us that it was Judas who spoke up indignantly, not because he loved the poor, but because he was the treasurer and had been helping himself to what was in the treasury.

It seems to be implied that Jesus’ rebuke of Judas and the others was what tipped the scale and sent Judas off to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. There is some debate about the value of the money Judas received but at least one source indicated that, depending upon the quality and type of the coins it could have equaled a year’s wages, exactly the amount Judas had been denied by Mary’s wasteful action. Certainly we know that it was sufficient to buy a burial ground for use as a cemetery for Gentiles.

Those interesting details provide more insights than this brief piece can explore. Perhaps another time. But the question of the day is, “Where does God want us to invest our money, in cathedrals (acts of devotion) that glorify Him or in projects to feed the poor?” This story doesn’t give a definitive answer but it does offer some hints.

The situation of this story is a special one because Mary’s gift was given, perhaps unknowingly, as a symbolic preparation of Jesus body for burial. The circumstances of Jesus death would deny her and the other women the opportunity to properly prepare his body after his death. So, presumably, even if Mary had not poured out the perfume on his body before his death, she and the disciples would have wished to do so afterward. The expenditure would have been the same in either case. In a sense, Mary made possible the preparation of his body for burial that the crucifixion would later deny them the chance to do.

Would Judas have resisted paying for burial preparations out of the treasury after Jesus’ death? Very likely so, and he perhaps would have used the same excuse for not honoring his dead master. But in that case there would not have been anyone there to speak in favor of an extravagant gift of love. Neither would the poor would have been fed.

The truth that Jesus taught in his final hours is an important one for us to remember. There are two obligations that believers labor under that they can never fulfill, the need to honor Christ with all their body, soul, strength, and means, and the obligation to care for those in need. There is a time for both of them and, ironically, the time for both is now. When we have opportunity to honor Christ in any manner, it pleases God for us to do so. And the poor we always have with us too. There is never a time when we can’t give to meet those needs.

So it isn’t a choice between one or the other but rather a discerning when each must be done. Cathedrals don’t grow out of the ground, they are built. The poor will suffer if there is no effort made to feed them. Like Judas, we have been given responsibility for holding the bag. We can use it to anoint the feet of Jesus and to feed the poor. Both are services to him.

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