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Bible for Thinkers

Liberals love the Bible, too. We just look at it differently. This is a place to discuss the Bible where you don't have to check your brain at the door. There are many ways to see it, and many ways to have it come to life.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Wasteful love

I've been neglectful of this blog, so at least for now I'm going to post the text from my devotional podcast "SpiritWalker Devotions." If you go to you can subscribe to the podcast. The devotions come out each Saturday. Here is the one for today.

Matthew 26:11 “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

When Jesus speaks the above words, there is tension in the room. He is in Bethany, a town just outside of Jerusalem, at a private home for dinner. Matthew and Mark say it is the home of Simon the Leper. Luke says it happens in a Pharisee’s home. John says it happens at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, but they all agree that it happened. While there at dinner, a woman gives Jesus a gift. She takes a bottle of very expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus. Again there are some variations. Matthew and Mark say nothing about the woman apart from her act. Luke says the unnamed woman is “sinful.” John says the woman is Lazarus’ sister, Mary. (A side note—none of these say the woman is Mary Magdalene.)

The one thing that is constant across the four Gospels is that people object to the woman’s actions. Luke’s account in the home of the Pharisee focuses the objection on Jesus accepting an intimate gift from a sinful woman. The other three Gospels, however, recount objections to the gift’s extravagance. In Matthew, all the disciples are upset. In Mark it is just some folks in the room. In John, the lone objector is Judas. (The Gospel of John takes a number of pointed shots at Judas that the other Gospels don’t take). And so Jesus is left to respond to their objections. In Luke he responds with forgiveness for the woman. In the other three Gospels he says he is grateful for the gift, that they should quit harassing the woman, and that there are always going to be poor people to whom they can give.

This last part bugs a number of people because it seems calloused to the poor. If everyone adopted Jesus’ attitude here, there would be no urgency in giving to the less fortunate. We can spend lavishly on our families and friends and not really worry too much about the poor because it’s not going to make much difference. There will always be the poor. Jesus’ teaching in other places makes it clear that this cannot be what he means. I think it helps to remember that Jesus is never speaking in a vacuum. What he says in one location to one group may not be meant to apply to a vastly different circumstance.

Here, I think Jesus is making room for those who give out of the extravagance of their love. One of the side-effects of poverty is its tendency to squash joy. Not only those living in dire conditions, but also those who observe and empathize with them can have all the joy of life sucked right out of them. I remember well pastoring a church in the rural south where many lived below the poverty line. I came back each night to my modest home and felt shame and guilt for having what I had. I gave people the food from my pantry, the dishes from my cupboards, and ran up debt to give to those who had nothing. Then I was sad that I didn’t have enough to express my love to friends and relatives at birthdays, Christmas, and other occasions. At other times I’ve seen those with means look down on the poor because a person has spent money on a lavish gift when the floor is caving in and food is scarce. “Why help them if they’re going to go squander the little money they have?” they say.

Jesus was not an ascetic, nor was he rich. Despite the difficulties of his ministry, he enjoyed life to the point that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. And when he received an extravagant gift as an expression of someone who loved him, he accepted it gladly. He clearly wanted her to experience the joy of giving, even as he experienced the joy of receiving. I think Jesus is saying: Don’t squash an act of love with guilt. There will always be plenty of opportunities to live out your care for those in need. It’s also important to express your love through your giving, whether the recipient is in need or not. Let love give as love will.


At 8:21 PM, Anonymous said...

What about the idea that Jesus knew he only had a limited amount of time left on earth and that he was acknowledging the women's timely gift of love?

At 9:17 PM, Anne Robertson said...

Absolutely. Jesus refers to the timeliness of her gift in his response, accepting it as burial offering. Nard is a burial ointment. Thanks for the addition!


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