READING: Matthew 26:6-
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
REFLECTION: “Danger: From Ideals to Ideology”
Jesus in our scripture is being extravagantly cared for. He is a man who is facing death, death on a cross. He knows this. His disciples have been told but don’t believe it. The woman in the narrative seems to know. She is preparing him. Jesus sees her compassion and accepts her compassionate act.
Jesus’ disciples do not see her compassion. They are blind to her act of compassion. They instead see misplaced intent and undue extravagance. One speaks for them. “Why are you allowing her to come in here with her expensive perfume she paid thousands of dollars for, thousands that could have been used to help the poor, but instead she is using it on you?” Using this expensive ointment simply to comfort those who are comfortable enough, that is wrong, unjust, sinful. The Gospel of John has Judas offering up this complaint.
They do not believe Jesus is facing imminent death. They do not see the compassion behind the act. They do not see the internal state of the woman. They only presume this woman is robbing the poor with her extravagance. The disciples get it wrong. Jesus lets them know this with a penetrating statement. The poor will always be here. I will not.
What I hear Jesus saying on a deeper level is this: don’t let your ideals become ideology. Don’t let your understanding of God as the absolute become dogmatic absolutism. Don’t let your compassion for the poor become hate for the un-poor. Don't be attached to only one mode of compassion. Don’t let your care for one person become animosity toward a different person.
Not much at all in this life is black and white or always obviously right or wrong. There is nuance. There is gray. There are at least two sides to every story. There are varying views of things and often one view isn’t absolutely right and the other absolutely evil.
Compassion means desiring to help the poor. There is no doubt about that. But compassion takes many other shapes and forms, doesn’t it? And what we see as lacking compassion, sometimes may wholly include it.
The woman anointing Jesus’ feet with oil was exhibiting compassion, even though the disciples did not see it. Yes, it is compassionate to help the poor. But it’s also compassionate to tend to the needs of someone confronting death, be they rich or poor.
The common denominator is compassion. And compassion should be what grounds us and all we do.
There should be no doubt that Jesus cared for the poor. His explanation of why he came, what his ministry was all about, was this after all: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” His ministry made it clear he meant what he said.
Yet Jesus, amid this anointing, claims, “the poor you will always have with you.” In other words, you will not win this one completely. We will not eradicate every evil or every example of evil. Don’t be so arrogant as to think that you will. There are some people who truly choose to be poor, or at least do not have the capacity to choose otherwise. Showing-up is all you can sometimes do. Some monks and nuns take the vow of poverty. Jesus did, it seems. Whatever the case may be, it is true – we will always have poor people. We cannot save everyone. This of course doesn't mean we are not expected to give our all. However, without a humble heart that admits to our vulnerability and looks for help outside ourselves and our just our group of people, we will face a bitter battle. Those doing the good work of caring for the poor need to remember the necessity of humility and love. There is no complete victory in the work of compassion. But complete victory should not be the reason we help the poor.
I think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13. "If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing."
The dangerous transition of going from idealism to ideology where we compete our ideologies against another is something Jesus was attempting to guard against in his words to the disciples. It is good to believe in your heart of hearts that the needs of the vulnerable must be at the forefront of what we do. It is good to believe that the way of peace must be tantamount and the way of war must be resisted. It is good to believe that love and compassion must be the basis for all we do, including the government.
Yet when these ideals become ideology, when what I think are the answers become what all must think are the answers, when my ideas of what we need to do becomes the only correct ideas of what we need to do, when adherence to a political philosophy removes the desire for compromise, we enter the realm of ideology. And ideologies and ideologues are dangerous because there are always more than one.
When I was a Religious Studies student in college, I learned about the fancy phrases orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy. Some religions fall in line with the orthodoxy category. They focus on correct (ortho) doctrine (doxy), believing the correct way. Christianity is maybe the biggest example of orthodoxy based religion. Other religions fall in line with the orthopraxy category. Orthopraxy means correct practice, practicing the correct things – Five times a day prayer in Islam. Practicing Meditation in Buddhism. Following kosher diet in Judaism. These are examples of correct practice.
I’d like to introduce a third category. Orthospem. Correct hope. I for one believe most people of good will hope, share the hope that children be fed, clothed, sheltered, cared for. I cannot think of many people who see poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as good things. Virtually all of us share the hope that these wrongs will be made right. At least we should.
This is what I mean by correct hope. We should stay centered in on the correct hope that no one goes hungry, homeless, poor, neglected, excluded. Too often we move too quickly to the solutions and stay centered together on the problem, taking it in, contemplating it as a community, and seeking common purpose. When go quickly to the solutions, disagreements on the best solutions naturally arise and soon become the focus.
Compromise and working together are so essential. But compromise and working together takes practice. It takes sitting together and contemplating the hopes we share, namely that there is as little poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, exclusion as possible.
If we sit with our shared hopes, if we sit and reflect on the real people being effected by poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect, and exclusion if we also sit with those being affected by these evils, it becomes natural that we start building the strong foundation upon which we confront those evils.
More than ever, we need to a laser focus on our shared hope, our sitting together with our shared hope in mind and heart.
Focusing on our shared hope leads to humility. I am not the only one who wants less poverty, less hunger, less homelessness, less neglect, less exclusion. Conservatives, moderates, and liberals of good will all want this. And I can learn from others who want the same things. This humility allows us the space and openness and inclusiveness to look honestly at things and admit when something isn’t working, make corrections midstream, and hopefully make it work.
None of us have the market on the truth. None of us is right about everything 100% of the time. None of us in can get what we want 100% of the time. Without humility, without a flexibility that allows for compromise, without a willingness to say what I proposed doesn’t work and what you proposed might, without an open mind and an open heart, we will have more poor people, more hungry people, more homeless people, more neglected, more excluded people.
We have seen the dangers of political rigidity, absolutism, ideological litmus tests. We have seen them throughout history. We have seen them in America in the Religious Right and the extreme elements on the Right. We are seeing them increasingly on the Left as well. We are increasingly becoming two separate and isolated camps that no longer even attempt to meet each other in the middle.
We must stem this tide. And we do this best by doing what we do here. Honing in on our shared humanity and shared hopes, building community on what connects us – the love of God. This is what we need. Let us preach the gospel that without love we are nothing.
SHARING OF JOYS, SORROWS, CONCERNS
One of God’s greatest promises to us is that God will never leave us nor forsake us. God is present with us in sickness and in health, in good times and bad times, in birth and in death, and all those in betweens. That is what helps us to hope and get through it all.
The best thing we can do when we pray is to practice godliness by being spiritually as present with those we are praying for as possible. So as we pray, I ask that you be present with those we hold in God’s light.
For those facing health issues or health procedures, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.
For those who are grieving losses or are feeling lost and alone, we are present with you and hold you in God’s light.
For those who are impoverished, hungry, homeless, neglected, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.
For those who simply struggling with the daily grind, bored with life, and needing friendship, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.
For those who are feeling the blessing of joy and gratitude, we are present with you and hold you in the Light.