Saturday, March 8, 2008

ONE and Jesus pt 1

My post from yesterday was about ONE's general purpose statement - which is about committing one percent more of the US Budget to fighting, not poverty or inequity generally, but "extreme poverty" - poverty that is life-threatening, based on disease, lack of access to clean water or food, etc. ONE hopes to wipe out that kind of poverty.

Many Christians often cite, without much understanding, Jesus's statement in the gospels (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7) "the poor you will always have with you" as a reason not to try to reduce or attack poverty. This is bogus. (Yeah, I was going to say something longer and more scholarly, but decided to cut to the chase. Yep, even I can do that occasionally.) Three things inform our understanding of what Jesus is saying here - the immediate context, the wider context of Jesus's teachings, and the wider context of the Bible generally. (This is the long and semi-scholarly part.)

In the first place, look at the immediate context. We're getting close to the crucifixion, Jesus has been dropping hints left and right and sometimes saying outright that he's going to be murdered soon. He's headed toward Jerusalem and death. In the midst of this, a woman comes with an alabaster vial of precious and costly perfume and pours it on his head. (Culture people, culture - this isn't our culture!) Kind of reminds me of Psalm 23 - Jesus is in the valley of the shadow of death, soon to be in the presence of his enemies, but "my head you've annointed with oil; my cup overflows." This woman shows tremendous reverence and honor for Jesus, using this tremendously costly gift, not for her own benefit, not holding any of it back for later, but breaking it and spilling it out to honor Jesus.

As Jesus tells the grumbling disciples, this woman did a beautiful thing, one which would be remembered wherever the gospel was told; as indeed it has been, for the last 2000 years. Indeed Jesus, who we know feared the death he was going to face, saw this woman as doing "what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial." Can you imagine how moved Jesus must have been by her costly gesture? "She has done a good deed to me." Nothing was going to save Jesus from the crucifixion to come, but this woman ministered to him. Jesus was surrounded by disciples who continually "didn't get it," who would shortly betray and abandon him in various ways, who refused to believe or understand his statements about his upcoming death. How alone he must have felt! And how comforting, for a moment, to have this woman give him this gift, letting him know that he was not alone, and he was so highly valued as to be worth this gift. Maybe, just maybe, this whole Incarnation and death (and Resurrection) would be worth the pain and heartache.

Then some of the disciples spoil it, by criticizing her! They think it's *wasteful* of her! Can you imagine?!? None of them are being helpful to Jesus as he's going toward death, only this woman is; and they attack her for it!?

My hunch is, as so often was the case, the disciples were trying too hard - showing off for their teacher (rabbi) as it were, trying to "prove" they'd learned their lessons well. Jesus taught so often about the poor - so they're parroting lessons they've heard but not understood, complaining that this perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor, rather than "wasted" on ministering to the soon-to-be-crucified Jesus.

Wasted. On Jesus.

Can you imagine?

So what is Jesus's response? It's not, as many Christians make out, "Forget the poor, you'll always have them around, that's no reason not to give extravagant gifts to your spouse and your kids! GIve them nice trips, and forget about the poor - most of 'em are just lazy anyway!" No, Jesus says "For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me." Not "don't help the poor," as we know from Jesus's many sermons on that theme (more below); not "don't help the poor," but, "get a grip, guys, I'm about to die! This woman is the only one acting like she cares! Back off!"

I hear Jesus being in a lot of pain and fear and heartache at this point.

Note how Jesus frames this. It's not Him saying ignore the poor while spoiling your loved ones with extravagant and unneeded gifts. It's Him saying there will always be poor, and you can and should help them, but my need is imminent, and this woman is not being selfish and keeping this perfume for herself and her own vanity, she's ministering (doing a good deed) to me.

As we look at the immediate context, it's clear that Jesus isn't repudiating aid for the poor; he's telling the disciples that they don't know what's going on, and that if they'd learned the spirit, not just the letter, of his teachings, they would know this woman had done a beautiful thing.

To be continued...

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