In Mark 14, you get the story of the woman at Bethany who pours a whole jar of perfume on Jesus’ head and gets praised for it. (In fact, I’m always struck by 14:9 and its equivalents: “[W]herever the gospel is preached all over the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” I feel like that’s the Gospel equivalent of Babe Ruth’s called shot. “Someday her story will be in hotel nightstands all over the globe.”) (Separate parenthetical note: Having walked past someone wearing a little too much aftershave today, what must a whole bottle of perfume have been like?)
But I digress.
In 14:7, Jesus says the thing that people sometimes twist into meaning you can ignore the needs of the poor: “You will always have poor people with you, and any time you want to, you can help them. But you will not always have me.”
Two points on this story. 1) Jesus is responding to people making the rational economic argument that the woman should have sold the perfume and used the money to help the poor. It is not a bad argument; in fact, it’s so good that later writers like John attribute the point to Judas with the addendum that he said it because he wanted to skim the profits before donating to the poor. As you know, when someone makes an uncomfortably good point, the easiest out is to attribute a nefarious motive to it. But rather than that, it’s worth reflecting that maybe there’s a balance between the economically rational choice and the choice we do for love of another. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go all in on ignoring the needs of others while lavishing presents on your beloved, since we’re supposed to love those with needs as well as those nearby. Nor do I think it’s enough to say, “I’m sorry I can’t help those who are at the point of starvation; I gave all my money to rebuild Norte Dame,” to cite a recent and relevant example. But I also think that we are more than rational economists, and sometimes love pushes us to do something a little bit wasteful. That doesn’t mean we get a pass on caring for the needy; with any luck, that love pushes us to go even farther beyond our comfort zone to attend to the needs of others, maybe with a little extra spring to our step.
2) Time matters. I am haunted by people I know who put off doing the thing they really wanted to do until they retired, and then never got the chance. There are a lot of things that rationality would say we should postpone until we have full security, until we’ve covered all our bases. But even if we need to plan for tomorrow, we ought to remember that it isn’t promised. Celebrating the joy of the present moment is seldom a wasted effort.
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