Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:1-8)
This is one of my favorite stories. It shows us that God loves beauty—and that beauty for God’s sake is worth the expense. Of course, that is not at all to excuse financial imprudence or any form of callousness to the plight of the poor. But it is to say that Christians ought to be wary of any purely utilitarian way of judging what’s worth spending money on—any perspective that discourages the proliferation of beauty simply because beauty seems useless. Of course, from the perspective of our world—obsessed as it is with performance and productivity—beauty is useless. That’s actually what makes it so valuable.
When worship is working rightly, I think, it sends us out subsequently to serve a world in need—and, particularly, those who live in great poverty. But we are mistaken to think we can somehow do without worship and adoration and their splendid accoutrement to begin with—to think, as Judas does, that we can skip straight to action. When we do so, our service loses its Christ-like color, taking on the spirit of rational planning rather than the Spirit of God. Christians are like Mary: we are to be nard-smashers, breaking bottles of costly perfume over Jesus’ feet for the sheer adoration of it all. Adore him in the tabernacle so you can adore him in the streets.
Let us pray: Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Worship: Gather today to worship our Lord and to be fed by his presence in Word and Sacrament. Notice what you find most beautiful in today’s liturgy. Give thanks to God for it.