|Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet -- 16th century anonymous|
In this week’s Epistle, Paul makes this point to the Philippians in the extravagant language characteristic of the Middle East. Compared with ‘the value of knowing Christ’, everything else is ‘rubbish’! He includes in this category his personal possessions, his health, safety and social standing – all of which he has sacrificed in his determination to 'press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus'. We can admire Paul for his discipleship, but he was both unmarried and itinerant. Most Christians have homes, jobs, families and friends, and it would be inhuman for even the most ardent Christian to seriously regard these as ‘rubbish’ that could just as well be thrown away.
|Group of Poor People -- Picasso (1903)|
Still, if Christian life is to mean anything, it must extend beyond the conventional Sunday morning. The question is whether our discipleship of Christ is actually given priority in the daily round, and if so, what it takes priority over. The Gospel this week poses an especially telling challenge on this score. By anointing Jesus with a rare and very expensive oil made from the roots of the spikenard plant, Mary of Bethany unmistakably gives devotion to Jesus a higher priority than she gives to helping the many poor people with whom her world was filled. Judas criticizes her for this, and though John attributes unworthy motives to him, with respect to the criticism itself, lots of people would say he was right. What a waste of money in a needy world! Yet, contrary to a common assumption in contemporary Christian ethics, Jesus commends Mary. In so doing he effectively gives the needs of the poor a lower priority than the worship of God. The result is to make this Gospel passage, and the episode it records, a challenge to think a lot harder than we normally do about Christian priorities.