Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair.--John 12:3
When a disciple objected, saying that the money should instead have been given to the poor, Jesus told him,
You will always have the poor, but you will not always have Me.--John 12:8
It's lovely--a wonderful exposition not only of the love Mary bore for Christ, but also for Christ's affection for her and her helpless effusion. The poor are important, He says, but not as important as individual, intimate relationships with our God.
But then I think of Christ's discussion with His disciples regarding compassionate care when He said to them about those sick, or in prison, or naked:
Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for Me.--Matthew 25:40
Well which is it?
Are we supposed to spend all of our extra energies lavishing the perfume of worship and praise on Christ Himself, or are we supposed to use that energy serving the poor? Is Christ best served outwardly, or is our direct worship more important than any service?
Well, when I think about this, I think that the answer must be yes and yes.
After all, He clearly states both of these. He doesn't exclude one from the other. And if we try to do so, we run smack into legalism.
Why is it that we are always trying to boil down what Christ gave us into a bunch of rules?
Do this and don't do that. And some of them are so petty.
Christ is risen, so He can't be on a crucifix anymore.
Dunk, don't sprinkle.
He's Jehovah, not God or Christ, or Lord.
Worship on Saturday, not Sunday.
No instruments in church.
Don't drink, don't gamble, don't dance.
Why don't we get it? It's just not that simple. Christ and life in Him can't be reduced to rules. Like here. It's not just about what we give to whom and when. Ask Cain and Abel. Then both gave to God an offering from the best of their labors--Cain the crops he'd grown and Abel the animals he'd raised--but God did not accept Cain's offering.
The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his gift, but on Cain and his offering, He did not look with favor. --Genesis 4:4-5
Why not? What was wrong with it?
Well, I think that Cain and Abel's situation is the same as Mary's. Everybody brings what they have when they have it, but the thing offered does not necessarily make for an acceptable sacrifice. God needs more:
The Lord loves a cheerful giver.--2Corinthians 9:7
Give generously and do so without a grudging heart.--Deuteronomy 15:10
This is what made the offerings of Abel, and Mary, and whoever clothes or feeds the needy or does anything else for God: Abandon.
That's it. Christ watched Mary pour that nard on His feet and it wasn't the perfume, it was the love with which she brought it that filled Him with joy. And it works the same for us. If we are going to give, give passionately. And He means it:
Because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.--Revelation 3:16
We have to abandon ourselves to the opportunities God brings, whether He brings a bottle of perfume our way or if He brings a stranger with an outstretched hand. Then our offering to Him becomes an outpouring of love, not the fulfillment of a requirement.
I remember when the book of Mother Teresa's personal letters, Come Be My Light, was published in 2007. It shocked a lot of people to learn that this sweet, holy, devoted lady was spiritually desolate most of her life. Always faithfully appearing before the Lord in prayer every day, and devoting all of her practical life to ministry to the poor, she nevertheless suffered from frequent spiritual desolation. "There is no God in me," she wrote. And sometimes, you and I get there, too.
Mother Teresa gives me hope that all I have to do is show up, whether with nard or with a hot dish or an overcoat. When Christ presents Himself, I can love Him while He is near. When He is not, I can love His people. As long as the love is passionate and without reservation, He will accept my gift.