As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Before my first trip to the Netherlands in 1998, Oma offered some advice. “Ask for kraanwater,” she said. Oma and Opa, having returned to the Netherlands several times since their emigration from Drenthe to the U.S. in the 1950s, still knew the ropes in Holland. Oma knew that if I didn’t order tap water, I’d be sold a bottle of Spa Rood or Spa Blauw or some other bottle of packaged—and not free—water.
Frugality was a part of our upbringing. Opa, too, was economical. All year long he’d save up pop cans. We lived in New York, where the deposit on cokes and beers was a nickel. Every year or so, Opa headed to Grand Rapids, Mich., to visit our relatives there. Then, at the Meijer across the street from the denominational building, Opa would redeem his annual truckload of pop cans. In Michigan, of course, the deposit for pop cans is 10 cents. Overnight, Opa had doubled his money. “Pays for the gas! Got me a free trip to Mitch-again,” Opa said.
Unlike the life of my childhood, my life now does not involve coupon-clipping or mail-in rebates. I use as an excuse the fact that I now live in Africa, where such things aren’t done. But even now, I feel a pang of guilt when I don’t try to squeeze two cups of tea out of every single teabag. Somehow, frugality is a value as profoundly enmeshed in my being as spirituality itself. I credit my upbringing for the fact that a need for God and a need for bargains have been established deep within me, as though they’ve been pasted to the very surface of my soul.
It is for this reason, I think, that I have always been slightly annoyed by the story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany. In all four gospels, the same story is told. In short: a woman anoints Jesus, just days before his crucifixion, with ridiculously expensive oil. The disciples object to the wasteful extravagance of this gift. They say the money spent on this gift could have been better used to serve the poor. Had I been there, I suppose I would have agreed with the disciples. Sanctimoniously, I would have reminded those present that Jesus had not called us to be recklessly extravagant. Rather, he had told us to sell all we have and give to the poor.
When the disciples voiced their reasonable objection, Jesus told them to leave the woman—identified by John as Lazarus’ sister Mary—alone. She had done what she could, Jesus said, and this gesture would be remembered forever. After all, Jesus reminded them, “the poor will always be with you.” In contrast, Jesus knew that he himself would soon be gone.
I’m no theologian; I can’t tell you what this story really means. But I can tell you what it’s come to mean to me.
In my mind, I replay this story while substituting attention for material goods. I imagine that instead of a material gift, Mary devoted her entire attention to worship, and to her attempt to commune with God and his incarnate son who sat there, in her presence.
In my imagined scenario, the disciples gather. “Shame on you, Mary,” the disciples say. “How can you waste your effort on this extravagance you call worship before the world’s issues have been sorted out? Haven’t you considered the poor and the hungry and the persecuted? Can’t you see that society is divided? Can’t you see that our church is at odds with itself over our differences in scriptural interpretation? Can’t you see that there are still Christians who hold mistaken views on political and social and so many other issues? There’s so much to do, Mary, and so many other pressing issues to think about and to discern. At a time like this, how can you waste your attention and effort on worship and communion?”
In my mind, Jesus interjects. “Hold on, guys,” he says. “She’s doing what she can, right here and right now. And those issues you’re talking about, they’ll never go away.”
When I think about it this way, I understand why the disciples were wrong and why Jesus was right.
There is merit in serving, and we have been called to feed the hungry and to clothe the poor. But I am seen, and I am temporary. God is unseen and eternal. Poverty, and the issues of the world, are somewhere in between. They were here before our birth and, unless the world ends soon, they’ll be here long after we’re gone. The issues of the world—like the issues in the church—are pesky and persistent.
If we dare not eat until each hungry mouth has been fed, we too will starve. If we refuse to keep each other’s company until our disputes have been settled, we will die alone. If we delay joy until all conflict has been resolved, we will never find time for celebration or worship. If I refuse to commune until we’ve achieved clarity and a perfectly uniform theological understanding, the next hand I hold may be my own, as I’m laid in a casket to my eternal rest.
With or without our help, the issues of the world—and those of the church—will persist.
Yes, there are issues to resolve—but then again, there always will be. Let us open our alabaster jars, let us pour out the expensive oil. Let us be extravagantly joyful now, for the greatest waste would be to sacrifice the present—the only moment we have—to arrange a perfect earthly future, a future we know will never come.