But Jesus said, “Leave her alone; why berate her for doing a good thing? You always have the poor among you, and they badly need your help, and you can aid them whenever you want to; but I won’t be here much longer.”
Mark 14:6-7 (The Living Bible)
Picture the scene; Jesus is having supper with his disciples at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. A woman comes into the room with an expensive bottle of perfumed oil which she proceeds to break open and pour onto Jesus’ head. The guests at the table are immediately angry. This foolish woman has “wasted” this valuable resource (other accounts place its value at nearly a year’s wages for a common laborer). Doesn’t she know that this treasure could have been sold and the proceeds used to provide for the poor?
Rather than rebuking her, Jesus rebukes her critics, asserting that what she has done is a “good thing.” I think we can learn much from this story about Jesus’ view of what our priorities should be.
We live in an age when many young Christians are extremely fervent for social causes. They are passionate about promoting social justice, ending slavery, providing for the poor, and easing the struggles of the oppressed and downtrodden in both the inner city and the third world. They reflect attitudes common among their generation, often termed “Millennials” by social scientists. I think that their attitudes toward the poor are laudable and represent a well-deserved rejection of the insular and self-centered mindset common among many Christians in my generation (“Baby Busters”).
However, this story illustrates that while concern for the poor is a good thing, it is not the most important thing; Jesus is! As His disciples, our lives and attitudes should be centered on Him; especially on worshiping and adoring Him as this woman did with her singular act of worship. Our “good works” (like pursing social justice) should be an outgrowth of our love for Jesus, not the central focus of our Christian lives. It is too easy to make even a “good thing” into an idol and God has declared that He will not tolerate the worship of any other god.
Consider Jesus’ warning to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2:2-4;
“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
Revelation 2:2-4 (ESV)
This church was doing “good things,” but they had abandoned their first love! We need to be careful that in our zeal for doing “good things” for Jesus that we don’t allow those “works” to become idols that usurp His rightful place in our hearts. Only He is worthy of our worship, devotion, and adoration; not any works of our hands, however good they may be.
Jesus goes on to warn the Ephesian believers;
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.”
Revelation 2:5 (ESV)
The “works” that Jesus wanted the Ephesian church (and us) to do are not the pursuit of social causes, but simple acts of worship for the Son of God, like those of that anonymous woman at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. Then, out of our deep love and devotion for Him, should flow our compassion for the poor among us and our care for them.