The results of the G8 conversations in Scotland are emerging. The outcome for the poor in our world and especially the continent of Africa is crucial. But after all the decisions have been made and the statements read, will the poor still be with us?
There is a story which occurs in all the Gospels in different versions. Let us read it in Mark 14:3-9. An unnamed woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil. She is extravagant in the amount she pours over his head. It is worth a year’s wages for a poor person.
He is in the house of an outcast. Simon the leper would have no place in everyday society. What she did would exclude her from decent circles.
Other versions involve her loosening her hair; wiping the ointment into his feet. (Mt 26:6-13; Jn 12:1-8). Luke is probably recording a different event, but there are strong similarities (Lk 7:36-50).
It is a typical occasion in the life of Jesus. He is at ease in the company of those who make others uneasy. He accepts intimate hospitality without fear or questioning. He is not embarrassed by the unconventional.
He is ready to be with people who upset the scruples of the religious community. He surrounds himself with a “coalition of the willing”–people who are prepared to live the hope and values of the Kingdom of God.
But others raise questions. They question her extravagance. They point out the waste. They cost out her generosity and find it over the top.
They do not blame Jesus. They take out their embarrassment and fear on her. They scold her publicly. They reveal their feelings in high-minded moralism. She should not have lavished so much on Jesus. After all, it could have done so much for the poor. How easy some find it to condemn what they do not like by claiming the moral high ground.
Jesus defends her actions. He describes what she has done as a good thing. She is acting like a disciple (Mt 5:16).
Jesus then agrees with the disciples’ concern for the poor, “For you always have the poor with you.”
He is quoting Scripture or at least alluding to it. In Deuteronomy 15:1-11 we have a record of what would happen in the Sabbatical year.
Every seventh year the people of Israel would cancel debt. In this way there would be an equalization of need and opportunity and the community could move on together.
But, of course, human nature being what it was, the closer that time of debt relief came, the less inclined anyone would be to help someone who had fallen on hard times. They could wait for the appropriate time.
Deuteronomy will have none of it, “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth; open your hand to the poor” (Deut 15:11).
Jesus uses similar words. This is how life will be until the Kingdom comes. There will always be poor people. But within that reality, he has called on his disciples to relieve poverty through gifts and loans (Mt 5:42), almsgiving (Mt 6:1-4), redistribution of surplus wealth (Mt 19:16-22) and practical acts of compassion (Mt 25:31-46).
He is not being defeatist. He is neither endorsing the status quo nor dismissing the issue. He is not giving his followers an excuse to slide out of their responsibilities. For him compassion is a matter of practical theology.
He is the embodiment of the Sabbatical year. He lived its values all the time. The Lord’s Prayer has at its center the cry to God “forgive us our debts.” This is the joyous image of God that inspired the faith of Jesus. His father in heaven bore no grudges. God delights to keep short accounts. He desires no one to feel burdened by uncanceled debt.
But such a prayer is not a transaction between God and the person who is praying. We cannot come before God with that prayer on lips without being people who “forgive the debts” of others. We are all in debt. We are in debt to God and to each other.
Compassion releases us from the burden of debt. Grace relieves us from the burden of guilt. This is what both the woman and Jesus saw in his fast-approaching death. She anointed him as the King of Love, the one who cancels debt by absorbing the cost.
Her critics are silenced.
The truth has freed her and reduced their concerns to nothing. There is no reply. They lack generosity of spirit. They cannot comprehend compassion that does not calculate the cost.
Jesus has one more thing to say: words that would confirm this woman’s place in history. They are also words by which we must judge the outcome of the G8 summit.
“She did what she could.”
John Rackley is the minister of Manvers Street Baptist Church in Bath, England, and chaplain at Bath University. His column, “Rackley’s Reflections” appears in the on-line edition of The Baptist Times.