From John 12:1-8
Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead.
2There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him.
3Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.
4Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him,
5Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?
6This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.
7Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this.
8For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.
Today, in the Western Churches, a great deal of focus is given and much effort drafted into solving pressing social issues, such as poverty and injustice. Much of this change of focus of the Church to solving social issues through service has been in the last 40 years since Vatican II. However, the idea of service is not new to the Church (east or west). Centuries ago the Church, through its parishes and monasteries, had set up the first hospitals and lazariums (leper asylums), and provided many ministries to the poor and refuge to travelers. But the Church of today tries to SOLVE or eliminate these problems, whereas the Church in the past had not expected to solve or eliminate them, rather to minister to alleviate the suffering. The Church’s original focus and through the centuries had been first and foremost to worship the true God. Once true worship was established, the effects of grace would then spread throughout the culture, which in itself, could solve, eliminate or prevent many social problems. The ministry through true worship is a longer and harder path and one that requires more faith. But the temptation has always been to take short-cuts.
That the Church had changed its expectation from ministering to solving the world’s problems showed a decided accommodation to the utopianism of our age. There are historical reasons why this shift of expectation has happened. 18th and 19th century Europe experienced many revolutionary and social worker movements which saw the Church (wedded as it had been to the feudal state) as a hindrance to their economical and political freedoms. The French Revolution purged the Church from public life, beginning the spread of aggressive secularization in Europe (and throughout the world) that continues to the present day. By the late 19th century, the popes issued encyclicals that addressed the issues of social inequality, until finally the Roman church “modernized” itself at Vatican II (1965) and set itself the task of solving the social issues of the day in order to inject a Christian influence upon an already ongoing political process. This modernization immediately affected worship practices by detaching the liturgy from its traditional practices towards free-form worship. Contemplative monks and nuns were forced out of the monasteries and convents to perform social work instead of dedicating their lives to prayer, as a life of prayer was seen as useless. In Latin America, this utopian shift towards solving the social problems soon morphed into the Liberation Theology movement, which was often found making common cause with the Communists as gun-toting priests joined their ranks.
The Protestants, generally, also followed the Roman church’s lead into social issues ministries, where now, a congregation is often encouraged to prove its Christian ardor by enrolling in Habitat for the Humanity, soup kitchens, marching against war, or any other ministry that seeks to solve someone problem. Protestant churches was already disadvantaged with very thin worship traditions or devotional practices, but this modern essentially secular drive towards Christian service became in the minds of many as good as, if not better than, mere worship. I remember a Presbyterian pastor tell the story of a missionary/doctor friend of his who worked extremely hard in South Asia ministering to the poor there. This doctor, who had no opportunity for worship, exhausted herself because she kept trying to solve problems which were unsolvable and often very horrific. After five years, she completely lost her faith in God, thinking that this ultimate Problem-Solver didn’t care about poor people as much as she did.
So what is one to make of the verse where Jesus rebukes Judas by saying “The poor you will have with you always, but me you have not always?” (John 12:8). The author of this gospel says that Judas was covering his innate greediness by objecting to the “waste” the woman demonstrated by pouring expensive oil on Jesus’ feet. Judas based his objection on a practical suggestion: “this money could have been used for the poor.”
Was Jesus rebuking Judas only for his greed or perhaps something more? Given our modern practical mindset today, if we were direct observers of this scene, we probably would have been tempted to applaud Judas, thinking he had only suggested something hugely practical to removing the curse of poverty. We would have rejected the silly woman was being impractically mystical, though she was the only one in the crowd who intuitively knew that awe-filled sacrifice that would be required of Jesus.
But Jesus said: “The poor you will have with you always, but me you have not always.” Jesus didn’t rebuke the woman for her worshipful impracticality, but rebuked instead Judas for his mere practicality. It was the woman’s mystical response that was the real solution of the poor state of things, if one looks at this suffering world from a cosmological viewpoint (God is among us, let us bow down) instead of a worldly one (Problem A must be solved or God’s Kingdom won’t come.)
Jesus himself saw worship as the font of everything he did, and he did not reduce worship to the same level as service. Service is not worship, but worship’s outgrowth. Worship must precede service in order for service to do real good and not serve ego or ultimately, the devil. Jesus began his ministry after a sojourn in the desert where he was tempted by the devil to change stones into bread (which could feed the world.) Satan offered him the rulership of all the kingdoms on earth (think what good that Jesus can do with all that power) in exchange for diverting his worship from God to Satan.
Every morning, Mother Theresa began her service to the poorest of the poor with hours of prayer and worship and instructed her helpers to do the same. She would not accept the dubious “help” of any who would not abide by this requirement. She said that without deep prayer and worship, one couldn’t do this work, being too awful, exhausting and unending for a human being to do. For the poor will be with us always, no matter what we do.
To deal with them and any other suffering, Christ must be with us first and we with Him before we put our finite backs to it. If our worship is cast aside or is denigrated and cheapened, if we confuse what worship really is, then our service in time may well evolve into a practical atheism that any government social worker would envy.
Our attention to worship means we have faith in God to ultimately bring us to His Kingdom. To worship God BEFORE we serve means we lay aside our temptation to bring in the Kingdom ourselves.