Jesus, the Least of These, and Alabaster Jars

For at least the past couple years, I’ve been thinking about a tension between two seemingly Divine dictates:

(1) We have a pretty serious obligation to the world’s poor, an obligation that makes actions like buying computer games for our own entertainment sinful (or morally problematic or whatever).

(2) We have some obligation to behave with some partialism towards those of our community (and ourselves too?).

(I’ve actually written at length about this, albeit in the language of moral philosophy, in the second chapter of my thesis. There’s a lot of interesting things that philosophers have said on the matter.)

The other day, I noticed that the tension between (1) and (2) can actually arise by just looking at these two neighboring passages in Matthew:

Matthew 25: 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’

Matthew 26: 6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a]7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.

There’s something interesting going on here. In verses 8 and 9 of the latter passage, we see that the disciples are, as always, confused about how they should respond to this situation. But here, I can understand their confusion. (I wonder if the confusion of the disciples can explained by noting how close these two teachings were to one another.)

We might express their confusion this way: “But Jesus, didn’t you just get done telling us that taking care of the least of these is important?” Actually, Jesus suggested more than just “taking care of the least of these is important.” He said:

(3) Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.

Now, (1) seems to imply this:

(4) Caring for the least of these is as important as caring for me.

Here’s the confusing part: when the disciples object to the woman spending money on the ointment to anoint Jesus by saying that the money could have been spent on the poor, Jesus’ response is

(5) “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” – Don’t trouble her.

Now, (5) seems to imply this:

(6) Caring for me (at least in this instance) is more important than caring for the poor (i.e., the least of these).

Huh? How does (4) square with (6)? I can definitely see why the disciples are confused. At first glance, it just doesn’t look like (4) and (6) are consistent. And besides this, why think that (6) is true?

Here something I just noticed: verse 12 could be construed as the reason for (6). Unfortunately, however, this has an unhappy conceptual consequence. It implies that,

(7) Jesus cares more about being properly buried or about expressing some predictive message than about the least of these.

(7) indeed might be true. But even if it is, how does it square with (4)? Believing that (7) is just as (seemingly) problematic as believing (6) if we’re trying to find something that squares with (4).

I wonder if the disciples were confused for the same reason I am. I wonder if Jesus recognized why the disciples were confused. I wonder if Jesus thought about these issues raised by this interpretation of his remarks.

Regardless, I need strength and I need wisdom in order to behave in way that is pleasing to the Divine, to navigate the complexities of living between the obligations of (1) and (2). May I be given these things.

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