Wednesday, August 24, 2011 — Week of Proper 16, Year One
Martin de Porres, Rosa de Lima, and Toribio de Mogrovejo, Witnesses to the Faith in South America, 1639, 1617, 1607
Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 980)
Psalms 119:1-24 (morning) 12, 13, 14 (evening)
1 Kings 3:1-15
So often, it is all about money.
In an extravagant, generous act, an unnamed woman poured a jar of costly ointment over Jesus, anointing him for death. Mark gives the cost of the perfume as equivalent to a day’s wages for three hundred laborers. The act provokes a reaction. What a waste. Think of what the money for this ointment could have meant to the poor.
Jesus acknowledges the gift and the motives of the giver. “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me.” He goes on to say that “she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” Later, the women who go to his tomb to anoint his body will discover that he has risen. Jesus says that this woman will be remembered wherever the good news is proclaimed. And indeed she is. Anonymously.
The other thing Jesus addresses is the competing value of helping the poor. “For you will always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.”
I’ve heard this verse quoted by some as an excuse not to give resources for the relief of the poor — Jesus said that poverty is a problem that cannot be solved. I think that is a poor interpretation. Jesus was generous to the poor — feeding, healing, teaching and befriending. I think he invites us to follow his example and to show kindness to the poor.
I would propose that the greatest division in our nation lies along this fault line: What is our relationship to the poor?
I think that most of the political conflicts in our nation today are competing visions about the poor.
There are those who believe that the system is fundamentally fair — fair enough. Thanks to the freedom of opportunity our nation offers to all people, anyone with discipline and hard work can succeed. If someone is poor, it is probably because of their own lack of industry, talent or virtue. We destroy motivation and reward failure when we give away what should be earned. Give people a chance, but don’t protect them from failure.
There are others who believe that the system is not fundamentally fair enough. There are some who enjoy unearned privilege, and many others who face such profound obstacles that they have very little possibility for success. Many believe that a just nation will expect the privileged to give power and resources to the underprivileged in order to even the playing field.
There is another debate about what responsibility we have toward others, regardless of our judgment of merit. Are food, shelter, and medical care human rights, or are they earned privileges? Do the wealthy and powerful owe anything to those who are poor and powerless?
Is a government just when it mandates values that take from some in order to give to others? Can a government be just if it doesn’t?
I think these are the primary dividing lines that separate blue from red.
What would Jesus say?