“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:8)
Folks love to point out with almost joyful spite at how much money the Vatican has, or how expensive beautiful worship spaces are or vestments or holy hardware is. The implications are obvious. Surely, there are sorry examples of the misuse, indeed abuse, of power and finances within the Church, but I think many of us miss a deeper understanding of what our life as Christians is when this point is made.
Social Justice, caring for the poor, the marginalized is extremely important, if not the first priority, the highest outward expression of our discipleship. Yet, I think it is also important to recognize—it is the fruit of our Christian life: there is something that proceeds it.
I happen to be a big fan of Mahatma Gandhi—a saint of the ages. He was able to grasp and relate such a fullness of spiritual depth, drawing on a variety of traditions, including Christian, and nurtured the ancient practice of non-violence, or Ahimsa. Gandhi, like the Gospels, invites us to look to our interiority first. Striking another in anger is just the final effect of a journey that begins in the heart. The moment we judge, condemn, hate, exclude, belittle or even try to be ‘right’ we are in fact already engaging in violence.
Gandhi would suggest that even fighting for social justice or righteous causes can be just an expression of violence that has overcome us, and veiled us from the Truth. Our work, according to him, is first and foremost prayer, attending to the heart, and turning towards God. It is our interior purification and edification that creates the garden of holy action. He says:
Prayer from the heart can achieve what nothing else can in the world… Prayer is an impossibility without a living faith in the presence of God within… Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal…. Such worship or prayer … is no lip-homage. It springs from the heart. We achieve that purity of heart when it is ‘emptied of all but love’.
This is not to say that true religion or spiritual life is about heading off to a cave to spend your life in contemplation (though that may be your vocation); rather, regardless of your activity in the world, how you engage with life, at our core as people of God is prayer without ceasing, yielding ever more deeply to the indwelling mystery of God. It is only be yielding to God at the deepest and most vulnerable places within ourselves that we find transformation and the capacity to “put on the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Putting on the mind of Christ is not about living by a fierce moral code; rather, it is consenting to God’s life within you, a true metanoia, moment by moment, and literally allowing the mind of Christ be your own. Gandhi relates:
My political friends despair of me… they say that even my politics are derived from religion. And they are right. All… activities of mine are derived from my religion… Every act of a man of religion must be derived from his religion, because religion means being bound to God, that is to say, God rules your every breath.
Jesus condones the behavior of the wasteful love and devotion shown to him while suggesting “you always have the poor with you.” It would be preposterous to suggest Jesus did not care about the poor, but I think he is inviting us to a deeper reality, a deeper understanding. To say “may thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is not about our righteous and pious acts, but about God’s holy acts performed through us. When we yield to God, when we become burning flames of love, who break bread with our ‘enemies’, by “becoming like him in his death” (Phil 3:10), my life becomes God’s life in the world. It is then that my heart is His heart, my hands are His hands, the prisoners are set free, the sick are healed, the blind see, the dead rise.
So bring on the costly perfume, God needs you, all of you. So wastefully give yourself to Him, and ignore my petty judgment. I just don’t know how to party.