Palm Sunday, Year C
10 April 2022
In a talk about what she calls the cult of efficiency, Janice Gross Stein speaks of the time when her mother had broken her hip. Following surgery she was asked about what arrangements they had made for her mother who was unable to return home as she would no longer be able to climb stairs. When Stein answers that they are doing their best she is told that her mother is becoming a negative statistic for the unit. Stein concludes that the paramount sin now is inefficiency, while dishonesty, unfairness, and injustice, the sins of times past pale in comparison.1
Stein goes on to say that efficiency cannot be dismissed from our conversations but that it can never be an end in itself. The conversation about efficiency is usually carried out as a cost benefit analysis, the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and yet such discussion is usually detached from the people who are to benefit.
Think about it. When plans for this building were conceived, if getting the biggest bang for your buck would have been the primary consideration, you would have built a multi-purpose box, not a sacred space adorned with a suffering and compassionate messiah on the cross, or with windows that reflect God’s glory in creation and bathe this sanctuary in ethereal light. You would have built a box but not a space where our hearts and minds are drawn to God as we enter the space.
Efficiency, Stein says, is also used as a code word for the attack on a sclerotic and unresponsive state. After all, everyone loves to hate the government. And the language of efficiency always advances the interests of the market over against public institutions and this language shapes our expectations and experience.
This is what is happening in our Gospel reading.
The scene takes place following the raising of Lazarus, and six days before the Passover, and so it looks forward to both Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion on the one hand, but also anticipates the resurrection on the other.
Mary and Martha give a dinner for Jesus. I imagine this to be a dinner of thanksgiving, but also a dinner for the friend they love. Lazarus is there, the disciples are there, and Martha serves. The word used here is diakoneo which is consistent with ministry (i.e. diaconate) and it gives the meal the character of an eschatological meal, the heavenly banquet with Jesus both guest and host, even though here Jesus is clearly a guest.
And it is at the table, during the formal part of the meal, not away from the group or the conversations that Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Mary engages in a beautiful, prophetic, and public act of worship to which she is compelled by her love for Jesus.
Because Mary acts out of love, it is even more astounding that Judas questions her act. In the synoptic Gospels it is the disciples who question her. Is it an act of male chauvinism, since, they may think, that men know better? It likely was, but their question, and Judas’ question here is driven by the same motivation as what Stein calls the cult of efficiency: The greatest good for the greatest number of people, the biggest bang for your dollar.
To the surprise of modern ears, Jesus does not agree with Judas. Jesus does not share Judas’ view that ministry is about efficiency, rather Jesus receives not only Mary’s gift, but Jesus receives her love and thereby shows us that it is not efficiency but love that is the measure of all things.
Here it is Mary who shows us the value of love, only a few days later Jesus will give his life for the love of the world. Throughout Jesus’ earthly life we see that Jesus is driven not by efficiency but by love. Jesus has time for sinners. Jesus does not begin his ministry by targeting the movers and shakers of society but by making time for those at the margins. Jesus spends much time in prayer, perhaps the most inefficient thing of all, because his life is grounded in the love of the Father and the life of the Trinity. Jesus calls disciples who follow him, who often don’t understand him, and who are not only slow to learn but also slow of heart, yet he has time for them and shares the entirety of his three-year public ministry with them, even with Judas. If nothing else, this must give us hope.
This is important not simply as a rejection of the cult of efficiency but to deepen our love for Jesus, and this deepened love will give us the mind of Christ who is patient with us, does not give up on us, not on the church, not on the world. And following a Messiah whose love is patient and persistent enables us to be patient with ourselves, with others, with the church, and even with the world. God knows I am not all I want to be and that the change I seek and need takes time. God knows all of my frustrations, including at this time when the world seems to have taken a giant step backwards, yet God remains committed to the world in love.
And so what we learn from Mary, and what we learn from Jesus is not efficiency but devotion and love. Love is the measure of all things.
Judas did us the favour and asked our own question, “Would it not have been better to give to the poor?” Jesus answers by quoting from Deuteronomy. It is a “yes and” answer. Both are important, both need to be done. Love of God and love of neighbour are not alternatives but two sides of the same coin: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” (Deut 15:11)
Love is the measure.