A PRIORITY OF VALUES

by Rev. Vladimir Berzonsky

 

“Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at table.

"But when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.’

“But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble this woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you have the poor with you always, but you will not always have me.’" (Matt. 26:6-11)

 

The demand put to all religious bodies in the United States by the group headed by James Foreman for a half billion dollars dramatically reiterates the most frequent challenge to the faith throughout the centuries: “What have you done to alleviate the social ills of the world?” Suddenly we are put on the defensive. Yes, we reflect, what have we done? Then we try to apologize.

The problem lies in the question itself, which takes for granted the only reality is the material, and the only virtue is in helping the poor. Notice the word only; no one can argue that we have a directive from our consciences as well as from the Lord himself to help the poor and needy, which is clear from the meaning of the “Good Samaritan” story, and from St. Matthew chapter twenty-five, the Last Judgment narrative. We are committed to assume responsibility for the world’s welfare.

Nevertheless, helping the poor by no means exhausts the gospel of Christ. Our Lord Jesus Christ took every occasion to contrast this world with the Kingdom of God. It is that reality with which he confronts us.

In the story above, concerning the anointing of Jesus with expensive oil, he put welfare in its proper relationship to his own saving act. A good woman purchased ointment extravagantly luxurious for the society in which they moved; it was an impulsive act of love on her part, and she poured all of it on Christ’s head. His own disciples thought that act unnecessarily lavish, and they reproached her for wasting her money, which they suggested she might have put to better use had she given it to the needy. Perhaps they even thought less of Jesus for allowing her to fulfill her grand mission. Jesus defended her act of love, and reproached the disciples for shaming the woman.

Most heresies in the past, aberrations from the fullness of knowledge about the teachings of the Orthodox Church, chose to ignore or refute one basic tenet of the faith; otherwise, they were true Christian teachings. In the modern trend to reinterpret true Christian doctrine, what modernists prefer to see as making relevant, or updating, the stress is on social concerns. By stressing the economic aspects of Christian concern, the churches open doors of unity with believers and non-believers alike. The entire communistic theory of life is based on economy. Feeding and caring for the world’s masses at once unites our cause with that of even the communists. Within Christianity, doctrinal differences are unimportant when Christians of different persuasions join in a common effort to alleviate suffering in any form.

After saying all this, we must reaffirm the Kingdom of God, which is our highest concern, taking priority over everything else, even the world’s welfare. Churches can be agencies to help in welfare, but they must be more than that. If that is all they do, where can we go to be saved, and to unite ourselves with the sacred? The world is good, but it is not ultimate; it is valuable, but not lasting. We cannot let ourselves be understood as people unconcerned for the world; but we must remind ourselves that it is not the ultimate value.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
September 1969
p. 18

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