- John 12:1-8
'Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?'
Today's Gospel reading draws us to one of the most enduring dilemmas in the life of the church, namely the proper balancing of fighting poverty with investing in beauty and indeed art.
Some would say the church should abandon aesthetics in order to strengthen the poor; others would contend that it not right to deprive poorer people, or indeed anybody else, of an opportunity to taste the beauty of holiness.
All these continuing agonisings find echoes in the account of how Jesus himself responded to an extravagant gesture motivated entirely by love.
Years of pastoral experience have taught me that this apparently crude dilemma is actually more apparent than real. Generous people are generous people; the person who gives sacrificially to Christian Aid and similar agencies is often the same person who contributes generously to the appeal to restore the stained glass.
What's really important is that both acts should derive from a common motive... they both should express costly sacrificial love for Christ and for those who share his image.
We do not seek to strengthen the poor in order to glorify ourselves; equally we shouldn't support the arts to draw attention to our own importance. Unfortunately a good deal of 'art' in churches is all about the memorisation of individuals, and the emphasising of their past power and wealth.
Authentic patronage of the arts in the context of faith is surely about extravagant gestures that have no other purpose, save to express love for Jesus and a desire to beautify and inspire worship. The identity of the donor or patron should be scarcely relevant.
Artists, like the poor, will always be with us. Both need recognition and respect because in the presence of both we are led to encounter Christ in all his richness. And often, it's actually the skill of artists which, more eloquently than any sermon, can awake the conscience of the church to the cry of the poor
You made all people in your image, and gave to some special talents to explore your beauty,
Help us, like your Son, to delight in extravagant generosity empowered by selfless love,
And grant us the discernment of the Spirit in responding to both artistry and poverty.
We pray in the name of Jesus, your anointed one.
Today’s reflection on the gospel passage in the lectionary has been provided by Michael Burrows, who's been bishop of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory since 2006. He's served both as a board member of Christian Aid Ireland and as Chair of the Church of Ireland Bishops' Appeal. He has a particular interest in the history of art, and the theological value of artistic imagination.
Published on 29 March 2019