Last week, my reading plan took me to Mark 14:3-9, which describes a woman (identified as Mary in John) who anoints Jesus using a very expensive jar of perfume. It is a passage I have read and heard many, many times. Mark reports that some at the gathering were indignant that a three-hundred-denarii jar of oil—worth 300 days of wages for a day laborer—was wasted on such an elaborate display of affection toward Jesus. They would have rather, we are told, the “ointment of pure nard” be sold and spent on the poor.
When I have encountered this story in the past, my attention has typically been on the hypocrisy of Judas Iscariot. John tells us that his reason for protesting the “waste” of the oil was not because of his concern of the poor, but because he made a habit of lining his own pockets with money from the disciples’ common treasury. (We are not told whether the other disciples’ motives were pure or not.) For me, it has always been a simple story of Mary choosing to honor Jesus in a significant and sacrificial way, something that we need to remember is just as important as loving the poor in word and in deed.
But this time, I saw something else in the story. As I read it and re-read it, I could not shake the feeling that I have far more in common with the disciples in this story than I would like to admit. Clearly they did not have the right attitude, especially in comparison to Mary’s. But what was it about their attitude that wasn’t right? As I thought about it, I realized their negative reaction to Mary’s act of worship revealed two road blocks to Christ-centered ministry. These road blocks are so significant, I think, that we really ought to call them enemies of Christ-centered ministry. Here they are:
It’s human nature to be practical. I love talking about theology and philosophy of ministry, but at the end of the day, I usually choose the course of action as a leader that I think will “work.” And that’s not usually a bad thing. When you read the accounts of Paul’s ministry travels in Acts and his epistles, there is a very practical side to his planning. In ministry, it would be unwise for me to not try to develop a strategy that I think is practical. This fall when we planned our fall Small Group Connect event where people can get into a new small group, I chose the date and time I thought would allow the most people to attend possible.
But I also know that I’m often guilty of only being practical when it comes to ministry. When I focus just on what is practical and what “works,” I start to rely on myself and my own wisdom rather than God’s. In addition, I also forget to step back and ask God to show me what he is doing from his point of view. I think that’s why the disciples were so upset—at least those not named Judas Iscariot. When they saw what Mary did, they only could see what ministry could be done for 300 denarii. But Mary was doing something different. This wasn’t just an act of worship; Mary was preparing Jesus’ body for burial, foreshadowing the suffering he was about to experience for her and for the others in the room. Mary’s move was anything but practical; but from God’s point of view it made perfect sense.
The way this usually shows up in ministry is when we try to copy what’s working for other churches and ministries, or when we try to recreate past successes. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to say it’s bad to learn from the wisdom of others who have been there. However, when we try to replicate something that someone else has done only because it “worked” for them, we’re really only thinking about the results of ministry, rather than asking God what he wants to accomplish through us.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines efficiency as “the ability to do something or produce something without wasting materials, time, or energy.” In other words, efficiency is getting from Point A to Point B using the fewest resources or the least time.
Most leaders love efficiency. Since I live in the nonprofit world, anything that can be done in less time for fewer financial resources is usually considered a positive. Being a good steward of resources in this way is a part of pastoral leadership. However, there are times when being efficient isn’t necessarily the best—or right—thing to do.
Those who witnessed what Mary did considered her act a waste of resources. Her choice to use expensive perfume in such a way scored pretty low on the Return on Investment scale. If she wanted to honor Jesus in some way, surely she could have chosen a different method that was a more efficient use of resources!
But sacrifice isn’t always efficient.
There are times when following Jesus means not taking the shortest distance from Point A to Point B. And there will be times when loving others involves spending all day with one person when you could have used that time to tackle several other ministry-related tasks. Faithful ministry rarely resembles pinpoint precision or a well-oiled machine.
I’ve found that efficiency is often an enemy of ministry. This isn’t a call to be disorganized or careless. Rather, it’s a call to rely on God’s roadmap and God’s plans rather than our own. Perhaps the reason God’s plans don’t always seem very efficient to us is because he has all the time and resources he needs to accomplish his will.