Is 50:4-7; Ps 22:8-9,17-18,19-20,23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Mk 14:1 – 15:47
Following each Palm Sunday, I find my thoughts and prayer lingering on one moment in the narrative of the Passion. Some years I am at the tomb with the stone newly rolled, obstructing the entrance. Other years, I am fixed before the cross or in the agonizing moments of Gethsemane. This year, however, my contemplation is focused on an earlier episode, the anointing at Bethany (Mk 14:3-9). After the woman breaks open the costly jar of ointment on Jesus’ head, others present become indignant, protesting that such precious ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus not only defends her act as a “good service” but calls for it to be linked closely with the proclamation of the Gospel: “Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Instead of a source of moral debasement, the extravagance of the woman’s gesture is the very basis for its goodness. And this is somewhat surprising, given that we often speak of extravagance as a vice rather than a virtue. Extravagance is the excess of the virtue of generosity wherein the priorities and manner of giving are distorted and contrary to right reason. Yet, Jesus commended the woman’s act both to those present and to all who have received the good news since.
In an essay titled “Prohibition and Taste: the Bipolarity in Christian Ethics,” moral theologian Roger Burggraeve identifies the anointing at Bethany as an “expressive act” and argues for the importance of such acts in the ethical life.
Because of the danger of the purely utilitarian and functional ethic easily implied in an ethic of fear, it is important to emphasize the ‘intrinsically meaningful acts’ within ethical life. Ethics is more than a strategic instrument for solving problems in a manner which is as functional and structured as possible….[E]thical life is greatly impoverished when human behavior is reduced to merely its pragmatic effectiveness. There are also goal-directed acts that, in and through the act itself, seek to realize an intrinsic meaning or human quality….
One particular form of intrinsically meaningful act is the ‘expressive act’ (Ausdruckshandlung). Such acts not only bear their meaning within themselves, but they also tangibly and sensibly express, in communication with others, an inner condition or attitude. Think of a greeting, of giving a gift, of confessing faith in word and deed, etc. Were we to approach the ethical value of these acts only teleologically or consequentially, i.e. on the basis of their advantages and disadvantages, their profits and costs, then we would entirely miss their human meaning. Whoever judges the moral correctness of an act only on the basis of its results, reduces ethical evaluation to the moral pettiness of addition and subtraction. The ethical value of expressive acts cannot be reduced to their calculable pragmatic value; because they are expressive, they have more costs than profit. When we compare them with possible alternatives, they are far from being the ‘least expensive’ — with the fewest negative results. On the contrary, sometimes the ‘costs’ for those who perform them are very high. Yet we feel that they are not immoral, but ethically correct, very edifying and excellent.
While all extravagance may not be excellent, there is good reason to identify the extravagant anointing at Bethany as a virtuous act. And it gives us an important lens into what it is we are preparing to celebrate this Holy Week – the extravagant solidarity and mercy of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. In the breaking of the alabaster jar, we find prefigured the precious gift of God’s presence among us which is ultimately broken and poured out for all.
This too seems far from the “least expensive” way. And theologians for centuries have asked if salvation could be accomplished otherwise. It is no small question. Yet, this week we will be confronted yet again with God’s expressive act. May it remind us of our complex moral life which can never be reduced to mere pragmatism and effectiveness but is always and everywhere measured against the extravagance of divine love and mercy.