By Jessica Gosnell
The Gospel reading for this Palm Sunday weaves together a number of issues relevant to the culmination of our Lenten season, but the one about which I want to reflect has to do with priorities.
We see this throughout Mark’s retelling of the crucifixion. Before Passover, when the woman perfumes Jesus’ head with the contents of her jar, the people around her are infuriated. So much could have been done with this precious perfume and instead she has “wasted” it on the anointing of his body. In response, Jesus notes that “The poor you will always have with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them, but you will not always have me.” Later, during the Passover meal, when Jesus reveals to the 12 that one of them will betray him, they respond with worries about which one of them will commit this shocking act.
Let’s consider these responses. As someone who cried out for social justice and demanded that we care for the least among us, why would Jesus consider the woman’s behavior to be appropriate when she could have benefited the poor by selling the perfume instead? When we are surprised by Jesus’ response to the woman, it is because we have failed to identify the big picture. Providing for the poor in this case could only have provided for their physical needs; by selling the perfume she may have afforded them food or clothing. Her use of the perfume on Jesus was addressing his spiritual needs, which, in his few remaining days, he was desperately trying to emphasize the importance of to his people. This was a call to those present to recognize their priorities.
The reaction of the apostles is perhaps less shocking. Imagining ourselves in such a situation, perhaps our first concern would also be to secure ourselves from the accusation of denying Jesus. However, there is a fundamental failure among the apostles to identify what is of most importance. Who among them would be the guilty party was less important than the more essential fact that Jesus would be betrayed.
How common it is for us to find ourselves in such situations. To respond to a situation without careful reflection about what action is most appropriate. We do this out of anger and fear, but we also do it with the most pure of intentions. Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Catholic monk, writes that in the interest of securing peace, we often find ourselves able to easily justify any action insofar as it is directed at peace, even to the extreme of engaging in violence or coercion that will produce the consequences for which we are aiming.
We may quickly dismiss this comment from Merton, on the grounds that we are not international peacemakers. Since I am unlikely to take up arms, I need not concern myself with the abstention from violence. But this is a very narrow view of conflict and peace. If we examine the bigger picture we will find that conflict and peace, justice and injustice are present in our lives every day. When we clash with a co-worker and when we disagree with our neighbors, we are faced with a choice between reflective action and immediate reaction. The latter can be very tempting, particularly when we feel the injustice intensely and personally. We might say to ourselves that such wrongdoing demands immediate retaliation.
Merton encourages us to examine the bigger picture. If we are seeking long-term change rather than immediate retribution, we simply must examine our options more carefully. In writing about Merton, William Shannon writes, “Nonviolence is as active as violence in resisting evil, but it does so in a way that is more creative and, in the long run, more effective.” If we can see our actions in the context of the larger picture and if we can remember the importance of identifying our priorities before we act, we enable ourselves to choose the more effective option.
(Jessica Gosnell is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)