“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly. ‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.’” Mark 14: 3-6
It stands out as a story of lavish extravagance against the Gospels’ backdrop of dusty roads, poor fishermen, and harsh tax collectors. The whole bottle of perfume! Just poured out. On its surface, it looks like a pointless act of wastefulness. And Jesus’ disciples do not hesitate to say so: “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” It’s a good point. Life was hard under the Roman occupation, and every day the disciples passed beggars who would have been grateful for some extra coins. But what does Jesus say? “Leave her alone […] She has done a beautiful thing for me.”
Jesus saw the poverty around Him as clearly as any of his disciples. And throughout His ministry, He shows a deep commitment to caring for the poor. But Jesus also sees extraordinary value in the “beautiful thing” the woman has done. Why is this? Where is the value in beautiful things?
It is easy to see the importance of acts of service. Jesus notices the outcasts of society, makes time for them, and cares for them; He calls us to do the same. But in the effort to follow Jesus’ example, Christianity often seems to be about simply doing good things.
With this focus on usefulness comes a focus on results. We make the usefulness of the act into something about us, something we’re doing, a difference we’re making. But Jesus reminds us here that following Him does not mean only doing good things. It requires recognizing whom we follow.
Part of the value of beautiful things, then, comes from our very awareness of their uselessness. It is vitally important that we engage in acts of service. But these acts need to be reflections of how good God is. Too often we turn them into demonstrations of how good we are—or think we are. When we take away usefulness, though, it frees our acts to be only about God.
What would such a useless act look like? The woman in the story offers one possibility: do beautiful things. Or, taken another way: make art.
Art points to something larger than itself. It is comprised of parts that are wholly unremarkable: poetry is built out of words, which we use everyday; music is made of sound, which constantly surrounds us. But words and sound (and color, and movement) can create a beauty far greater than the sum of their parts. Through artistic expression, they can form a reflection—albeit partial—of the beauty of God.
As God has shown abundant love to us, so He asks us to show abundant love to others. We are called to feed the hungry and care for the sick, to love our neighbor and stand with the oppressed. And this work is critically important; there’s a place for a practical response to Jesus’ teachings and God’s goodness.
But there’s also a place for the beautiful response.
Let us feed the hungry and care for the sick; let us love our neighbor and stand with the oppressed. But let us not grow distracted by the things we are doing and thus miss what God is doing, or forget what God has done. Psalm 126 says, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” Let us express our joy and reflect God’s love. Let us make beautiful things.
In this photography, we strive to re-envision places of function and practicality as places of beauty. Photos by Sam Gutierrez.
Tags: art, beauty, God, Jesus, joy, love, utilitarian