If you were a philosopher, and you were asked the most important trait that can help you understand yourself and enable you to relate to others, what would you say?
Or, if you were a professor of ethics and you were asked to name the one attitude most essential for people to learn so they could successfully live with each another, what would you say?
If you are the typical, garden variety of person (which most likely you are) – going about your daily work, trying to keep control of yourself and doing your best to cope with your disappointments and your successes, the good and the bad which constantly assault you – and you had to pick the one characteristic, more than any other, that could put your life back together and enable you to come out on top, what would you say?
I think God leads us to the answers to these big questions by looking at the story in Matthew 26 when Jesus was in Bethany. Jesus takes our significant questions out of the realm of glibness and generality and makes them as specific as flesh and blood.
We read that “a woman came up to Jesus with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head, as he sat at the table.”
The women of that day are said to have carried little alabaster vials of precious perfume around their necks. They were highly prized and used only sparingly. Here we see her come to Jesus and pour the contents of the whole vial onto his head, causing it to flow over his hair and down onto his robes. She was giving him all she had, showing him that her gratitude had no bounds.
This caused quite a commotion. The disciples, knowing how expensive the perfume was, were indignant: Why this waste? they asked in scorn, suggesting that this ointment could have been sold for a large sum and the money given to the poor. But Jesus, who constantly was doing things for the poor, said, she has performed a good service for me, or in the King James Version: “She has done a beautiful thing.”
There are times when all of us need that beautiful thing if we are to survive and keep our wits about us, our souls intact. Its value need not be measured in money but in meaning—the word, the thought, the commendation. Such acts bring a quality to life which enables us to respond to each other with care and affection. Without them, the springs of life would soon dry up and our better motivations would simply turn into dust. The disciples did not understand that generosity begets generosity. Kindness begets kindness.
It’s almost ludicrous, this fancy alabaster vial or jar with its extravagant perfume, intruding itself right into the middle of those horrible events which led up to the arrest and death of Jesus. Just before this we find the mean-spirited scribes, Pharisees, and priests full of corrupt and evil passions venting their spleens with cold legalisms spewing out with pious platitudes. Immediately following, we find Judas Iscariot greedily asking, what will you give me if I betray him to you? But here in the midst of all that, we find the fragrance of purely selfless love being poured out for no better reason than to express itself in gratitude and joy. In the midst of the tensions which come with our contrived manipulations, here is the release which issues from self-forgetting care for someone else.
In a world where people are pushed about as numbers or betrayed by charm and flattery, the woman with the alabaster vial haunts us, especially when we calculate our relationships. I know that our intention and besetting sin may not be deliberate coldness. I don’t think any of you would be in church if you were the kind of person who purposefully planned to be mean. But I’ve noticed in our world “out there,” that there is a blasé superficiality where we go to see and be seen but couldn’t communicate with someone even if we tried; a world where we have many friendships but no real friends; many contacts but no real contact; where we are at home in the crowds but insecure with individual people. The world where propriety is far more important than persons, where we feel we have to save face and make impressions at all costs.
We are such vulnerable ones. We get hurt when we begin to care about each other. Maybe that’s why we retreat into our little pretend worlds with their make-believe games. It all came home to me in its full venom once when I was called on to bury a mother whose sons didn’t go to any church, and couldn’t have cared less whether she did. It was a funeral where nobody cared; the family was fully without grief or sorrow. Ever since then I have learned to cherish grief and sorrow as precious gifts which can only be shared by people who have cared about each other. The world at that funeral was one in which everybody resented this intrusion on their social schedule. Maybe T. S. Eliot described it in his scathing lines:
Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road,
And a thousand lost golf balls.
In such a superficial world we need a sense of anguish and suffering for one another, so that we can embrace the heartaches and grief that come to those who care.
We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear.
And often for each other flows,
The sympathizing tear.
We need that woman with the alabaster jar to come into our midst and pour out herself in the reality of genuine caring. And then we need to hear our Savior say, “She has performed a beautiful service for me. She has done a beautiful thing.”
So we come back to our original question about how to say, in a few words, what is most important. I think the woman said it when she expressed her care. And Jesus said it with his words, “She has done a beautiful thing.” It was also said with total clarity by Baron von Hugel when he was on his deathbed. As you may know, von Hugel was something of a philosopher and a person with real spiritual depth. Many people still use his writings as a form of spiritual meditation.
When he was about to die, his niece stood beside his bedside and saw that he was trying to say something. She thought he might make one last profound statement at this moment when his earthly life was ending, so she bent her ear down to his lips and heard him breath his last words: “Caring is everything. Nothing matters but caring.”
There’s a statement to keep in front of us, whether we are all caught up in ourselves or whether we are wounded by our relationships. I think that all Christian philosophies of life rise and fall by that statement, “caring is everything. Nothing matters but caring.”
Some weeks bring me into more of homes than others do, and into all kinds of family situations. You know, I’ve heard these stories again and again. Some person from the church who has brought flowers and stayed to talk. Or someone else from a church who has kept in touch with the hurting during a hard time, and been their friend just when the person thought they didn’t have any friends left in the world. Some are in awe and appreciation of our Stephen Ministries which trains and assigns caregivers to befriend people going through deep waters. Others are grateful for the pastoral care team and pastors and staff of a church who call and visit those who are in particular need. Or of youth groups when they prepare food they take to the homeless. Or of the individuals who are inspired and encouraged in their church life visiting a friend in hospital who is ill, as not.
They say that the church is the body of Christ. Well, here is his body, moving about among those in need today, just as Christ walked among the peoples in need in Galilee. And what does he say as light and hope to our cynical world? “Caring is everything. Nothing matters but caring.” Look at Jesus on the cross, in that one decisive moment that embraces all time, gathering to himself the suffering and the pain of the whole world—and know that caring is everything. Nothing matters but caring.
Today we each have an opportunity to care, to really care with the love of Jesus through the life of our churches. Being a giving part of a church gives us the chance to join the body of Christ as it moves with compassion and care through your town and our world in Jesus’ name. You can make a significant difference with your care, to reach out to others and with others, in the tangible and real ways of Jesus as his body in the here and now.
For biblical Christians, there is simply no better investment than in the life and ministry of the local church. Clearly, no local church is perfect, just as no Christian is perfect, but that’s not the issue. Investing seriously in the Church through giving, whether your gifts or talents, is the way God has ordained for the real change that lasts beyond the moment and the fad.
Perhaps you have read Graham Greene’s classis novel, A Burnt Out Case. You may recall that it is about an eminently successful and famous man who simply gave up. He became cynical about his success and achievement. His marriage failed miserably. He wanted to get as far away as he could from everything and everybody. He ended up at a leper colony as far away from civilization as he could get. There he hoped to kill the days with no contact with the outer world.
He represents many of us who, in today’s expression, “have had it.” Who are fed up with everything, including ourselves, maybe even people who have thrown off faith in God and consequently who have lost all sense of meaning. Nothing seems to come together any more. Friends, family, career—all these have become a drudgery.
In the case of the man in Graham Greene’s story, it was a pitiful leper who unintentionally brought him a sense of meaning. The leper hobbled about with no fingers or toes, nor could he speak any language save his tribal tongue. Because he was useless to anyone, the friend in our story took him as a kind of companion, and out of that strange, caring relationship came a new sense of being to the man.
The leper’s name was Deo Gratias. No explanation is given for this odd name, but by the end of the story you realize that this speechless, toeless, and fingerless leper by the name of Deo Gratias was the grace of God following around this burnt-out old cynic.
In such strange ways God’s grace comes to us. It stays with us, even when we are repelled by it. Do you recognize it in your life? Do you know Deo Gratias? Do you sense the mind-boggling power of the words, Caring is everything—nothing matters but caring?
We can develop our theologies and sociologies, our politics and our psychologies about almost everything. We can wax eloquent with our reason and our philosophy. We can impress ourselves with our moralisms and our mannerisms. But all these can be swept away as in a flood. What endures finally is this: caring is everything. Nothing matters but caring.
God cares. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.
See, from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down:
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.
Deo Gratias! How we need that little fellow, Deo Gratias, marred and crippled without fingers or toes, hobbling around with us! How we need to meet the caring woman who did a beautiful thing! We need to greet others with the generosity and conviction of Christians who believe that through us, in God’s name, in this town—your town, “Caring is everything. Nothing matters but caring.” In it is the grace of God. In fact, it is the grace of God. Amen.
 Hügel’s most enduring contribution to theological thinking is his “three elements.” The human soul, the movements of western civilization, and the phenomena of religion itself he characterized by these three elements: the historical/institutional element, the scientific/intellectual element, and the mystical/experiential element.