From the Gospel according to Matthew:
Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, “Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 26:6-9 (NRSV) – July 17, 2014)
In John’s Gospel, Mary of Bethany is identified as the woman doing the anointing. (Jn 12:3) In John’s telling, Judas Iscariot is identified as the sole disciple who complained about the waste of money (and accused of doing so only because of an imputed intent to steal it for himself). (Jn 12:4-6)
Matthew, however, leaves the woman unnamed and ascribes the financial grumbling to all of the congregation, thus giving us a picture of the earliest beginnings of what have become venerable traditions in the Christian church: waste of church assets without taking personal responsibility, and anonymous grumbling about others’ (usually leadership’s) use (or alleged misuse) church funds. They are the flip-sides of the same coin.
The first doesn’t usually happen so boldly and openly as the woman behaves in this instance. Usually, the church’s property is wasted in anonymous ways. For example, in the men’s room at my church, there is a large hole in the wall behind the door: someone obviously opened the door with rather more force than was necessary and the doorknob smashed through the drywall. Has anyone taken responsibility for that? Not to my knowledge.
Look through the prayer books, hymnals, and bibles in the pew racks of nearly any church, you’ll find one or more bearing the scribbles and drawings of children who entertained themselves during some dull part of the worship. I’ve found such artwork in every parish I’ve worshiped in or served as clergy over the past several decades, but no parent has ever stepped up to me at coffee hour and said, “My child defaced a hymnal.”
Have you ever gone to a supply cabinet, refrigerator, or closet convinced that some item you need will be there, only to find that someone else has used it, taken it, or disposed of it? Who did that? Who knows? And why didn’t that person tell anyone they’d taken or used the last of whatever it was? I’ve stood in church kitchens and supply rooms asking those questions on many occasions.
Why don’t folks step up and admit these things so that they can be taken care of? Is it embarrassment? Is it fear? Is it simple neglect? Is it simple unthinking rudeness? I don’t know, but the end result for the person who must deal with the damage or with the lack of supplies is inconvenience, annoyance, and the beginnings of loss of trust in the community.
Which brings us the flip-side issue, i.e., the complaints (usually voiced in the parking lot) about the manner in which church assets are managed and the way money is spent.
There are people who do step up and take responsibility, the people who get elected to governing boards or who volunteer to oversee ministry programs or who respond to God’s call and end up getting ordained. These folks are then tasked with administering the church and its property, which means they become targets for criticism. It’s almost guaranteed that, whatever decisions they may make, someone in the church is going to follow the example of the disciples and say, “Why this waste? This could have been used for [fill in the blank].” In my experience, however, the folks who make the complaint the loudest are often unwilling to step forward themselves and take on leadership roles in the church. (Notice that none of the disciples offered to take Jesus’ place on the cross . . . in fact, the Gospels tell us that, when the time came to own their allegiance to Jesus, they ran away or, in the case of Peter, denied even knowing him.)
The issue in both the wasting of assets and the grumbling about how others manage them is the same: trust. Communities of faith — indeed, any human community — depends on trust. We human beings can only live together, work together, accomplish anything together, when we trust one another. We have to have enough trust in each other to be able to admit to one another that we have damaged something or used something up without expectation of being found at fault. We have to have enough trust in each other to be able to allow others to run the church’s business without grumbling about the way they do it. And often, we don’t.
A lot of social research has been done with shows rather conclusively that accountability precedes the development of trust in human organizations. This is the way in which these two issues are linked: anonymous damage to, waste of, or use of church property, in other words lack of accountability, deteriorates (or inhibits the development of) trust. Lack of trust leads to the parking-lot grumbling, which encourages the greater loss of trust. The one feeds the other; it’s a circle, a vicious cycle. It takes just a small step, however, to stop it.
That small step is the difference between Matthew’s report of Jesus’ anointing and John’s. When we use the last of something, when we inadvertently damage something, when our kids do what kids do . . . we can identify ourselves, as Mary is identified in John’s Gospel, and take responsibility. This grows trust. When we question leadership’s decisions, we can do so openly, as Judas does in John’s Gospel, this too grows trust — a surprise, perhaps, to see Judas as a positive figure, but there he is. These are a little things, but as many have noted, from little things great things grow. From small acts of accountability, trust grows; from trust, community grows.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.