Paul claimed that the core Christian virtue – Love – is, among other things, “patient” (1 Co 13:4). Embedded as it is in the middle of the poetic and perhaps all-too-familiar “love chapter”, we seldom reflect on the relationship between patience and love; how in fact love is “patient” and, on the flip side, that patience is what makes love possible.
The Gospel writers Matthew and Mark each record that, a short while before he was betrayed, Jesus was anointed by a woman with a jar of perfume “worth more than a year’s wages” (Mk 14; Mt 26). The disciples are astonished, and angry. What a waste! The economics of it don’t add up. The perfume is worth tons of money – money that could have gone to feed a bunch of hungry people. And she pours it in an act of dramatic wastefulness on the head of Jesus – the same Jesus who thundered loud denunciations against the opulence of the rich and called forth a society built on love and justice.
Curiously, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the woman. He commends her. Because apparently her act of grace and lavishness and generosity is appropriate to the nature of the gospel, the nature of the kingdom of the Father, that He came to bring. And then he says, perhaps surprisingly:
“Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Mk 14:6-9)
In other words, for Jesus, somehow, there is space and time for lavish love. But how is that possible?
I think it has to do with something Jesus knew that we often lose sight of, and it is this: the kingdom of God is not something we build. It is not a program we enact, or a responsibility that rests on our shoulders (though of course we are called to make manifest the kingdom and live lives that are an extension of the heavenly kingdom). Instead, Jesus knows what we time-crunched ones don’t know: the kingdom of God is a gift. The writer of Hebrews says that we are “receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28). We don’t “build” it. God “gives” it.
And here’s why this is important: knowing that the kingdom is pure gift, and not anything we earn or attain, creates the time and space for lavish love. It creates a sort of “heavenly economy” where things like love, kindness, grace, forgiveness, and generosity actually make sense. In the absence of knowing that the kingdom is a gift of God, all we are left with is cold calculation, “effectiveness”, and a rest-less striving to right every wrong now, which of course we cannot do, and will only add new wrongs to old ones. God will right every wrong; and patiently we wait for the day. In the meantime, we patient ones have time to love.
So, since it is not your responsibility to “build” the kingdom, but rather to receive it as the gracious gift of Jesus’ Father (and ours!), here is my recommendation:
Give more than you can spare
Celebrate the poor and ennoble them by taking time for them
Play with children (yours and others)
Spend time with the elderly
Take time to pray
And sing, for the pure joy of singing
Get to know your neighbors
Throw parties, for no other reason than for the joy of being together (inviting everyone you know)
And do it all knowing that God’s being in control of history “creates the time” for you to live this way. Not in panting, panicked feverishness, but in slow, deliberate, intentional acts of love.
“We don’t do great things” said Mother Teresa, “we do small thing with great love.”
Good advice I’d say.