Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Forgotten Gift

This being the Christmas season, we naturally think about Jesus Christ and gifts--particularly gifts that we might give Jesus Christ as a token of our love for and gratitude to him. We tell the story of the wise men found in Matthew 2 and discuss the potential meanings of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We remember the Savior's mission and the gift that he gave us, the atoning sacrifice without which no other gift would be meaningful. But one gift, a gift that Jesus Christ commanded us to remember is almost always left out of the Christmas story, one you will find in Matthew, chapter 26, verses 6-12:

6 ¶ Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,
7 There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.
8 But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?
9 For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.
10 When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.
11 For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.
12 For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

This is a story we all know, but pay attention to the directive that Christ gives and Matthew records in the next verse, verse 13:

"Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her."

The same injunction to remember the gift of this woman (presumably Mary, sister of Martha, based on John's version) can be found in Mark 14:9, and the other two gospels include the story without the commandment (it doesn't seem like a very forcible command in English, but English doesn't translate the subjunctive in the Greek as well as it could--the "shall" should be SHALL).

Christ directs our attention to specific stories and examples in scripture elsewhere; in 3 Nephi 23:1, he says to the Nephite multitudes, "Yea, a commandment I give unto you, that ye search these things diligently; for great are the words of Isaiah." We take this directive very seriously, studying Isaiah more frequently than other books of the New Testament, but I rarely hear the story of Christ's anointing singled out for significant study, despite his special emphasis and our interest each Christmas in stories of gifts given to Jesus Christ.

What is it that Christ wanted us to learn from this story, and why did he single it out? I would propose that this story is significant in part because it illuminates the relationship between the first and second commandments of the law. Recall the Savior's response to the lawyer's question, "Master, which is the great commandment in the law?" Christ's response in Matthew 22:37-40?

37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
38 This is the first and great commandment.
39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

The first commandment is to love God. The second is to love your neighbor. In most instances, those two commandments don't conflict with one another. But think about tithing, the money that the church collects from members and spends in administering the church. A significant portion of tithing funds is used to build temples--structures that are probably more beautiful and costly than they need to be to accomplish their intended purpose. After all, early saints performed baptisms for the dead in rivers; the beautiful and expensive building is nice but not strictly necessary. Instead of giving the money spent decorating the temple to the poor and needy, we use it to worship God through architecture. Why? Because loving God with all our heart, soul and mind is the first commandment, and temples are symbols of our love for God.

This is the lesson that the story of Mary's ointment teaches: God deserves our best every time. If we have to choose between God and our neighbor, we should choose God. Most of the time the first and second commandments don't conflict, but occasionally they do, and in those cases, it's important to remember which is the first.

So: if God deserves our best, what will we give him this Christmas season, this New Year? The spikenard was such a precious gift that it provoked indignation and wonder from Christ's apostles (not just Judas), yet Mary never hesitated to make the sacrifice, and Christ praised her decision. What will we give? What comparable sacrifice could we make? That is a question for each of us to answer individually, but the important thing is to remember that loving God with ALL our heart, soul and mind probably involves giving more of ourselves than we might think when deciding what gift to make the Savior this New Year's Day.

And whenever you tell the story of Jesus Christ, remember to include Mary's gift; her example is too important to be forgotten.


Jenny said...

excellent post, Zach. I was not familiar with this account.

Jo Jo said...

Another masterpiece. You make me proud. Thanks for teaching me again and giving something for me to ponder.

Becky said...

Well written yet easy to understand. I too was not familiar with this account, thank you for sharing. :) Drive home safely tonight!!!

Jenny said...

Okay, that's wierd. I did NOT make that comment above that has my name and the face of my son on it. SCARY. I was going to post, however, and tell you that I loved reading this. My favorite parts: the imagery of Anne B. throwing Eve under the bus, and my second favorite part was the part Gabe will probably appreciate the least when he's older and can look back in the archives of your blog
Can you investigate the first comment?
...kind of creeped out.