Doing Beautiful Things

I've read the story of the woman at Bethany many, many times. You're likely also familiar with the story. Jesus's anointing at Bethany:
Mark 14.1-9
Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

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. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Most of the attention in this text has swirled around Jesus's enigmatic phrase, "the poor you will always have with you." But that's not what grabbed me the other day. What grabbed me was this phrase:
"She has done a beautiful thing..."
As best I can tell, this is the only time in the NT where the word "beautiful" is used to describe an action or behavior. The doing of a beautiful thing.

More and more, I've come to describe my faith in similar terms, in aesthetic terms. Some things in the world--big global things and small things I notice during the day--I find beautiful. Other things I find ugly. And more, I try to live in a beautiful way. And in a way that has artistic integrity. And behind all these judgments is an aesthetic that is distinctively Christian.

What is faith? I'm often not sure. But I think a part of faith looks a lot like what the woman at Bethany does.

Faith is going places and doing beautiful things to anoint the Crucified One as Lord.

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17 thoughts on “Doing Beautiful Things”

  1. I find it hard to know what is the "right" thing to do. Like the observers in the passage I question if I should do something or not. I question other peoples actions or their motivation. Reading this passage with the focus on doing a beautiful thing to honor the Savior makes sense.

  2. Yes, I think I prefer beautiful more than 'right'. It's very hard for beautiful actions, to harm my neighbor. It's VERY easy through my 'right' actions to greatly harm, even murder my neighbor. Christian history is littered with our ugly 'rightness'.

  3. I see people scrape by in their everyday lives but still giving money at church -- although you and I know that 90% of that money is going into utilities, salaries, and building funds.  And I think it is stupid.  I see youth groups send 15 kids to Honduras at a cost of at least $1000 per kid, in order to build one house in Honduras.  Never mind that if they'd only sent $15,000 to Honduras in the first place, that money might have built five houses.  And again, I think this is stupid.

    And then I read about the woman at Bethany and realize that I am the people rebuking her.  I am stupid.  I've thusly concluded that the reason we help the poor is paradoxically for ourselves -- not them.  After all, if God wanted to "fix" them, He could.  That is the only way this can make sense to me.  Otherwise, Jesus looks really greedy and shallow in the above story. 

  4. Dear Richard, the word Mark reports Jesus using to describe the 'beautiful' deed is καλός (kalos), which is indeed about beauty, but also about goodness, in equal measure. It crops up all over the NT, but - for me - most significantly in John's Gospel, where Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd; for the word means not only 'good' and 'beautiful', but also 'good at the job'. And when Luke reports Jesus saying 'Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you', the good we are called to do isnot only 'good (for them)' but 'beautiful'. In other words, if the woman who did what she did to Jesus did it beautifully, we are indeed called by him to do likewise; and not just to him but even to those who hate us.

  5. Here is my favorite story that I like to sit alongside Jesus at Bethany. It's a story about Dorothy Day. (I'm recalling this from memory so details may differ.)

    One day a wealthy woman came in and gave Day a diamond ring as a donation to the Catholic Worker. The expectation was that Day would sell the ring and use the money to pay the bills and to keep the Catholic Worker bread line open. But later in the day Dorothy gave the diamond ring to a poor older woman. Day's staff was shocked. Why did she do that? They could have sold the ring and done a lot of good with the money.

    Day's calm response to the accusations: "Are diamonds only for the rich?'

  6. Richard, could you comment on this idea if our aesthetic choices are influenced in part by our moral compass/existential fears?

  7. I think I mean to ask: what if our idea of what's beautiful is "wrong", or at least misguided?  

    I'm thinking specifically of two cases - the first is the Thomas Kinkade effect you've mentioned before, where something is considered beautiful, but not really for reasons of beauty.  

    The second is more along the lines of "When Helping Hurts", when an incomplete notion of beauty (reality?) can lead to quite an ugly consequence?  When works that are considered beautiful (clothing donations to Africa for example) lead to harmful consequences (damage to the local textile and tailoring industries)?

    A source for the clothes bit,8599,1987628,00.html.  

  8. That's a huge question. I'm guessing you know that. :-)

    The quick answer is that you'd need a robust theology of beauty. I hint at this in the post when I mention "artistic integrity" and "distinctively Christian." So if something is simply "pretty" in a shallow, appearance-driven way we'd have to ask, "Is that the aesthetic of the gospels? The way Jesus found beauty?" Think, for example, of the aesthetics of the Beatitudes--what is "beautiful" versus "ugly" in that teaching? Think of the beauty of the cross.

    So that's my base answer. You'd need to articulate a robust theology of beauty then allow that aesthetic to be criticized, to keep it fluid and open to the Spirit, by the gospels, other holy lives or other sorts of data.

  9. Thank you for your recent round of posts. Much is going on in my thought life while I live out what it means to follow Jesus. To do beautiful things simply in his name. Just because...               Thank you for being authentic and genuine, or at least purposing to be such.

  10. Meanwhile of course there is a completely different communication of the Christian aesthetic to be found here:
    Remember that at the time this film was very popular and even promoted as an excellent missionary tool.
    My advice would be to run away from a religion that uses such imagery as a missionary tool. And indeed any religion based on blood sacrifice (because you can be sure that many people with be thus sacrificed in the future.

    If you happened to go down to the woods today, on your way to a Teddy Bear's picnic, and you came across a bloodied corpse wearing a crown of thorns nailed to a cross our tree you would be absolutely horrified.
    Or if you happened upon a group of people in the process of nailing a living human body to a cross too.
    So why arent you thus horrified by the in your face horror communicated by this unspeakably vile image?

  11. For my part, I was horrified, as was just about every Christian friend I have. There was a robust debate in Christian circles about that film. Still is. And the details of that debate are worth exploring.

    As to the crucifixion itself. The violence of Jesus's death isn't something religious people made up. The reality and details of Roman crucifixion is a historical fact. So the question, for a curious interlocutor at least, isn't about why crucifixion exists (along with its related "aesthetics"), but about why some people would treat a god-forsaken torture victim as a manifestation of the divine.

    In a world full of god-forsaken torture victims it's a question worth asking.

  12. I wouldn't want to be taken as authentic and genuine. I do try to practice what I preach and honestly represent my life, but like everyone else, I'm a flawed human being.

  13. This verse caught my attention also, a couple of years ago, and I wrote a few words about it. Hope you don't mind me sharing. Btw, I think we in the church have a very limited view of what beauty is. Wish we had more philosophers. :o)

  14. The eyes of some of those present did not "behold" the beauty she had done. But Jesus declared it beautiful. Thus, beauty is not necessarily in the eyes of the beholder. The beauty was real and present regardless of the flawed beholders of some of those present. Good for Jesus. 

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