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The Sagrada Família, or Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family, is one of the most spectacular and unique cathedrals in the world. Located in Barcelona, Spain, it was designed by modernist architect Antoni Gaudí, whose breathtaking and often bizarre architecture can be found all across the city. The Sagrada Família is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of Barcelona’s biggest tourist attractions, and you can explore it without even leaving your computer.
The Sagrada Família has also been under construction for 134 years – with at least ten more years to go. By the time it is finished, experts estimate it will have cost almost 1 billion Euros.
While many people consider the massive cathedral to be a treasure and a work of architectural beauty, others consider it an eyesore and an endless money pit. Others question whether there is still a justification to keep building cathedrals at all in the modern world. After all, the most notable cathedrals that we see today – like Notre Dame in Paris or Westminster Abbey in London – were built during the Middle Ages, when the cathedral was the center of every town. Thatched huts and simple workshops surrounded the most glorious church that the area could support, and any person in town could come to the church for healing, learning, and spiritual enlightenment. Cathedrals were centers of art, of learning, even of political sanctuary – the closest the average peasant, who might not travel more than five miles in their lifetime, would come to God.
On the other hand, we know that the building of beautiful cathedrals often glorified a select few people at the expense of others. It was the exploitation of the poor and ignorant through the selling of indulgences to fund the expansion of St. Peter’s Basilica that prompted reformer Martin Luther to write the 95 Theses. And today, people can travel the world, communicate with others through myriad electronic methods, and seek healing and education through hospitals, universities, and museums. Is there still a place for spending money on beautiful religious structures?
“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27 (NIV)
Some Christian leaders think so. Take, for example, the Second Baptist Church of Houston, the second largest megachurch in America. With 24,000 people attending on a weekly basis and a yearly budget of $53 million, the church includes fitness centers, bookstores, a free automotive repair center, a café, and a K-12 school. Despite claims that the church – with its fancy audio-visual systems, slick worship bands and fog machines, and high production bands – is more focused on style than service, pastor Edwin Young insists that the airport terminal-sized complex glorifies God. “You won’t find anything in here that is ostentatious,” he says. “You’ll find beauty. God’s house ought to be beautiful.”
On the other hand, the gospels are filled with commands to feed the hungry and serve the disenfranchised. James 1:27 says that “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (NIV).
In today’s story, found in all four gospels (Matthew 26:6-12; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50; John 12:1-8), Jesus complicates this debate further. A woman named Mary Magdalene enters a feast and washes Jesus feet with her tears, her hair, and a bottle of spikenard – a remarkably expensive perfume, valued at possibly an entire year’s salary. When she does this, the disciples ask the same question that many of us might ask of modern extravagant gestures: “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor” (Matthew 26:8-9 NIV).
Jesus’ answer is startling: “Why are you bothering this woman?” he replies. “She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (Matthew 26:10-11 NIV).
To be fair, Jesus’ statement comes at a very specific time: he identifies Mary’s lavish gift as preparing him for burial shortly before his crucifixion. Does that mean that we shouldn’t draw a timeless principle from it? Is it wrong to spend money today on beautiful things that glorify God?
- Read 1 Timothy 6:17-19. What does this say about Christians and wealth?
- "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life."
- Simon asks why Mary’s money was spent on an extravagant gesture towards God instead of being given to the poor. While Jesus defends her actions, it seems that our behavior with money today might be more of a problem: we spend large amounts of money putting on elaborate programs and building beautiful churches and other religious buildings, but not on feeding the poor. Is this keeping with the spirit of Jesus’ admonition? Where should we draw the line?
- What is the important element of a gesture of adoration towards God? Are there different contexts or situations were some things are inappropriate and others where those same things are appropriate? Would a gesture like Mary’s be welcomed during any time in Jesus’ ministry, or was it only appropriate because he was about to be crucified?
- Exodus 31:1-11 indicates that the Holy Spirit can actually give people gifts for creating artistic beauty. Do you think this is still the case today? If not, why not? If so, what role might that kind of person have in serving God?
- In general, what is the place of beauty in our relationship with God? Art, music, clothing, perfume, food, you name it. What role, if any, do "beautiful" things have in spiritual matters?
- The four different accounts of this story in the gospels give us slightly different pictures of what happened that night.
In Matthew’s version of the story, the woman pours the perfume on Jesus’ head. What differences do you notice between Matthew’s telling of the story and Mark’s version?
- In Mark 14:7, Jesus says of the poor “[...] whenever you want, you can do good for them”. Do you think this statement at all suggests that Jesus did not think they did enough for the poor in the first place? In other words, is this Jesus taking a jab at his disciples, saying “Oh really, you want to help the poor?” Why or why not?
- Consider John 12:6 when answering the above question.
- Luke’s version of the story is the longest and tells us some significant details. What do we learn from Luke about the woman and her social status?
- What can you tell about the Pharisee, Simon, from this story? Does he publicly present his honest opinion about Jesus (i.e do his internal thoughts and opinions about Jesus match the way he speaks to Jesus?). Do you think that this dinner invitation was a trap, or a test for the Pharisees to evaluate Jesus?
- Compare Luke’s portrayal of Simon - the Pharisee - with Matthew and Mark’s statement that this Simon had previously had leprosy. If these two are the same Simon (it was a very common name) - what does that add to our understanding of his treatment of the woman?
- Whose house is this dinner happening at? Luke 7:36 says that it was the house of a Pharisee named Simon. While John, Mark, and Matthew all present the events as taking place in Bethany, John 12:1-3 indicates that the recently-resurrected Lazarus was also eating at the meal, that Martha was serving the food, and Mary was there. So, do you think this was Martha’s house, or Simon the Pharisee’s house, or something else? Did Martha and Mary live there with the Pharisee, or were they just visiting?
- John’s gospel indicates that the Mary, who was grieving over Lazarus in a previous chapter, is the same Mary who poured the perfume on Jesus’ feet. Luke’s gospel indicates that this woman was the town harlot. According to some Christian tradition, Mary Magdalene here is the same woman who was pardoned by Jesus in John 8. Others argue that she was a prostitute before she came to Jesus, and the money from prostitution was what she used to by the perfume. Furthermore, some claim that she had had previous experiences with Simon, hence his discomfort. How does this affect your reading of the story?
- Given that the Pharisee seems to judge her, do you think it’s likely that she lived in that same house, or was merely a guest who came with her siblings?
- Or, do you think that these accounts are not meant to be taken together in harmony? Why or why not?
- While Matthew and Mark present the objection of the party attendees as coming from Jesus’ own disciples - and John presents Judas Iscariot as particularly the loudest voice among them - Luke’s version of the story shows Simon as the one being critical of Mary. The only thing is, Simon does not voice his objections out loud, he simply thinks them, and Jesus reads his mind.
- Look at Matthew 12:25; Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8, 11:17; John 2:23-25.
- Do these verses present Jesus doing a similar kind of “mind-reading”? Do you think Jesus always had/used this ability, or did he sometimes not know things? How do your conclusions about this affect your view of Jesus and his divine powers in relationship to his humanity?