Expensive Worship

Mark 14 (NASB)

3 While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head.

 4 But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted?

 5 “For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her.

 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me.

 7 “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me.

 8 “She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial.

 9 “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.”

 10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went off to the chief priests in order to betray Him to them.

 11 They were glad when they heard this, and promised to give him money.

Whenever people say that our churches ought to be bare boxes, useful as a place to gather, and no more, and that we ought to put all the money we would have spent beautifying the place on the poor, I think of this passage.  

Economically, poverty is a black hole into which money disappears. I know, because I have been reduced to poverty in more than one phase of my life. I am grateful for those who contributed to my physical wellbeing in such cases, and there were plenty of them.

But I am equally grateful that I can walk into St. George’s this Sunday, along with people much wealthier than I who have contributed to the church in a way I may never be able to, and worship in a place where the very walls and ceilings are shaped in such a way as to speak to me of the presence of God. I don’t think that even the Regulative Principle could offer a good reason as to why a box is holier than a dome, other than that the box means nothing, while in the language of architechture the dome means heaven.

The poor we always have with us – but the only place where Christ’s body is presented to us at this time in history is at Church. How can we pour out our wealth on his body now that he has ascended? I know of only two ways: take care of this human race with which he clothed himself, and revere the place where people eat his body and drink his blood. The funny thing about it is that in its own way, beautifying the place of worship also feeds the poor. It feeds the spirits of the poor, and it feeds the spirits of those on whose compassion the poor depend for physical life.

And that last statement is how a reader can know what I mean by beauty. If they are thinking mere aesthetics, then they have a lot of reading and thinking to do. Beauty is the very glory of God.


  1. I had a heated debate on this very topic recently with my fellow evangelical churchgoer, who was making the, “…it’s what in your heart that matters, and has nothing to do with your surroundings” argument.

    No matter how biblical of a case I made (“Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness), he just could not begin to understand where I was coming from.

    We are so dependent upon “good preaching”, fellowship and Bible study, that we fail to grasp the fact that we are worshiping the God whose name is “majestic in all the earth.”

    “First we build our buildings…then they build us.” – Churchill


  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, blue. I think Churchill’s statement illustrates the truth that what’s in our hearts gets there somehow or other. I do appreciate your point that worship needs to be priority – it’s not all instruction. At some point we have to come to Church and practice what we’ve been instructed on. And among all the Christian practices, worship is first, because God is first.

    All these things do add up to a realization that what we surround ourselves and our acts of devotion with, physically, is part of our worship.

    I read an article today (on the Clarion Review; sorry I was so hasty, Selena) that talks about old heresies which see the physical world as evil, and how they are having a subtle revival in the “heart-only” kind of religion that many feel God demands.



  3. I’ve heard the old complaint several times, often made in reference to, say, some giant old cathedral in Europe, that the money to build that beautiful cathedral would have been better spent helping the poor. But in truth, given the amount of time that the cathedral has lasted and the number of lives and generations that have likely been blessed and the power of the witness (both to the glory of Christ in the glory of the building and of the need for repentance in the fact that so many of these buildings are sparse with worshipers), it strikes me how inexpensive such things are, their initial cost notwithstanding. Their legacy often reaches far, and so their expense is spread over countless ages and lives. An “empty box” place of worship can serve the purposes of God, but if it is destined to be quickly remodeled or sold off in favor of a bigger “facility” or some other such fate, then perhaps it is such a building that in the end is financially wasteful. The woman who anointed the feet of Christ, her expenditure has paid dividends for two millennia!

    Sorry if I rambled. I’m thinking of too many things all at once.


  4. Not at all, your thoughts are worthy.

    Of course, this is not to say that there have never been abuses committed in the name of building churches…Indulgences, for instance.

    All the same, it’s a good point and well-taken.


  5. Alana, I am so glad you addressed this topic. The beauty of the Orthodox Church really does feed the poor in spirit. The magnificent icons themselves are “windows to heaven.” I have always loved it that the Orthodox Church ministers to all of one’s senses.


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