In Hebrew folklore there is a story about a shepherd in the desert, who at the close of each day sets out a bowl of his ewe’s best milk as an offering to God. Observing this man’s peculiar custom, Moses points out that God cannot possibly drink the milk, since God does not have a physical body. But the shepherd feels sure that God does drink it.
To see who is correct they stay up all night, hiding behind some bushes, and wait to see what happens. At a certain hour a little fox makes its way cautiously to the bowl, laps up the milk and scurries off. The shepherd is devastated. Moses, perplexed at the shepherd’s reaction, says to him, ‘But you should be happy; you know more about God than you did before’. ‘Yes, I do,’ the shepherd replies, ‘but you have taken away the only thing I could do to express my love for him.’
In this Sunday’s Gospel reading we will hear a similar story, in which Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anoints Jesus’ feet with ‘a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard’ (John 12.3). Judas Iscariot takes issue with this unusual behaviour and questions why the perfume was not sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus accepts Mary’s offering as her own unique expression of love.
What these stories tell us is that a loving but misguided offering is more acceptable to God than a righteous offering made without love. There is no virtue in knowing what is right, if, as St. Paul says, we do not have love (1 Corinthians 13). Indeed, we need not look far to find the nightmares we create when we pursue 'right thinking' over love.
This Sunday marks the beginning of
Passiontide, when we begin to turn our
minds to the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection at Easter. At such a time, these stories offer us a great encouragement because they remind us that whatever we have done or failed to do during Lent, God longs not for our achievements but for our hearts. He will accept whatever we offer, if we offer it sincerely, reverently and devotedly.
After all, God's offering to our world was not a logically reasoned argument for the truth or a programme for effective government, but what was closest to his heart: his Son. In the sacrifice of Christ, He showed us that ‘where charity and love are, there God is’.