One of Jesus' most important statements is buried in the beginning of Mark's Passion narrative. We hardly notice the comment when the priest or deacon proclaims it every three years.

It's part of Jesus' response (in chapter 14) to His disciples' complaint about a woman anointing Him with very expensive perfume. Though He gives several reasons why her spontaneous, extravagant action is good, the most impelling is the simple remark in verse 8: "She did what she could."

In teaching Passion narratives, I always remind my students that evangelists prefer describing Jesus' mental suffering more than His physical suffering. Notice in this anointing passage that His pain comes from His followers' attempt to stop someone from performing a good action simply because it isn't the best action. According to their reasoning, had the woman sold the perfume and given the money to the poor, her action would have been perfect. Wasting the ointment on Jesus left a lot to be desired.

Act now

Jesus' message is clear: One always should do what one is able to do. If His followers wait until every dimension of an action lines up perfectly before they make their move, they'll rarely do anything good.

Jesus wants His disciples to change the world, but He knows they'll only succeed in this mission by doing some "imperfect" good every day of their lives.

As frequently happens, Paul gives us a valuable insight to help us better understand our other two readings this Sunday. Writing to the Christian community in Rome toward the end of his life, the Apostle reminds them of the central truth of their faith (Rom 6: 3-4, 8-11). "We who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death. We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we, too, might live in newness of life. If then we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with Him."

Most of us have just one problem with Paul's statement: How does someone "die" with Christ? Almost every Good Friday, at least one TV network provides us with stomach-turning glimpses of some "foreign" Catholics actually nailing a volunteer to a cross to commemorate Jesus' crucifixion.

Act in love

Obviously, that's not what Paul (or anyone in the early Christian community) means by "die" with Christ. For Jesus' first followers, dying with Him revolved around giving themselves for one another. And like all acts of love, there's no one way to show love to everyone. Because each person and circumstance is different, the giving of ourselves will always be different.

That's why Matthew's Jesus gives more than one example of "losing one's life" for Him (Mt 10: 37-42). Though many of us long to get involved in high-profile ministries, like prophecy, Jesus believes that those who do the "grunt work" for other ministers will receive the rewards such ministries traditionally merit.

"Whoever receives a prophet," Jesus promises, "will receive a prophet's reward....Whoever receives righteous person...will receive a righteous person's reward. And those who give only a cup of water to these little ones to drink because (they are my disciples...will not lose their reward."

We know from the first reading (II Kgs 4: 8-11, 14-16) that Jesus isn't the inventor of such "cooperative ministry." Centuries before the Galilean carpenter, Yahweh gave the women from Shunem a longed-for son because of her kindness to the prophet Elisha. Like Paul, Jesus is more into reminding people about essentials they should already know than in teaching something new.

According to Jesus, and the rest of our ancestors in the faith, doing something -- no matter how little or imperfect -- is infinitely better than doing nothing.

(06-27-02)