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Paul Tillich - The New Being, Existential Sermons, 1955

Paul Tillich - The New Being, Existential Sermons, 1955


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And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman
came with an alabaster jar of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the jar and
poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was
the ointment thus wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three
hundred denarii, and given to the poor." And they reproached her. But Jesus said, "Let her
alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the
poor with you, and whenever you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have
me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burying. And
truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done
will be told in memory of her."

MARK 14:3-9.

What has she done? She has given an example of a waste, which, as Jesus says, is a beautiful
thing. It is, so to speak, a holy waste, a waste growing out of the abundance of the heart. She
represents the ecstatic element in our relation to God, while the disciples represent the
reasonable element. Who can blame the disciples for being angry about the immense waste
this woman has created? Certainly not a deacon who has to take care of the poor, or a social
worker who knows the neediest cases and cannot help, or a church administrator who collects
money for important projects. Certainly the disciples would not be blamed by a balanced
personality who has his emotional life well under control and for whom it is worse than
nonsense, even criminal, to think of doing what this woman did. Jesus felt differently and so
did the early Church. They knew that without the abundance of the heart nothing great can
happen. They knew that religion within the limits of reasonableness is a mutilated religion,
and that calculating love is not love at all. Jesus did not raise the question about how much
eros and how much agape, how much human passion and how much understanding was
motivating the woman; He saw the abundant heart and He accepted it without analyzing the
different elements in it. There are occasions when we must analyze ourselves and others. And
certainly we must know about the complexity of all human motives. But this should not
prevent us from accepting the waste of an uncalculated self-surrender nor from wasting
ourselves beyond the limits of law and rationality.

The history of mankind is the history of men and women who wasted themselves and were
not afraid to do so. They did not fear the waste of themselves, of other men, of things in the
service of a new creation. They were justified, for they wasted all this out of the fullness of
their hearts. They wasted as God does in nature and history, in creation and salvation. The
monsters of nature to which Jahweh points in His answer to Job—what are they but
expressions of the divine abundance? Luther’s God, who acts heroically an without rules—is
He not the wasteful God who create and destroys in order to create again? Has not
Protestantism lost a great deal by losing the wasteful self-surrender of the saints and the
mystics? Are we not in danger of a religious and moral utilitarianism which always asks for
the reasonable purpose—the same question as that of the disciples in Bethany? There is no
creativity, divine or human, without the holy waste which comes out of the creative
abundance of the heart and does not ask, "What use is this?"

We know that lack of love in our early years is mentally destructive. But do we know that the
lack of occasions to waste ourselves is equally dangerous? In many people there has been an
abundance of the heart. But laws, conventions, and a rigid self-control have repressed it and it
has died. People are sick not only because they have not received love but also because they
are not allowed to give love, to waste themselves. Do not suppress in yourselves or others the
abundant heart, the waste of self-surrender, the Spirit who trespasses all reason. Do not
greedily preserve your time and your strength for what is useful and reasonable. Keep
yourselves open for the creative moment which may appear in the midst of what seemed to be
waste. Do not suppress in yourselves the impulse to do what the woman at Bethany did. You
will be reproached by the disciples as the woman was. But Jesus was on her side and He is
also on yours. Most of those who are great in the kingdom of God followed her, and the
disciples, the reasonable Christians in all periods of history, will remember you as they have
remembered her.

Jesus connects this anointing of His body with His death. There is an anointing of kings when
they begin their reign and there is an anointing of corpses as a last gift of the living to the
dead. Jesus speaks of the latter kind of anointing although He might easily have spoken of the
former. In so doing, He turns both the ecstasy of the woman and the reasonableness of the

disciples into something else. By His death the reasonable morality of the disciples is turned
into a paradox: the Messiah, the Anointed One, must waste Himself in order to become the
Christ. And the ecstatic sell-surrender of the woman is tested by the ignominious perishing of
the object of her unlimited devotion. In both cases we are asked to accept an act more radical,
more divine, more saving than either ecstatic waste or reasonable service. The Cross does not
disavow the sacred waste, the ecstatic surrender. It is the most complete and the most holy
waste. And the Cross does not disavow the purposeful act, the reasonable service. It is the
fulfillment of all wisdom within the plan of salvation. In the self-surrendering love of the
Cross, reason and ecstasy, moral obedience and sacred waste are united. May we have the
abundance of heart to waste ourselves as our reasonable service!

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