While We May
J. R. Miller, 1910
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly. "Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
Jesus defended Mary when the disciples criticized her anointing of him. They said the ointment should have been sold—and the money given to the poor, instead of being used for a mere personal service. But Jesus said to them, "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have Me!" Whatever they did for him—they must do then. In a little while, he would not be with them any more. There would never be a day when they could not minister to the poor, but he would not sit again at that table. If Mary had not brought her alabaster cruse that evening and broken it—she never would have done it!
If you know that this is the last day you will have a certain rare friend, that tonight he will vanish from your companionship, and you will never see him again—you will surround him with the warmest devotion and lavish upon him your heart's holiest affection while you may.
This is a lesson we should learn well. Opportunities come today and pass—and will never come to us again! Other opportunities will come tomorrow—but these will never return. The human needs that make their appeal to you now—will be beyond the reach of your hand by another day. Whatever kindness you would do—you must do now—for you may not pass this way again.
If we realized this truth as we should, it would make the common events of our life mean far more than they do. We are always meeting experiences which are full of rich possible outcomes. God is in all our days and nights. Opportunities come to us with the hour, with the moment, and each one says to us, "You will not always have me!" If we do not take them as they come, we cannot take them at all.
There are two kinds of sins: sins of omission and sins of commission; sins of doing wrong, as when we do evil things; and sins of not doing good, as when we neglect to do the things we ought to have done.
One comes to you in distress, needing cheer, some kindly help, or deliverance from some danger, and you let the trouble go unrelieved, the sorrow uncomforted, the need unsupplied. The opportunity has passed—and you have missed it. There is a blank in your life; you have left a duty undone.
Everyone we meet any day, comes to us either to receive some gift or blessing from us, or to bring some gift or blessing to us. We do not think of this, usually, in our crowded days, in the confusion of meetings and partings. We do not suppose there is any meaning in what we call the incidental contacts of life, as when we ride upon the bus beside another, for a few minutes; or meet another at a friend's house and talk a little while together; or when we sit beside another in the same office day after day. We are not in the habit of attaching any importance to these contacts with others. We do not suppose that God ordered this or that meeting; that he sent this person to us because the person needs us—and that we are to do something for him; or else we need something, some influence, some inspiration, some cheer—from him. But the fact is—that God is in all our life—and is always ordering its smallest events.
When older people really think of it, they will see that this is true. When they look back over their years, they will find that the strange network of circumstances and experiences that has marked their days, has not been woven by chance, is no confused tangle of threads, crossing and re-crossing, without any divine plan or direction—but rather that it makes a beautiful web, with not one thread out of place! The whole is the filling out of a pattern designed by the great Master of life.
Most of the friendships of our lives are made in this way—you and your friend meeting first by chance, as we would say. You did not choose each other. Emerson spoke for all when he said, "My friends have come to me unsought; the great God gave them to me." All of life—is thus full of God.
Jesus taught the importance of the present opportunity in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked three of his disciples to keep watch with him while he went deeper into the shadows and knelt in prayer. A great anguish was upon him, and he needed and craved human sympathy. After his first agony of supplication, he came back to his friends, hoping to get a little strength from their love—but found them asleep! In his bitter disappointment he returned to his place of prayer. A second time he came back—and again they were asleep! The third time he said to them, "Sleep on now, and take your rest." There was no need to wake and watch any longer. The hour had come, the traitor was approaching, and the torches were flashing through the trees.
There is a strange pathos in the Master's final words. The disciples had had their opportunity for helping him—but had not improved it. They had slept—when his heart was crying out for their waking. Now the hour was past when waking would avail—and they might as well sleep on!
We do not dream of the criticalness of life, of the mighty momentousness there is in the hours through which we pass: what blessing and good come to us—when we watch and are faithful; what loss and sorrow come to us—when we sleep and are faithless. "You will not always have ME!" is the voice of every opportunity to receive good in some form. We miss God's gift, because we shut our hearts upon it; and only when it is too late, when the gifts have vanished, are we ready to accept them. Or it may be an opportunity to do something for another. We dally, and the opportunity passes. The person perishes, perhaps, because we were not awake!
Opportunities differ in their importance. "The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have Me!" Jesus was defending Mary's act of love to him. If Mary had not brought her precious ointment that night—she never could have brought it. "Leave her alone! Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to Me!" We never can know what great good she wrought for him, how much comfort and strength she gave to him. He was carrying then the heaviest load that any heart ever carried. We all remember hours of great need in our own lives, hours of anxiety, of sorrow, of pain—when a word spoken to us, or a flower sent to our room, or a card coming through the mail, or some little human touch—came to us as a very messenger of God. We never can tell how Mary's love helped Jesus that night.
The disciples said the ointment was wasted, did no one any good. Ah! they did not know what that expression of love meant to the Master, how it cheered him, how it heartened him for going on to his cross. If they had known—they never would have said that the ointment would have done more good, if it had been applied to relieving the poor.
There would have been times when the poor should have had the benefit of Mary's gift. If the cruse of oil had been broken to honor some unworthy man—it would have been wasted. But Jesus was the Son of God. This particular hour was one when he needed love, when he craved sympathy, when he longed to be strengthened.
In all time there never was an hour when a simple gift of love could have meant so much as Mary's meant, that night in Simon's house!!
"You will not always have Me!" The blessing which that money would have given to the poor, never could have been compared for a moment, with the blessing which the ointment, as an expression of love, was to Jesus!
Life is full of similar contrasts, in the value of opportunities. There are commonplace opportunities, and there are opportunities which are radiant and splendid. There are days and days when the best use one can make of money—is to give it to those who need it, or to some Christian institution. Then there comes a day, an hour, when some rare and sacred need arises, which eclipses in importance as day excels night in its brightness, all common needs—a need which must be met instantly and heroically and at once.
A few times in every godly man's life, there comes a moment of supreme importance, when every other appeal or call for help must be unheeded—for one which must be answered at once. There are many things which must be done instantly, or they cannot be done at all.
An artist was watching a pupil sketch a sunset scene. He noticed that the young man was lingering on his sketching of a barn in the foreground, while the sun was hastening to its setting. The artist said to his pupil, "Young man, if you lose more time sketching the shingles on the barn roof—you will not catch the sunset at all."
This is just what many people do. They give all their time to commonplace things, to fences and barn roofs and sheds—and miss the glorious sunsets! They give to the poor and help them—but have no thought for Christ. They toil for honor, money, and fame—and never see God nor get acquainted with him.
There are friendships which never reach their possible richness and depths of beauty, playing only along the shore, while the great ocean of love lies beyond unexplored! They miss the really splendid things in life—while they live for the poor and sordid things!
We do not begin to realize how many of us pay heed only to second-rate things, while we miss altogether the great things of life. We spend hours upon newspapers, never reading a book that is truly worth while. All the best opportunities of life are transient. They are with us today—but tomorrow they are gone!
"You will not always have Me!" There is a time for forming friendships—but it does not stay always. Miss it, and tomorrow you cannot find it. There is a time for making a beautiful home life—but soon the time is gone if it is not improved. Impatience, fretfulness, selfishness, irritability, nagging—you know how the beauty is marred, the brightness dimmed, the sweetness embittered by these! When two young people marry and begin to make a home—they have almost infinite possibilities before them. But the vision must be seized at once, and not a moment must be lost. "You will not always have ME!" the opportunity says to the home-builders. Some years after, they find that they have failed, that the vision has faded, and that they cannot get it back again!
To every young person, there comes in the bright days—the opportunity of living a beautiful life—but it comes only once and it stays only for a little while! The vision will not wait. "You will not always have ME!" it says.
There are some things we can do any time—but this is not true of following Christ. We think it is—that we can accept him and take the blessings of his love, when we will—but it is not true. Delay dulls and hardens our hearts. Delay uses up the moments of his waiting—and eats up our opportunity. "At my convenience," we say, "I will take him now." We turn—and He is gone!
All the best things are transient.
As we gather about our home table—let us remember we may not all be there again, and let us make the meal one of sweetness and joy. Let us be patient with one another, kind and thoughtful, gentle—while we may. Soon we shall not have each other!