In his 2018 TheoEd Talk, “Resurrecting Church,” activist Shane Claiborne remarks that none of the significant problems facing our communities can be solved from a distance. Social and spiritual change requires taking the risk of getting close and making connections.
We see this message playing out near the end of the Gospel of Mark (14:3-9). There Jesus gathers with his disciples in Bethany, a tiny village outside of Jerusalem facing extreme poverty. A woman approaches, breaks open a jar of expensive ointment, and pours it over Jesus’ head. The disciples are outraged. Why, they wonder, would you waste such valuable resources when the ointment could have been sold and the proceeds given away to the poor? No doubt, the three hundred denarii that the ointment was worth – a year’s income for a day laborer – could have done a lot of good.
Surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t applaud their concern for social justice. Instead, he pushes back:
“Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me” (vv. 6-7).
Many commentators suggest that this implies that Jesus values what the woman has done (i.e., honor and worship him) over what the disciples wanted to do (i.e., enact social change). This interpretation, though widespread, is grossly out of step with the rhythms of Jesus’ ministry, much of which was spent caring for the poor, sick, and marginalized. In the context of Mark 14, what Jesus is challenging is not the disciples’ concern for poverty but how they imagined solving it.
The disciples’ approach is purely transactional. Obtain resources, then give them away – problem solved. One wonders: Did the disciples ever get to know the poor in Bethany? Did they consult them about their needs? Did they involve them in the solution? Did they dare get close enough to form authentic relationships? Did they ever wonder why poverty was so extreme in Bethany in the first place? It doesn’t seem so. The disciples cared about poverty all while keeping the problem at a distance.
I think we often fall into the same trap, whether the issue is poverty or just about any other matter facing our communities. It’s not the caring part that we struggle with; it’s the proximity. We launch programs and issue overtures all while staying at arm’s length from the people and communities we hope to help. We want to love our neighbors in need, but we’re reluctant to move into their neighborhoods – shop where they shop, bump into them on the way to work, have our kids go to the same schools. Ministry that is based on proximity prioritizes connections over activity, listening over initiating, and relational authenticity over strategic plans. It calls us to move beyond the goal of “hospitality” (the generous reception of guests into our homes or churches) and to pursue the tougher work of showing up long enough in the neighborhoods of those we care about that one day we are welcomed as guests into their homes.
This is exactly what Shane Claiborne has been up to for the past two decades. Since 1998, Shane has lived in Kensington, a low-income Philadelphia neighborhood that has been torn apart by poverty and gun violence. Shane is a long-term resident – he’s not passing through on a mission trip or service project. He and others involved in The Simple Way are planting gardens, supporting local businesses, improving schools, mentoring kids, mourning with mothers who have lost children, and collecting guns and turning them into garden tools (cf. Isaiah 2:4). Shane hasn’t just loved his neighbors – he’s moved into the neighborhood.
Getting close and making real connections with our communities is hard, slow, and risky. It requires that we start putting as much time into understanding our neighborhoods as we do exegeting our sacred texts. It invites us to ask tougher questions, decenter ourselves from positions of leadership, and realize that good intentions (like the disciples had) aren’t a substitute for building relationships of trust. We can’t and won’t affect the social and spiritual change we long for from afar.
In the Scriptures, risking proximity is not just an ethical imperative – it’s the substance of the Gospel. In taking on flesh and living among us, God embraces the risk of proximity. The incarnation is nothing other than God daring to move into our neighborhoods, suffering with, for, and because of our brokenness. May it be so with us and ministries as well.