Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”John 12:1-8
In seminary we used to often joke that Jesus in the Gospel of John was a fairly scary person to be around. John’s depiction of him always seems to make him too intense. When the disciples ask Jesus, “hey Jesus, what do you want for lunch?”, “I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE!!”. “Jesus, it’s a little dark here, would you light the lamp?” “I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD!!”. Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus in John’s Gospel is abundantly clear about what he is about, and always seems to demand the most out of us listeners. Except for today’s Gospel. In today’s reading, Jesus is far more gentle, and unlike earlier stories, gives us a very puzzling answer to a significant ethical question. One that has been misunderstood, and sadly often been used as an excuse to mistreat the most vulnerable in society.
The story begins around the dinner table, in John’s version he is in the home of Lazarus. Right before this story is Lazarus’ resurrection, and it seems that after the dramatic miracle, things have more or less returned to a normal, happy state. Martha is serving dinner, Lazarus is eating and recovering from his ordeal, when Mary comes back with a wildly expensive perfume, and uses all of it on Jesus’ feet as an act of devotion. John tells us that the perfume cost about 300 Denarii, which would be about a year’s wages for a day laborer. Everyone is surprised, and Judas, who is acting as the mouthpiece for the disciples, and certainly us the reader, criticizes the extravagance by pointing out how many people the money from that perfume could have fed. To which Jesus surprises everyone with a seemingly callous answer “the poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” This doesn’t sound like Jesus at all! The man who constantly argues against hypocrisy, told us that the poor are blessed, how could he say such a thing? It’s downright offensive, accepting such a lavish gift and rejecting a perfectly reasonable objection based on his own teachings!
The implications are even more troubling. If Jesus is God incarnate, which John argues pretty clearly for, and he admits there will always be poor, does that mean God has given up? Has God recognized that nothing will ever really change and just quietly resolve only to “well, try your best, even if it won’t really change anything”? Or worse, as this passage has been interpreted in the past, it’s ok to glorify God at the expense of charity. That it’s better to give gold crosses, stained glass windows, fancy vestments to the Church since giving it to the poor would just be a waste.
Speaking as one in fancy vestments surrounded by crosses and pretty stained glass, I’m sure y’all can understand why passages like this make us uncomfortable. John is clearly very uncomfortable with it too because he does everything in his power as the narrator to try and weaken Judas’ point. It’s frankly a pretty sad attempt of an argument. John’s main strategy, at least on the surface, is to attack Judas’ character, also known as an Ad Hominem fallacy. As Judas begins his objection, John inserts: “Hey, remember, this is the guy that’s about to betray Jesus for money!” and when Judas finishes his objection John makes an unsubstantiated claim that Judas was a thief, “He didn’t really care about the poor! He was stealing from the common purse!” This is a very weak argument strategy trying to cover for Jesus’ offensive answer. The truth is, whether or not you think Judas is evil incarnate, or a thief, his objection has to be evaluated on its own merit.
What is the answer then? Does Jesus really not care about the poor? If we are followers of Jesus, what does it mean for us? This story is another reminder of why we have to read all of the Bible, and the danger of taking things out of context. That seemingly callous answer Jesus gave, it’s actually a quote. Jesus is a good Rabbai, because his answer is straight from Torah, specifically Deuteronomy 15:7-11:
7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be…11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Though it seemed callous and out of character, Jesus is in a way agreeing with Judas. Yes! You should give to the poor, freely, often, and gladly. What’s more when you give to the poor you shouldn’t be concerned about what’s “fair” or what they “deserve” but rather you should be concerned about how to meet the need. Great! We have established that Jesus does in fact care about the poor, but this quote doesn’t really solve the problem that God seems to have given up on any significant improvement on the problem of poverty.
This is where we have to remember that there are two threads that run through the whole Bible: First, how God envisions what the world should be like, how He intended it to be. Second, God making room for us humans because we are so regularly mess everything up. We live in a world rife with sin that we have made, and yet cannot escape from on our own.
Note that Jesus doesn’t tell Mary that she did the right thing, or the wrong thing when she anointed his feet. He doesn’t even say that Judas is wrong, or a hypocrite, he holds up both. All he says is “Leave her alone”. Jesus recognizes her gift for what it is: gratitude for bringing her brother back to life, and genuine love for Jesus and his mission. While it may not be the ideal way of following his teachings, Jesus is showing us that no act of love is ever done in vain.
Here we come to what this story really is about: rather than a discussion of economics and the merits of various methods of alleviating poverty, this is a story about discipleship.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke in their gospels, and in their versions of this story, the question they ask constantly is “who is Jesus”? John, on the other hand, has a pretty clear idea about who Jesus is, Jesus constantly screaming that he is the bread and the life, he is the light of the world, he is Word made Flesh. John asks us a very different question: “what does it mean to follow Jesus?” In this particular story the question we need to ask is, “who is the real disciple of Jesus?” The way John has structured this story, the answer is rather surprising: it’s Mary. Judas, the other disciples, and us the reader are offended at Mary’s actions. We are all members of what Jeff calls the “Self-Appointed Voluntary Advisory Committee”. We’re quick to point out or “advise” about what discipleship should look like, but guess who’s actually doing something about it: Mary. Mary just gave a year’s worth of salary as an act of love to God. Was it the most optimal or efficient way to give to God’s mission? Probably not, but she gave something, and when she gave, she went all-in. The irony is that after this story, Jesus has what’s called “the Farewell dialog” with the disciples. Where he tells them how to be disciples, give to the poor, etc. Mary was doing it before Jesus even told her what to do.
In reality our objections to Mary’s actions and Jesus’ response reflect our own worst fears about our faith. When we look at the need that is present on the earth, it’s staggering. It seems like we can give and give and give and never make a real dent in the problem. We wonder, “Has God given up too?” When we do give generously, but look at our standard of living compared to the poor we hear Judas in our ear, “Couldn’t you give more?” This is where we fail in our discipleship. This is where the disciples also failed in this story. They didn’t really believe in God’s promises. God has promised that when His kingdom is established on earth, there will no longer be anyone in need. Jesus promised that by his death and resurrection, we are freed from Sin that keeps us from building God’s kingdom on earth. By grace we have been given an opportunity to right the wrongs here on earth, and make God’s kingdom a reality. Judas talks, says he believes in God’s promises, Mary acts, gives everything over to Jesus, she believes her love will and charity will not be wasted.
[Announcing Holy Week: In the following weeks we have an opportunity to be like Mary by giving something we guard far more closely than our finances, our time and our trust. Jesus is entering into Jerusalem, sharing his final meal with his friends, and will be crucified. Will you advise? Or will you come follow him?]
[To announce the Lenten offering: “Because there will always be some need on the earth, ‘open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’.”]