John 12:1-8 (NRSV)
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.”
I wonder when the last time was you and I did something extravagant and wasteful – without apology, without guilt, without justifying it to our neighbors, our spouse, our kids, our Pastor, our selves. Maybe it was a vacation we needed and that we felt like we had earned… Maybe it was a gift for someone we love… Maybe it was spending more than seemed wise or responsible on something we wanted, rather than on something that was a real need – a new pair of shoes, a new car, a really great meal on date-night, perhaps.
We’ve all been there and done it, I suspect. And there’s nothing wrong with it. But, unless you’re lucky enough to live without a budget – or broken enough to live without a conscience, I guess – wasting money… spending extravagantly… using more than our fair share isn’t always easy; it doesn’t come without second thoughts; it doesn’t happen without regrets, on occasion, either.
And when Mary pours all of that perfume – a year’s salary worth of nard, some have said – onto the feet of Jesus, and then wipes them with her hair – Judas plays on all of that – those second thoughts, that good, old-fashioned guilt, and on those kinds of regrets when he asks – with all of us ulterior motives – “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for money that could be given to the poor?” “How can you be so wasteful?” “Isn’t there something better and more faithful you could have done with that abundance?”
And Jesus, knowing about Judas’ evil ways and selfish, ulterior motives, shuts him up and tells him to forget it: “Leave her alone. She bought [the perfume] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
“You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Jesus knew something Mary had apparently picked up on, too: that his crucifixion wasn’t far off. That the time for his death was near. Mary wasn’t thinking about the budget. She was thinking about his burial. And she wanted to worship and honor and love him with this humble act of reverence and service.
“You will always have the poor with you,” Jesus says, “but you do not always have me.”
Now, I’m used to reading this bit from John’s Gospel and thinking that Jesus is simply praising Mary for the way she honors him with the sacrificial anointing of all that expensive perfume. Like Jesus is saying, “forget about the poor for a minute, they’re not going anywhere. I, on the other hand, am about to hit Jerusalem – where I’ll be crucified, killed and buried. I’ll take this anointing, this love, this honor, this worship, while I can get it. And maybe the rest of you will finally realize who I am and what I’m about to do, which Mary obviously understands.”
In other words … the poor could wait. This was Jesus’ last hurrah.
Well, something about that just didn’t sit well with me, this time around, and I may be taking a theological leap here – conflating two Gospel stories like I’m about to do.
But have you ever read – or do you remember – that parable Jesus tells in Matthew 25? The one where Jesus says, “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me?” And then he says, “…whenever you did – or did not – do these things to one of the least of these … you did – or did not – do these things to me.” Do you remember that?
And today he says, “You will always have the poor with you. But you do not always have me.”
“Whenever you did it to one of the least of these [fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, visited the prisoner], you did it for me.”
What if, in receiving Mary’s anointing over dinner that night, Jesus isn’t drawing a distinction between himself and the poor, but he’s identifying with them because of it? What if Jesus is the poor we have with us and around us, even now? What if Jesus receives Mary’s faithful, loving, generous gift that night at dinner in humble, hopeful solidarity – as one with – the poor and the suffering?
“You will always have the poor with you. But you will not always have me.”
And what if we sacrificed – like Mary must have – to give more of our best… more of our abundance… more extravagantly… more recklessly to the people around us who need it most, because we recognize them as living and suffering and struggling in humble, hopeful solidarity with Jesus?
I think it could change the world.
I had a conversation with Linda Sevier and Mary Hubert about our Mission Sunday in May where we’ll collect money and bras – yes, bras, people! – for a ministry connected with the Women of the ELCA. This ministry collects and sends used bras – yes, used bras, people! – to women who are poor in other parts of the world with the goal of giving them opportunities in the second-hand clothing industry, and to save them from human trafficking. It sounds like a beautiful, worthwhile thing and I’m sure it is.
But used bras? A gently-worn shirt, sure. A pair of shoes you’ve out-grown, fine. But a used bra? What kind of a gift is that, really? What sort of sacrifice does that represent? Besides the fact that none of us wants me to handle your old bras, no matter how “gently used” they might be – we can do better … and these women – whoever they are – deserve better. So we will be collecting money and NEW bras, only, thank you very much. I hope you’ll play along when the time comes.
And the same goes for our “Groceries of Grace” food pantry. Let’s not give our leftovers – the last of what we can dust off from the back of the closet, for the “least of these.” I’d bet 300 denarii Martha wasn’t serving stale bread or expired figs or leftover fish that night when Jesus showed up for dinner. So let’s not pretend hungry people should take what they can get and be happy – even if humiliated – to receive our leftovers. Let’s honor them, like we would honor Jesus, if he showed up for help one day soon.
What if, in giving generously to the poor, we are giving generously to Jesus, himself? What if, when we sacrifice for the sake of another, we’re sacrificing for the sake of our God? What if we are honoring God when we honor the least among us? What if it’s not a waste at all when we give generously, abundantly, without fear, with nothing but love for those who are hungry or hurting or dying or despairing – in our midst and around the world?
And what if we gave that way to the Church – which is the body of Christ, after all – and which is doing the work of Christ, for the sake of the world?
I recently read that – in order to make up for recent cuts in the new federal budget that would otherwise help poor and hungry people – every religious organization in the United States – something like 350,000 churches, mosques, and synagogues – would have to raise an extra $400,000 a year for 10 years. An extra $400,000 a year for 10 years to make up for federal budget cuts that would otherwise do that, just in our country. That’s a lot of nard. And I’m sadly realistic about the odds of that happening.
But what if we gave our offering to the church’s work in the world – to Cross of Grace, to places like Love, Inc. which we’ll hear about in a moment, to ministries like Bread for the World which you heard about if you were here during the Sunday school hour this morning – what if we gave to the poor with the same extravagant generosity that Mary showed – like it mattered; like it was first in our hearts; like it was of utmost priority and importance and devotion; like we were grateful for the opportunity and like LIFE depended on it – the new life promised to us all – rich and poor, faithful or not, saint and sinner, and everyone in between.
What if we gave like we were giving to Jesus himself? I think it could change the world – which has been God’s plan, in Jesus Christ, all along.