A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, John 12:1-8
I want to take a moment as I begin to note that there is a lot happening in today’s Gospel. It takes place at the home of post-raised Lazarus and Martha and Mary. Constant figures throughout the story of Jesus’ ministry throughout the region. Trusted friends, in many ways a home away from home for a weary and tired teacher who has been all over and is preparing for one final push. And, this is the recognition that Mary is showing in this story. Christ is about to embark on his most dangerous stand, a stand which does ultimately lead to his death.
We also have an interruption by Judas Iscariot. We get his casting call today. The betrayer. A thief. Someone who takes advantage of trust, for he held the common purse, and yet betrayed that trust for something as meaningless as money, a pattern he will soon repeat. It’s important to note that John’s gospel is the least-old of the gospels and has the benefit of having the other three before him as he writes, as well as an inherited tradition at this point, as much as 70-80 years after the death of Christ. This inherited tradition and presence of other stories enables John to embellish the story a little, making characters to play roles as much as reflecting the historical accuracy of what transgressed.
And, we have Jesus’ response: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Like I said at the beginning, there is a lot happening in the gospel today.
Let’s begin with the actions of Mary, the anointing of Christ with burial oil, of anointing and washing his feet with her hair. This is an act of service, of deep devotion and commitment, of love. It is an act that recognizes that Christ is in a tender space in his life of ministry. He has made a name for himself. He has literally raised the dead as evidence by Lazarus’ presence at this meal. And, it is a recognition that even the messiah needs to take a moment of sabbath rest. To rest, for just a moment. To prepare for what is ahead. To accept the gift of love that is being offered.
In the Broadway hit Jesus Christ Superstar, this interaction is encapsulated in the song “Everything’s alright,” where Mary (although in that iteration Mary Magdalene), sings the following: “Try not to get worried, try not to turn on to, Problems that upset you, oh. Don’t you know, Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine. And we want you to sleep well tonight. Let the world turn without you tonight. If we try, we’ll get by, so forget all about us tonight.” I think this in many ways captures this tender moment being shared between two people. An action that invites Christ into experiencing a moment of sabbath rest. An invitation to “forget all about us tonight” and “we’ll get by.” Even Jesus Christ needed to be given permission to take a breather before engaging in the culmination of his work. A reminder for us that we too must be willing to accept the permission granted to us to care for ourselves, to rest, so that we can be ready to take on the challenge that lays before us with everything we have.
And then Judas interrupts.
“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
We’re told this isn’t an honest question, but haven’t we all asked this ourselves? Much of the work we do in the church, in our community is about helping those in our community who have greater need than we do. And in that work we constantly struggle to find enough resources to support that work. A small jar of perfume that is worth 300 denarii, worth 300 days of labor, for one day of labor would net the average laborer one denarii. That’s nearly $30,000 of value today ($12/hour, 8 hours a day for 300 days). This is not a small sum for any work to be done with the poor, with those who have the most need. Would we not scoff at such a valuable item that could go to support so much of our ministry be used in one ritualistic act?
But then, we have Jesus’ response, and we are tasked with holding a full other question in balance.
“You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
This is a true statement. Christ knows that as he prepares to engage in the temple that his days are numbered. These followers of his will not always have him to teach. These followers will not always have him in their midst to touch God, to show a faith and devotion and belief in a radical new way. So, can you really blame Mary for wanting to take this moment to show that love and faith and devotion before the moment is forever unattainable?
There is something else however to this statement.
“You always have the poor with you.”
Does Christ see something in us, in the way that we give up authority to man-made power structures, in the way that we infuse our systems with systemic injustices that can never be fully extricated without a complete stripping away of everything we deem as culture, an act that really cannot happen because we hand any power to change this system over to those who we put in power over us, a reality of our moving through creation that illustrates to him that we will always have a portion of our society, a portion of our siblings in creation, relegated to otherness, relegated to being “the poor,” so that we always have someone to look down upon?
Perhaps it’s even deeper than our societal structures. Perhaps in being made mortal flesh, Christ is acutely aware of a reality of our nature in creation, a reality wherein we can never truly understand what it means to truly, radically, selflessly love our neighbor as ourselves. Christ is acutely aware that even if we try really hard, we won’t all ever fully grasp, and therefore all fully embrace, this commandment from God, and because of this, the poor will no doubt always be with us.
Just look around at the conversations we are, and aren’t, having around people who are experiencing homelessness to understand this in our modern reality. This past week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in an en banc majority decision, declared that not is it merely inhumane but it is unconstitutional to arrest people for sleeping in public spaces when no other option has been made available.
This is being touted as a victory for those who work tirelessly with those who are experiencing homelessness, but a larger question has to be asked: how is this even a question?
Have we really removed the humanity from our neighbor so much that we think it is appropriate to arrest them for simply trying to find a place to sleep where no place has been offered? These are our siblings in creation. These are (some of) “the poor” who are always with us. Cannot we not see this and do something to radically shift our culture, or is Christ correct in his assessment that “You will always have the poor.”
I don’t know if I have the answer to this question.
But, I do have faith.
I have faith that in following the way of love that has been left for us by Christ that we cannot help but at the very least, make some waves. I have faith that if we move past the accusations of Judas, if we don’t get caught up on the economics of a ritualistic act of sabbath being offered out of love to one who has been tirelessly teaching, healing, fighting, that we can begin to wrestle with this statement of Christ as a challenge to our reality and not a condemnation of our creation.
It’s certainly hard work. It’s potentially unending work. And, it’s work that we cannot let consume us so wholly and fully, that we forget to connect back to God, to accept the acts of another in showing us that love of God that is ever present. We have to rest, from time to time, take sabbath in order to reconnect with ourselves and with God. To remember why we are doing what we are doing, to remember what our end goal is. To remember that God’s grace is ever present with us, that we can share that grace, that love with all, and that no part of God’s creation is to be labeled as an other, to have the reality of their creation stripped away. We can be better. We should be better. And, if we trust in Christ, trust in the grace and forgiveness of God, if we live our faith, than we can’t help but try to end the reality that “You will always have the poor with you.”