A Sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
The writer of John’s gospel surely knew the power of scent to trigger memory and emotion; surely knew that the reader of this passage would have a physical response to the image of the house filled with the fragrance. It is intended to carry us to a place of close presence and physicality; of bodies.
It is virtually impossible to talk about this passage without talking about bodies. Lazarus’ own body has been raised from the dead, emerging blinking into the light, his wrappings fluttering to the ground as his friends removed them. And now, at dinner at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, we smell the earthy musky mossy scent of nard, redolent of the fertile beginnings of Creation. We see the dusty journey-worn feet of Jesus. We see Mary’s hair, intimately undone, as it caresses her friend’s callused skin. These images are not thought—they are felt—they leap off the pages and into our senses. It is all in the seeing, the touching, the smelling. These are what connect us to the story, and to the Good News that wafts almost elusively through it.
So now imagine the flush of indignation felt by Judas as he inhales the expensive scent—the rapid calculation of the quantity of nard—one pound– divided by the rough cost—300 denarii; compared to the amount of food, clothing, or medicine that could be provided for the poor for the same amount—the conclusion of outrageous extravagance—all culminating in an indignant outburst from the Keeper of the Purse: “Silly woman, what are you thinking?”
John would have us see him as insincere in this moment—Judas has no credibility regarding fiscal responsibility because he has his hand in the till. But we know that John, and we, have a particular point of view when it comes to Judas. Maybe Judas was stealing from his colleagues. But maybe John has offered that little detail in order to hammer home Judas’ unsavory character. As if we needed that. But. Judas was one of the disciples. His later betrayal of Jesus doesn’t mean that he was never right about anything. Resources that went to buy a pound of nard (a year’s wages) could have been used for another, less extravagant and more charitable, purpose. Think about it; if it wasn’t Judas saying it, we might actually agree with him.
That’s a sobering thought.
But if we did agree with Judas, then we, like Judas, would be missing the point.
This isn’t about cost/benefit analysis. It’s about love.
Jesus says to Judas, “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.”
This is arguably one of the most misunderstood statements in the Gospel, and possibly one of the most abused.
More on that in a minute, but first shift our gaze from Judas’ outrage back to Jesus and Mary, as she anticipates his burial.
The care of a body after death is one of the last acts of kindness a person can do for the deceased. Whether in the first century or the twenty-first, using herbs and oils or modern materials and technology, the gentle and competent care of a body is an act of love and respect, both for the deceased and for those who grieve. It is a tender time, and this act of care is a true and valuable gift.
Jesus acknowledges this gift from Mary, made all the more special for its extravagance. He and everyone present are witnesses to the depth of her caring for her friend. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “The greater the love, the greater the grief.”
This is lost on Judas, who has couched Mary’s gift in zero-sum either/or binary terms; she has shown great love for Jesus, therefore people will go hungry as a result.
But not, admonishes Jesus, if you are participating in the Dream of God. In God’s economy the binary is erased. This is not a matter of choosing Jesus or the poor. In the economy of the Kingdom, it isn’t either/or, it’s both/and.
And this is where we confront one of the most problematic quotes in scripture: “You will always have the poor with you.”
This has historically been an excuse for not addressing the plight of the disadvantaged, particularly in a systemic way. The argument goes that there is no point in addressing a problem as intractable as poverty, because this is just the way it is and ever shall be; Jesus said so, right there in John 12: 8, right?
This is what I call, “the convenient ‘No’”. When cherry-picked and misread, this quote makes it easy to say that the problem is too big and our resources are too small. That makes it easy to stay comfortably within the status quo.
When has Jesus ever asked us to do that?
You will always have the poor with you.
Interestingly, the Greek word for “to have” can be the same in both the indicative tense (a statement of what is) and the imperative tense (a statement of what should be.) So it could be read, “You will always have the poor with you…”
…or, “You should always have the poor with you.”
Now that sounds like Jesus. When has he not sided with the poor and called us to do the same?
You should always have the poor among you. Not either/or. Both/and.
Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, anticipating his death. Her grief and her tenderness are woven together. And in the face of Judas’ indignation, Jesus guides his attention away from money to relationship. Because grief only occurs in the presence of relationship.
Do the privileged grieve the situations of the unprivileged? Do they see the outrageous income disparities, the food deserts, the inequities in housing, healthcare and education? Do we truly see the people left vulnerable by climate change? Do we grieve for them as we would for Jesus?
It’s a crucial question, because Jesus tells us that they are one and the same—the poor are as worthy of Mary’s tender, extravagant, loving care as Jesus.
It’s not about cost/benefit; it’s about relationship.
Where Judas sees a gap between privileged and unprivileged, Jesus sees a relationship. In the Dream of God, charitable giving is transformed into mutual ministry; a place where giving and receiving are not two sides of a transaction, but a multidimensional tapestry of shared vulnerability and experience. Where names and stories are known, laughter and hugs and tears shared. Where each can see in the other—in the hands, the feet and the faces, the divine traces of the God who created us. This is what St. Paul calls the aroma of Christ.
You shall always be with the poor. A challenging invitation. Do we expect any different from Jesus?
Every Saturday afternoon, in Burnside Park, Church Beyond the Walls takes that invitation seriously. They are a street-church community that meets out of doors; a special mission of the Diocese with a Eucharist-centered focus on building solidarity between people from all walks of life and circumstances. It’s the Dream of God in action, and it’s a couple of miles away.
Here is how the community is invited to Eucharist:
This is Christ’s table. Come, you who feel weak, and unworthy, you who come often, and you who have stayed away. Come, you who love Jesus, and you who wish you could. Come sinners and saints, women and men, gay and straight. Come you who are homeless and you who have a place to rest your heads. Come you who are citizens of this land and you who are not. Here you are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Now join God’s people at this feast prepared for you from the beginning of the world.