At first reading this passage from John’s Gospel seems innocuous enough… Mary, Martha, and Lazarus all having a nice meal with Jesus in the week leading up to Passover. It has a sort of warm holiday feel to it, like when families get together before Christmas… But it is not a happy holiday tableau. Jesus is now under a death sentence and that sentence is about to be implemented.
That will dampen the mood, but more than that, the basis of the death sentence in John’s Gospel is that Jesus has performed one too many miracles and this is going to bring the Roman Government down not just on Jesus, but on all of Israel. So, according to the Chief Priest, Jesus must die to save everyone… that is a bit of foreshadowing to say the least.
And what, you might ask, was the offending miracle? Jesus raised Lazarus, the same one sitting across the dinner table, from the dead… This could be a very uncomfortable meal…
Whatever the mood may have been, Mary proceeds to anoint Jesus’ feet with Nard, a costly, oily perfume imported from very far away. And when I say costly, I mean costly… Judas tells us that this Nard could have been sold for three hundred denarii. In case you are wondering, that is about a full year’s salary for the average person in Jesus’ time – something like four hundred thousand rands in today’s economy.
This suggests a few things… Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are not poor, or even middle class. These dear friends of Jesus are comfortably well off. Though they may be well off, it is also a bit unlikely that they just had half a million rands worth of Nard sitting about. Jesus’ friends know that his death is immanent, and it seems likely that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus have planned ahead. Anointing someone at death is required, but Mary has not waited for Jesus to die…
In this Gospel, John is at pains to contrast Mary with Judas. Mary’s act is selfless and loving. She has gone to considerable trouble and expense to acquire this Nard and she not only lavishes it on Jesus’ feet, but she also dries his feet with her hair. From my twenty-first century perspective I find this notion a bit off-putting… but our health and beauty standards are not their standards.
Judas, on the other hand, is quite harsh. Mary’s costly gift to Jesus should have been liquidated… sold so that the money could go into the purse and be used for the poor. Of course, John clarifies that Judas’ selfless protest is empty. Judas doesn’t care about the poor. He steals what goes into the purse… He cares mostly about himself.
Keep in mind that the Gospel of John is the last gospel to be recorded. It is decades after Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet somehow John knows that Judas is a thief, a fact that seems to have escaped Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John states it so matter-of-factly that it seems to suggest everybody knew this. So, how could Jesus not have known that Judas was stealing from the poor? And if Jesus did know, how could he allow it to go on? It’s not like there were thousands of disciples in the inner circle so that Judas could hide… And it’s not like Jesus and his disciples had vast amounts of money so that a little could be skimmed here or there and without being noticed.
It’s easy for me to get drawn down the rabbit hole of details, but that is seriously misreading John. Unlike the other evangelists, John is not really interested in reporting to us the details of Jesus life. John’s Gospel is more mystical than historical. John is not a journalist. John is not telling us about poor financial controls within Jesus’ organization.
John is telling us about discipleship, about following and loving Jesus. When it comes to being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, nothing else matters. In this area of discipleship Mary illustrates how it’s done – and Judas illustrates how it’s not done…
While most of Jesus’ followers would not have had the resources to afford a lovely big jug of Nard, they were learning to be generous and selfless. If you reflect on the stories of feeding the multitude, the stories start with the sharing of what folks have… That generous sharing results in abundance. Mary shares what she has – and it happens to be a lot. But sharing, not quantity, is a critical element of discipleship.
Judas, on the other hand, not only wants to hoard, but he wants to take what is shared, the common purse, and allocate it to himself. Wanting to help the poor is just a pretext, a cover story. Judas cares about Judas.
But suppose that Judas was not a thief… suppose he really was concerned with the poor and was really worried about this extravagance toward Jesus that could have helped many people. Isn’t this a compelling argument? And I’m afraid Jesus’ response – we’ll always have the poor, but we won’t always have Jesus – doesn’t make it better for me.
We will always have the poor – especially if we spend our money on comfortable luxuries for ourselves… Surely this is not what Jesus wants…
Who knows what may have slipped away in the few thousand years between Jesus’ statement and our hearing. But it just can’t be that Jesus is telling us not to care about the poor – about the injustice that leads to poverty. This is just not the message of the Gospel.
And I’m certain that Jesus is not, in fact, telling us to ignore the poor in favor of his comfort. Another way of understanding Jesus’ words is that the opportunity to help the poor will always be with, but the opportunity to worship God in human flesh will not. And we know that Jesus’ time in human flesh is numbered in days and hours as this story takes place. In this light, Jesus telling the disciples to focus on one thing and not the other is a short-term instruction. Concern for the poor is a very high priority, but right now there is an even higher priority for the disciples – and that is Jesus.
It must be very distressing for Jesus that his time is growing so short, and the disciples still seem to have so limited an understanding of the Gospel. Here we are a few thousand years later, and we still seem to have a very limited understanding of the Gospel.
But the Gospel message isn’t in fact all that hard to understand. We are to love God and we are to love our neighbors and ourselves. The disciples are concerned with loving the neighbors, the poor. They are not so interested in loving Jesus, God, who in their very midst… But that is exactly what Mary is doing. She is loving Jesus in the flesh. And for this the disciples, in the form of Judas, tell her off…
As Holy Week inches closer week by week, here we are in the dilemma that the disciples faced. Do we concentrate on “the poor” … the symptom of so much of what is wrong with our world? Or do we concentrate on Jesus, on God, soon to be before us in the form of the Eucharist.
Of course, there can be only one answer – and that answer is yes. We focus on Jesus, Emanuel, God with us, and that focus leads us inevitably to care about the poor… about justice. For we cannot worship God without wanting to be part of the building of God’s Kingdom… a Kingdom where justice flows like a mighty river to cover the whole of the earth.
Mary models for us a loving act – she not only shares her wealth with Jesus, but she humbles herself by anointing his feet. Judas models a selfish act. He wants to make sure that he gets what he wants and feels he is entitled to.
As we look around at our present world the urgency of Jesus’ call to love and care for all of God’s creation is urgent. People looking out for themselves, making sure to protect their own interests first and foremost, powers the astonishing and heartbreaking injustice of our world. We collectively are doing our best not only to be certain that the poor will be with us always, but that there will be ever more poor.
The truth of the Gospel is that we cannot love Jesus without loving all of God’s children, including ourselves. And God’s love is invariably tied to God’s justice. Our very identity as followers of Jesus must be our love. Without that, we are like Judas, more mockery than disciples.