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.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts be always acceptable to you o Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
You know, it’s interesting sometimes how the readings that we have fit together. I mean, they are chosen to tell the story of Christ’s ministry and walk us through the liturgical seasons, leading us from our Christian New Year of Advent through Christ’s birth, the beginning of his ministry, our time in Lent reflecting on his path to the cross, then Easter with his resurrection and on through Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit. And so, they in a way have to tell a narrative of Jesus’ life, but they are snapshots of the Bible really, because we are reading sections, and thus, they are sometimes without the context to ground them. Which can make it easy to cherry pick, and move around the Bible without having to talk about the more difficult bits.
But what I have loved about the last two Gospel passages, last Sunday with the Prodigal Son and this week with the anointing of Jesus is that they are very well-known sections, and it would make my life a lot nicer to just gloss over the harder parts in both these stories because you already know them, however I don’t ever do things the easy way, just ask my parents, and so we’re going to sit in this deep and fruitful swamp one more time, and look at something difficult.
See, what I find so fascinating about this passage is that line at the end where Jesus says you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me. Because it’s one of those touching little lines that can go really, really wrong.
You can read it like, well, this is just human Jesus having a moment with Judas. And they throw in that bit about Judas being insincere about the reasons he is scolding them, so it takes the sting off the comment a bit. But, while I’m sure Jesus had his human moments, I don’t think that really encapsulates what’s happening here, so I think it’s probably useful to keep digging.
Now, we can also do what a lot of Christians like to do and interpret this to mean that Jesus is saying, oh there will always be poor people, material possessions don’t matter. Which, yes, is true-ish. Jesus wants our minds off our material goods and wealth and onto our spiritual well-being, especially how we treat others, but I don’t think he really means it the way we want to interpret it.
Because these explanations about the need to distance oneself from wealth usually come from people for whom having a break from their iPad and paying money to retreat from the world seems like a charming way to engage in ‘monastic living’, rather than people who go days without food or who have to walk miles for clean water.
So there’s a big disconnect there, between the concept of less things and actually having to survive without things. Which I think shows the importance of interpreting the Bible with nuance, and an awareness of our own perspectives. Because where we mostly get stuck on stories like this is that we don’t understand the difference between two similar concepts. In this case, we don’t understand the difference between poverty and inequality, and, just like last week in our exploration of the Prodigal Son, we don’t really get the difference between fairness and justice.
I’ll tell you a silly story that I think explains what I mean: I have to two little dogs, one is a chunky black pug who is a very stubborn girl named Bailey, and one is a fluffy blond Shih Tzu named Teddy who is very stupid. And they’re only about a year apart in age, and they grew up together. So when it comes to how they are treated, everything needs to be fair. From treats to food (they need identical food and water bowls) to Halloween costumes (they both have to be the same thing because once they fought over who got to wear a purple hippo in a tutu costume). But Teddy gets ear infections, and he needs ear drops a lot, and when he gets drops put in his ears, Bailey needs them too, so my mom has to pretend to put medicine in her ears as well. So Bailey, in the effort to ensure all things are fair, even wants medicine. Now, that’s a silly story about dogs, but it’s true for us as well.
This passage, just like the rest of the Gospel messages, is telling us something about the new kingdom that Jesus has come to inaugurate. And it is telling us that what we think we understand about the world is wrong, that it doesn’t have to be like that. The poor will always be with you; yes, they will. Because poverty is relative, it’s the difference between me and Bill Gates. Inequality, on the other hand, is the social ramifications of discrimination and prejudice. It is the system of privilege and power working against the people, forcing us to assimilate and adhere to social rules or be left out. Coupled together, they cause systemic, generational issues.
But Jesus shows us here and in the Prodigal Son, he doesn’t come to eradicate difference and institute fairness, he comes to give us the compassion and grace we need, to bring justice to a world insistent on sameness. Everything about our journey through Lent has been leading to this, Jesus is incarnate with us for only a little while longer, and it is time to lean close and listen. The kingdom Jesus promises is the end of inequality and prejudice, not the end of difference.
It comes because we are brave enough to take risks, to follow him where he may lead us. It comes because we are strong enough to be vulnerable and compassionate, to be open to transformation in the Spirit and open to allowing those around us into our hearts. It comes because we recognize that time and growth are not punishments, that we are called to cultivate and nurture not just demand fruits. It comes because we know that God loves us so much he gives us into the care of each other, that the lost brother or sister who belongs to God belongs to all of us.
And it comes because we understand that lack will always exist, but when we give freely, abundantly, when we abandon power for love, fairness for justice, we are all richer.
This is the image of the kingdom: Jesus, born to two ordinary people, humbly in a stable, is anointed a king by a woman, not a man vested with power and authority, in the house of a friend, not the temple or the political seat of the city. He is anointed because he has eaten with sinners and outcasts, healed those thought too unclean, taught the everyday masses.
He has walked the wilderness and will die the death of a criminal.
He stands in the place of us all, broken and lost, loved and redeemed, so that we might see him, maybe only for a little while, in the face of the one next to us, and glimpse that kingdom, here and now.