My husband, Barrett and I were married in December of 2004, and three months later, my grandfather died, unexpectedly. We were in school in Vancouver, and when I got news that my grandfather died, in New Orleans, I was disappointed to find out that my parents assumed I would not make it to his funeral. I wanted to go. Money was tight, but I wanted to make it work, some how.
Barrett and I had just started looking at our options, trying to figure out how much we could afford for tickets, when we got a call from his parents. They had heard about my grandfather’s death, and they insisted on paying for my ticket to New Orleans. They also insisted on paying for one for Barrett, so we could go together.
It was a beautiful, and extravagant act of love on the part of my new in-laws.
Imagine if one of my classmates had heard about this generous gift, and said, “Gosh, that’s a lot of money for a three-day trip! Do you know how many African children that money could have fed? Why didn’t they use that money for a good cause?”
As unexpected as the gift was, If anyone had reacted that way (which they didn’t by the way,) it would have been far more shocking. Offensive, really. I might have even responded with a sharp few words about how good causes will always be there, but my grandfather’s funeral would only happen once.
I’m guessing you can see where this story is going.
John makes no bones about the fact that Judas is the villain in this morning’s story. Judas is introduced by John’s narration as the one who is about to betray Jesus, and John calls his motives into question, suggesting that his criticism of Mary has nothing to do with genuine concern for the poor, but concern for his own access to the money that she might have to offer.
But even with Judas so clearly cast as the bad guy, I think that sometimes we have trouble understanding exactly what is going on in this passage, and what Jesus’ response means. In fact, it seems like his words, “The poor will always be with us,” are far too often used as an excuse for why we do nothing to respond to the needs of people around us. That doesn’t sound very much like Jesus. So, what did he mean?
Let’s try to enter into the story a little bit more deeply. Jesus is in Bethany—a village outside of Jerusalem. It is his last stop before they enter the city. It’s a familiar home. He is good friends with all three adults who live there—Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. They’ve been friends for a long time, but their friendship has been recently deepened by Lazarus’ death, and Jesus miraculous act of raising him from the dead.
Now, Jesus is stopping with these friends for food and shelter before he takes the last steps toward his own death. The next morning he will ride a donkey into Jerusalem, stirring up enough trouble to push his critics into action. Before the week is up, Jesus will be arrested, sentenced and killed.
And somehow, Mary seems to know this, or sense it, or sense that something tremendous and tremendously difficult is looming. So she takes care of Jesus in a way that is extravagant and intimate, and pretty shocking and uncomfortable for everyone else in the house. She pours and pours syrupy perfumed oil all over Jesus’ feet. It’s a perfume that would usually be used a few drops at a time, and here it is completely covering Jesus’ feet and dripping off of them onto the floor. The scent overpowers the whole house.
And then she kneels at his feet, and unties her hair, which was something women only did in the privacy of their bedrooms, with their husbands. She uses her hair to wipe the excess oil off of Jesus’ feet as she massages the oil into them. So, there she is, on her knees, hair not only loose in the company of all these men, but now sticky with perfumed oil. She is a mess. A vulnerable, extravagantly loving mess.
And in the face of this breathtaking act of love and intimacy, what does Judas say? Well, first he lets on that he’s been calculating how much this quantity of perfume would have cost—a fairly uncouth response to any gift. And then, he questions why Mary would waste that money on perfume when she could have given it to the poor.
As shocking as Mary’s act of love must have been, Judas’ rude reaction would have been even more shocking. You can imagine that Jesus’ words might have had a bite to them when he said to Judas, “the poor will be there to take care of another day. I will not always be with you.”
So, what do we learn about love today? That’s our question throughout Lent. What does this story tell us about love? What does this story have to do with our own lives? Even in my opening illustration about the plane tickets my in-laws bought, it feels absurd to imagine anyone reacting the way Judas does in this story. So, what can we learn, apart from not behaving like ingrates, which most of us know not to do, anyway?
One of the things I see going on is a juxtaposition between gifts of love and acts of obligation. Now, obligation is not necessarily a bad thing—sometimes obligation leads us to do good things. Obligation can be a decent motivator, but love is better. I think that Mary’s act of love is important, not because she is showing love to Jesus, but because she is acting out of love, while Judas is focused on doing good in an obligatory way—caring for the poor, because that’s the good, religious thing to do.
Another way to put it might be that this story sets up a contrast between acts of love and acts of charity. Again, charity is a good thing—it is helping people. But usually acts of charity are somewhat anonymous—we give money or other items to an organization, which distributes them to people we don’t know. We don’t know their faces or their names, or their stories. Charity is good. But love is better.
Doing good things out of a sense of obligation, or charity is a decent thing to do, but acts borne of love are deeper, more extravagant, they involve something of ourselves’ being poured into others. And more than anything, Jesus is about love. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as I have loved you. He doesn’t say, behave decently to your neighbor out of a sense of religious obligation. He says, “love your neighbor.”
So, yes, the poor will always be with us. But maybe the question we can bring out of our reading of this story this week is, “how are we with the poor?” Do we keep people in need at arm’s length and make sure some of our tax-deductible donations go to food pantries and homeless shelters? Or, do we see real people—people like us—neighbors—people who desperately need someone to love them—someone willing to get to know them and hear their story and learn to care about their well-being beyond whether they have access to a food pantry.
We can’t solve the needs of the world, but we can learn to love one more person a little bit more fully. And then one more.
It may not look impressive laid out in statistics. It may even look like a waste of time, or energy, or resources to some, but we can trust that every act of love, no matter how small or extravagant, is never a waste of anything. People are worth loving. Love is worth giving. In a letter attributed to the same John who tell us this story, we hear the words, “God is love, and all who live in love, live in God, and God lives in them.” Let us live in extravagant love for one more person this week.