~ John 12:1-11 ~
It’s after sunset on the evening of the Sabbath. The next morning on, the first day of the week, Jesus will enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God,” which, of course, we will observe next Sunday, Palm Sunday. But tonight Jesus is in Bethany just across the valley from Jerusalem visiting the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, who had just recently been quite dead but was now up and walking around. Jesus and the disciples are reclined at table, as was the custom, eating dinner. Mary, quite inexplicably, comes over to Jesus and, taking a large amount of costly perfume, begins to anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping his feet with her hair. A fairly familiar story. And in this story, we have this fairly famous saying of Jesus: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
A troublesome statement, one that has caused controversy ever since he said it. What did he mean “you’ll always have the poor with you?” Was Jesus making a God-ordained prophecy? Or was it just a truism, simply a statement of fact? Was it a prediction for all of history or just an in-the-moment observation? Unfortunately, as history has demonstrated, this Jesus’ words have been used as an excuse to not do anything for the poor because, if you’ll always have the poor then no matter what attempts you make to alleviate poverty it won’t matter. Poverty will never be alleviated.
Even more insidious is the suggestion that Jesus is asking us to make a choice between doing something for the poor and being devoted to him. I mean, Jesus says it right here. It’s OK if Mary “wastes” 300 denarii on me instead of giving it to the poor. So was Jesus setting himself apart from the poor? Is it either Jesus or the poor? Many, over the years, have indeed made that choice.
But the truth is that Jesus would never have intended such a choice – either the poor or Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ words would have evoked in everyone’s memories a passage from Deuteronomy 15: “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” In fact, it is the disingenuous suggestion of Judas that creates this false dichotomy. Judas hides behind insincere service to the poor to hide from the real issue of faith and devotion to Jesus. The absurdity of this satanic accusation is obvious. When we really look at Jesus, he is the Poor One. He is in complete solidarity with the poor. His stated mission was, among other things, to proclaim good news to the poor.
Even as Jesus saw into Judas’ heart, seeing thievery and greed and no legitimate concern for alleviating the problems of the poor, I wonder if we all might be in the same boat in some way or other. Could we be following Judas rather than Jesus, the Poor One? I realize that’s a real guilt-trip kind of statement: Judas or Jesus? What kind of choice is that? But Jesus’ statement, “you always have the poor with you,” really should, in fact, cause us to consider more seriously what our devotion to Jesus is all about. Instead of devotion verses serving the poor, the ethic of Jesus has always been that serving the poor is an integral part of our devotion to Jesus, an act of faith in its own right. We need to be motivated like Jesus was motivated.
What motivated Jesus? Some would say that it was sympathy for those in need, feeling badly for their plight and therefore seeking to relieve some of that need. But sympathy as a motivating factor does not really explain Jesus. Nor does empathy. Yes, empathy is critically important because we need to find a way to identify with those in need. Otherwise our help becomes paternalistic, figuring we, the helper, know best what the “helpee” really needs. But even empathy falls short of what motivated Jesus.
What motivated Jesus was justice. Living out God’s justice was the way to live out God’s love for the world. Love is lived out by doing justice. God’s justice is what motivated Jesus’ actions. Doing God’s justice is what motivated Jesus to identify with the poor; indeed, to identify as the Poor One. Which is why constantly he put himself in conflict with the political and religious powers of the day advocating for the poor, doing God’s justice. In the end it’s what got him killed.
I have to admit that we can’t determine what Jesus’ plan actually was. What was his political strategy? How did he propose to change the system? What was his policy statement for what he would do once elected to office? Frankly, we don’t know. So I guess it’s up to us to figure out how to live out and implement a justice-oriented strategy to serve the poor. We have to do that in our context, with our history, with our particular political/social structures.
I guess it means that we pay attention to what’s going on in this neighborhood, in this city, in this world. I think it means doing the hard work of study and strategizing, working with ministry partners, taking risks. It means that we continue to do what we are doing with mobile meals, and winter shelter meals and St. Martin de Porres. Maybe it means doing even more.
But one thing I know it means. It means responding to the call of Jesus to do God’s work of justice. We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God. Amen.