“It’s not about the poor”
Highlands Presbyterian church - March 17, 2013
The Gospel story opens this morning six days before the Passover. Jesus has a week to live. He who is about to be killed and rise from the dead goes to pay a visit to the formerly dead…a visit with the one he has raised from the dead. Lazarus had spent four days dead in the tomb. Perhaps Jesus was curious and wanted to ask Lazarus what that was like…what was it like to be dead? What was it like to lay in the tomb? What was it like to have your life restored after so long dead?
The Gospel of John teaches that it was this act…the raising of Lazarus from the dead…that signed Jesus’ death warrant. In the chapter just before today’s reading…chapter 11…
…beginning at verse 45…”Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “Do you not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”
Those who had been most troubled by Jesus’ ministry had witnessed Lazarus walk from the tomb alive. This would be the last straw for the Romans…they killed a lot of people in order to maintain the empire and when they killed someone, they wanted that person to stay dead…none of this coming back to life stuff.
By the end of chapter 11, they are looking for someone to tell them where Jesus was so that they could arrest him…and here he is…in Bethany…just outside of Jerusalem…hiding in plain sight. He couldn’t have gone anywhere else where there would have been more people gawking than to the house of a once dead man. The paparazzi had to have the place surrounded. Jesus could not have been more conspicuous.
The scripture says there was a large crowd there. They wanted to see Jesus but most of all they wanted to see the formerly dead Lazarus. They were there when Lazarus died. They were there when he rose from the dead. They couldn’t get enough of watching the dead man live.
Think about the characters in this story. Of course there are Jesus and Lazarus. Then there is Mary. Just a few short verses earlier Mary was grappling with the whole idea of Jesus. When Jesus arrived after her brother had died, she said to him, “If only you had been here, he would have lived.”
Now…a few days later…it is Mary and only Mary who seems to understand that it is Jesus who will soon die and like Lazarus, spend days in the tomb. She prepares his living body for death.
Nard is one of the main characters…nard is the oil she uses…nard is just not any oil. It’s an aromatic perennial herb grown in the Himalaya Mountains, having rose-purple flowers. It was obtained as a luxury in ancient Egypt. And a luxury it was. In those days, the average worker was paid one denarius for a 12-hour workday. The nard Mary uses was worth, a Judas points out, 300 denarii…almost a month’s wages.
Nard was used to perfume dead bodies. There was no embalming then and to reduce the stench of death, this oil was used by those who could afford it. There was another use for nard in those days. It was used to anoint the heads of Kings. Mary uses it to anoint the feet of Jesus. He is not a king.
And then there is Judas. We all know Judas. We know his role in the arrest and crucifixion. Jesus knew before we did, maybe before Judas knew. There is a telling dialogue between Jesus and Judas. Judas is not happy to see all that expensive nard going to waste on the feet of Jesus. Jesus who claimed to be the champion of the poor should have ordered Mary to sell that oil and give the money to the poor.
Isn’t it surprising when Jesus rebukes Judas? Leave her alone he says. She is the only one here who understands what’s going on. Besides, Judas isn’t all that concerned about the poor.
The Gospel writer challenges Judas’ sincerity. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii,” Judas demands to know, “and the money given to the poor?” John then adds, “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.”
Do you know who Judas reminds me of in this story? He reminds me of those people who say things like, “With all the poor and homeless people in America why are we sending so much money to other countries to help their poor people.” They say that as though they would actually support the use of that money to actually help the poor here.
I do not, as Paul said to the early church, I do not want you to be uninformed brothers and sisters. The next time someone says that to you, tell them the truth. As a percentage of our income, the United States spends much less on helping the poor of the world than any other developed nation, other than poor, nearly bankrupted Italy. We spend about a billion dollars a year or 25 cents per day per person. That is far less than the widow’s mite and but only a fraction of the five loaves and two fishes with which Jesus set the example for how to feed the multitudes.
A few loaves and a couple of fishes are enough to feed the world if we are generous. If we are less than generous givers, it leaves far too many starving. If we who have so much are unwilling to help those in Africa and Asia and South and Central America who are hungry, it is little wonder that there are, among us, people of our own nation who do not have enough to eat.
But Judas aside…what is going on here? Judas is, after all, correct. All that nard was worth a lot of money, money that could have fed a lot of hungry people. This week, the grandeur of the Catholic Church has been on display. The Vatican, St. Peter’s Square, the Swiss Guards, the Sistine Chapel, the vestments of the new Pope.
I am certain there were many who watched it all and repeated the words of Judas. “Why was this not all sold for the billions it must be worth and the money given to the poor?” Certainly…the Vatican and all of its grandeur is an affront to the senses of austere Presbyterians…look at these blank walls. If the Vatican is one extreme, are we not the other?
The one from whom we learn the most in this story of the anointing of Jesus is the one who says nothing. While Jesus and Judas debate the use of money it is Mary who teaches us that it is not money that is at the center of our ability to help the poor. It is instead the inspiration of knowing why we seek to do so.
I watched the Highlands team last Wednesday night serving dinner at Connections Corner. Connections Corner is one of the many ministries Highlands supports. It is a ministry to those who live in generational poverty. It is a ministry that brings middle class mentors together with people in poverty so that we can learn from one another. They meet every Wednesday night and they begin every meeting by sharing a meal…a meal donated by churches and others. Highlands takes its turn and thanks to Laura and Mary Ann and Vic and Abita…everyone enjoyed a wonderful taco dinner last Wednesday.
But it is so much more than a dinner. I know for a fact that for the children who filled their plates that night…this is the one night a week that most of them are able to do that. For us it was a delicious meal…for them…Wednesday night is the one night a week they don’t go to bed hungry.
So…where does the inspiration come from? What is it that inspires some to do the hard work of social justice…to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the sick and the captives? It’s not the money…it’s the inspiration…the inspiration that comes form anointing Jesus…at times with expensive oils…it’s the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it’s the magnificent cathedrals and the ornate sculpture, the stained glass…the visual images of art and architecture that lift our hearts to levels our minds cannot always comprehend.
As the votes of the cardinals were being counted, Claudio Hummes of Brazil, comforted his friend Cardinal Bergolio "as the situation became dangerous".
After the voting reached the two-thirds majority that elected him, Hummes told him "Don't forget the poor.” While the formal voting continued, the pope said "I thought of wars .... and Francis (of Assisi) is the man of peace, and that is how the name entered my heart, Francis of Assisi, for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others."
On the night he was elected amid all the grandeur that is the Vatican…the new pope shunned the papal limousine and travelled on a bus with other cardinals. He went to the Church-run hotel where he had been staying before the conclave and insisted on paying the bill.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, also urged Argentines not to make costly trips to Rome to see him but to give the money to the poor instead. And then he reminded his followers that it is not about the pope but about Jesus.
I would add…it’s not even about the poor…it’s about Jesus!
The work of God’s justice will, as Jesus said, always be with us. It is hard, demanding work that requires a renewal of the senses…the lifting of our spirits that comes from using expensive oils to anoint the feet of Jesus as the means of reminding us that the inspiration will not always be with us, that it must be renewed, that worship is an integral part of mission.
Worship is the inspiration and whether we find it on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the beauty of the wide-open sky, it is what creates for us the sense that it all matters, that it all arises from an understanding that neither are we alone in the work or larger than the cause. AMEN