Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
A hallmark of politics is a tendency to pull examples out of context for political gain. No matter what side of the aisle they run on, in most political contests if one of the candidates says something that could be construed as improper, offensive, or embarrassing we can be sure that we (the general public) will hear about it. Similarly, regardless of their personal opinions of pets or children, candidates the world over are pictured petting dogs and kissing babies. In the name of politics the CEO of one of the world’s top polluting corporations may pick up garbage for a photo op, and a pacifist may find herself standing on a battleship. All for the sake of appearance.
In this regard, politics is not that different from some strains biblical interpretation. It can be tempting, when we read a biblical text, to cherry pick the verses that are most appealing to us. The sayings or stories that will make us and our ministry look the most appealing. To emphasize the laws and exhortations that reflect our view, as interpreters, of politics and how the world ought to be.
Along these lines, it is easy enough from my comfortable office or from a well appointed pulpit, to declare that in this text Jesus is reminding us that we can’t solve the problem of poverty tomorrow (or even ten years from now). The poor will always be with us. And so, we might argue, we are justified in whatever lavish use of money is most convenient to us who sit in these comfortable places. It’s tempting. It may feel good (for a moment). But it’s not the meaning of this text.
For one thing, Jesus isn’t talking about all times. He’s talking about this time—this particular moment, days before his crucifixion, in which Mary’s engages in a ritual act that provides an opportunity for him to prepare his disciples for what is to come. Mary’s expense is about more than the perfume. It’s about more than Jesus. It’s about a moment in the salvation history of the world, the price of which is simply unquantifiable.But, on a more basic level, this text is not about ignoring the poor because it occurs in the midst of Jesus’ ministry, throughout which Jesus repeatedly counsels his disciples to care for the poor and even does so himself. For example, in Matthew 19:21, Jesus counsels a young ruler who wants to follow him:
“If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
Or, in Luke, in his inaugural sermon Jesus declares:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18).
Even in John, where the designator “poor” (ptochoi) occurs less frequently, the resurrected Jesus counsels Peter:
“Simon son of John, do you love me?…Feed my sheep” (John 21:17).
The poor are, indeed, always present—today and throughout Jesus’ ministry. And throughout Jesus’ ministry, in various ways, Jesus is attentive to their needs. Jesus never rejects or dismisses the needs of those at the margins of society as insignificant or not worthy of concern. Such an interpretation would be a misreading of John’s text—a manipulation for the purpose of political (or personal) gain.
And, indeed, that’s just the kind of gain that John suggests that Judas is after. The story of a woman anointing Jesus with oil, together with the objection that the money would better have been spent on the poor, occurs in three of the four gospels. However, it is only here in John that this objection is attributed to Judas and only here that are we told he actually had no intent of helping the poor.
In the other gospels, the objection that the money could have been spent to help the poor stands as a reminder of the immediacy of Jesus’ crucifixion. It stands as a counterweight to the value placed in ritual, in extravagance that help (if for just a moment) to remember the dignity of a person, to feel closer to God in Jesus, or to ruminate on those things—such as the mystery of the resurrection—that remain just outside of any quantifiable human ability to reason.
In John’s account, however, this objection serves less as a pedagogical moment through which to contemplate the meaning of the crucifixion and more as a piece of propaganda.Judas, Jesus’ soon to be opponent, twists what is happening, pulling words and actions out of context to begin to build a case against him.
This, of course, is nothing remarkable. In the world of politics (even first century politics), it’s all very human and mundane. What is remarkable, in the midst of this, is Jesus’ response. Jesus doesn’t call Judas out. Jesus doesn’t ask him to account for how (erroneously) he’s been spending the money that was designated for the poor. In fact, the very reality that the common purse contained money generally designated for the poor points to this pattern of care for the marginalized in Jesus’ Johannine ministry. Even as Judas seeks to pull him down, Jesus does not point his finger at Judas. He doesn’t twist or distort or even tell the truth in a way that might bring Judas down.
Jesus stays centered, instead, not on the past or even the future, but on the present. In this present moment, Mary is doing a good thing. Yes, she can and probably has and will again do good for the poor. But in this moment, Mary recognizes a need. A need in Jesus? A need among the disciples? Maybe a need between both—she recognizes a need for ritual, a need for connection, and a need for reflection.
And even though Mary had intended to keep the perfume for the day of Jesus’ burial, she changes her plan. She pours it out upon him now. In this moment. Six days before the Passover. Mary, too, lives in the present. She recognizes the importance of the moment. Of living in and for the moment—with an eye to the future, yes—but also doing what she can, when she can, the best she can in this moment in time.
That’s the shame about politics—few politicians are courageous enough to live in the moment. Few politicians are courageous enough to change their plan or do the thing that needs to be done for the moment for fear of how it might be misconstrued by their opponents. When I lived in Reno, NV I was part of a group advocating for affordable housing. We proposed a plan, a good plan, for a new transitional housing project to begin to meet the needs of the city’s growing population of homeless and working poor. Just as we were beginning to gain traction with this plan in the city council, however, those who had expressed privately their support of the project counseled the community organizers involved that they could not publicly support the plan because it would cost city money and it was an election year.
The poor are, indeed, always with us. The good news of the resurrection, however, is that Jesus is still with us too. And in his acceptance of Mary’s act of devotion, in his ministry to and for the poor, in his unwillingness to betray Judas (even as Judas was soon to betray him), Jesus models for us another way. Jesus models an approach to poverty, to politics, indeed, to one another that is based not in fear but in hope—hope for a future yet to come, hope that we can and will, in Christ’s name, make a difference.