Cathy Minuse, April 5, 2020

John 12: 1-8

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 wth 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.”

Mary’s extravagant devotion is the usual focus of commentary on this passage. But I am struck by Judas’s observation and the writer’s aside about it. Judas makes a valid point. Wouldn’t giving to the poor be a better use for money than buying expensive perfume? Once we’ve covered our necessities, how do we apportion our spending between charity and our own comfort and pleasure? Few of us enjoy depriving ourselves. Another question: do the poor care about our motives? Judas was evidently the disciples’ treasurer. If Judas were a hypocrite but some of the “common purse” went to charity would the recipients mind Judas’s hard heart?

No matter his unworthiness, Judas’s observation can make us think about our own priorities and choices, our own personal responsibility. How much do we want to give and how? If money, what portion of our income should we give? If time, how will we fit in volunteering and for what project? Should we hammer nails with Habitat for Humanity or serve lunch with Hope for our Neighbors in Need? If things, what will help us remember to bring cans to put in the food drive basket?

And what about Jesus’ remark? Certainly true: as we walk the streets of NYC we cannot doubt that the poor are with us. Years ago my brother visited from the other side of the country. We took a cab from the airport to Manhattan and had scarcely stepped out on the sidewalk on Broadway when a ragged man approached palm outspread. I remarked to my brother, here’s the Mayor’s welcoming committee. Mayors have come and gone. Still we have a homeless woman living on our block and there’s an encampment up Broadway from the church.

As Jesus’ death loomed (and he must have understood it was coming) he appreciated Mary’s generous spirit. His statement may sound a bit callous. In a sermon he was invited to preach, Kurt Vonnegut posited that Jesus was making a joke, “a Christian joke, which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him about his hypocrisy all the same.” Vonnegut paraphrases Jesus’ words as “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.” I can’t imagine Jesus was counseling complacency or urging us to despair and give up. After all, even if a condition can’t be eliminated, it can be fought. Perhaps Jesus was thinking of the words from Deuteronomy 15:11: “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.” This Lent I wonder how I can better open my hand, while knowing that the poor are always with us.