The Cost of Things

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (12:1-11)

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 with 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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

As I prepared for today’s meditation, reading commentaries and articles about this text from John chapter 12, I was struck by how many authors seem to bend themselves in knots by the ethical complexities of this text. They seem to be particularly puzzled by what to do with this text’s treatment of devotion, money, and the poor.

In the story itself, Jesus is at a dinner in the home of Lazarus, a dinner Lazarus’ family is putting on in honor of Jesus. Remember, it was just a short time ago that Lazarus was dead, it was just a short while ago that Jesus rose him from the dead. At this dinner, Mary comes with a point of costly perfume, perfume that is worth, we are told, three hundred denarii. That would be a jar of perfume worth around $20,000 in today’s money. It is, we are told, pure nard. She pours it over Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair. The entire house, we are told, is filled with the scent of the perfume—easy to believe since she poured out the full pound of it.

Judas, however, is offended by this act. He complains, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John makes it clear that Judas 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.” Several commentators, though, use that line as a shoe-horn into this Gospel, going out of their way to make clear that Judas’ concern for the poor was a fair concern. It sort of devolves from there, I think, as commentators struggle and struggle to talk about how we should care for the poor—even if someone like Judas is suggesting it. They insist that we must always calculate, that everything must always be carefully thought out and thoughtfully done. Surely, it’s always better to use money for the poor… right?

What I find fascinating about this approach is that it takes a text that is explicitly dedicated to the praise of Mary of Bethany, to the praise of her act of devotion, and uses the story instead to praise the shrewd calculation of a male disciple. It seems, perhaps, that for some even Judas is a better hero in a given story than a female disciple. Judas, who said he cared for the poor, but really just cared for the money. Judas, who would later turn around and betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver—a little less than half the cost of the perfume.

Why are we so afraid of extravagance? Why are we so afraid of waste? Why are we so certain that calculation is always better than devotion?

This Gospel reading, indeed, all of Holy Week, challenges our modern calculation mindsets. It forces us to ask ourselves carefully what the greater thing really is. Because it is always easy to use the poor as an excuse to get our way in the church—an unfortunate act that treats the poor as pawns in the game of power.

When Judas raises his concern, Jesus tells him to leave Mary alone, saying, “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 knew how important it was to Jesus to care for the poor, like all the disciples she saw Jesus devote his ministry to caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, healing those who were infirm and thus consigned to a life of poverty.
Mary knew that the in-breaking of the kingdom had profound implications for poverty…

But Mary also knew that the truth of who Jesus was a truth that needed proclaiming.

By pouring this costly perfume over Jesus’ feet she was not only preparing him for burial but declaring the majesty of his identity. Likewise, the church is called to care for the poor, to stand up for justice in the world… but we must never let that function overwhelm the other callings of the church. We are called, like Mary, to point people to Christ, to point people to the one who came into this world as the very love of God in human form.

And to point to Jesus will at times require cost. It will require institutional cost. It will require personal cost. It will require a willingness to let go of our need to look good (as Judas was trying). It will require a willingness to let go of our need for power (that Judas did not want to give up). It will require us to be willing to take that which is most valuable to us and to put it to service in the proclamation of the Good News of God in Christ, to break open the jars of those things and views and objects that we love the most, to break them open and pour them over the feet of Christ, that all might be drawn to the truth of divine love out-poured. Amen.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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