You always have the poor with you

You always have the poor with you

Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent
John 12:1-8

“You always have the poor with you,” Jesus said in response to Judas’ objection that Mary was being wasteful in her anointing of Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. “Why,” Judas said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” And then, because in John’s view Judas has already shown himself to be a villain and a cheat, that little parenthetical statement is added: “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.”

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“You always have the poor with you.” It is not hard-heartedness or fatalism that leads Jesus to say this, nor is it to be taken as a statement of God’s will. This side of the fully realized Kingdom of God, it is simply and sadly true.

When I was in university I spent a couple of years working for a juvenile probation unit, running recreation and work-experience programs for young offenders. One of the kids in my programs kind of attached himself to me, and even after I’d moved on to another job he’d call me and arrange to go out for a hamburger or to shoot a game of pool. He was a hugely likeable young guy, full of life and laughter, who’d grown up in rough home in a rough neighborhood. The offense that had landed him up on probation? He’d robbed a Dickie Dee ice cream cart. Never mind that the kid working that Dickie Dee bike knew who he was and where he lived—it wasn’t the canniest of crimes—it was still robbery, and robbery is not taken lightly by the justice system.

He was 14 then, he’s 50 now, and he still calls me several times a year. The call often comes from the hospital, as he’s lived a pretty rough life and now has serious liver trouble from drinking and diabetes from a bad diet. He might be 50, but because he’s lost most of his teeth, he looks more like 70. If the call isn’t asking me to come to visit him in the hospital, it will be to ask me to help out with some emergency groceries. He’s never been much good with his money.

“You always have the poor with you.”

He’s also never had a job. Aside from his participation in that work experience program all those years ago—where we had the kids to things like rake lawns and deliver flyers—he’s actually never worked for any kind of pay. He’s now on a disability, but before that it was social assistance; year after year after year of social assistance. He was raised by his mother who also never had a paying job, nor did any of his grandparents. His five adult daughters are all living on social assistance, as are all of his grandchildren. Generation after generation after generation.

“You always have the poor with you.”

The idea that people actually pay income tax is a complete mystery to him. In his world, income tax is something you get. You take the paperwork issued you by your welfare worker and you go to one of those Income Tax services, and in short order they will tell you how much you’ve got coming. You have the option for an “instant rebate”… at a cost of 15% on the first $300 of your refund and 5% on the rest. My friend has never been able to resist the temptation of the immediate rebate. Right away a year of living pretty close to the bone becomes a few days of spending. In his drinking days it meant a lot of beer; now that his liver is in such bad shape, it means maybe a big screen TV, or an expensive new stroller for one of his grandchildren, or maybe a leather jacket and high end leather boots. It is a feast or famine way of looking at the world… feast hard, and then wait out the famine for another year.

“You always have the poor with you.”

We’ve made several bold attempts at getting him to organize his money differently, including one in which I was to hang on to his income tax money and then dole it out in monthly installments. He was still drinking then, so less than six hours after he gave me his cash—something like $750 dollars that year—he was knocking on my door asking for more. Out front was a cab, with an aunt and two of his cousins, obviously out on a tear. My short career as a banker came to a rather abrupt end.

“You always have the poor with you.”

Jesus knew people; knew the human condition in all of its ups and downs and complexities. He also knew the torah, and I suspect he was actually riffing off of a teaching from Deuteronomy: “[T]here will never cease to be some in need on the earth.” “[T]here will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” followed by, “I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land,’” which is of course what Jesus did with the whole of his life. Steadily, he opened his hand, his heart, his life to the most broken and needy in his world, sometimes to the point where it seemed to rather exhaust him physically and spiritually. But he did it.

Yet here in this scene from the Gospel according to John, he also opened himself to the rather extravagant gift lavished on him by Mary. He says more to Judas than just “You always have the poor with you,” he says, “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.” He points, in other words, to his own approaching death, and to the fact that Mary’s anointing of him—the Hebrew word “messiah” meaning “anointed one”—is an implicit recognition of who he truly is.

And as the theologian Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez notes, this act is also one that quite powerfully puts money in its proper place. “The perfume price,” comments Pérez-Álvarez, “was 300 denarii, namely, a yearly salary; but Mary didn’t care. She put that recently coined money in its place: at Jesus’ feet. Golden heaven’s streets send precisely the same message: gold is to be stepped on…” Pérez-Álvarez also notes that in the Gospel according to John, Jesus’ ministry is launched with a wedding banquet marked by an extraordinary abundance of wine; some 400 liters, in fact. It is this abundance that is, in a sense, confirmed by Mary’s act of anointing; an abundance that courses through John’s gospel account. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus proclaims, which is not about endless consumerism or shallow notions of prosperity. It is life in its fullness, both in the promise of a fully realized Reign of God, and here now, in the meantime, tasted in the wine of the wedding banquet at Cana, seen in the wildly loving act of Mary in her anointing of Jesus feet, and—I would want to suggest—in art and music and words that feeds our souls, opens our imaginations, and reminds us that even in the dreariest of days, grey is not the only colour on God’s palette. I am reminded of how the philosopher of aesthetics Calvin Seerveld engages this act of Mary’s, saying that, “When art is crafted for God and neighbour… [it is] spilled like an offering of perfume as this woman did.” It is not a waste… never a waste.

Yet because Jesus is also concerned to remind us that, “You always have the poor with you,” abundant life must also be expressed in that Deuteronomic call to, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.” Whatever I have to offer to my friend—visits in the hospital, a bag of groceries here and there, perhaps even one more attempt to help him manage that income tax rebate a little better—it must be offered with the open hand of Deuteronomy 15:11; hands open in a way that is free of all moralizing or scolding, tempting as that can be. That, along with a profound and humble gratefulness for the ways in which my own life has been marked by the abundant and extravagant love of Jesus, poured out like perfumed oil.

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