Jesus and the poor with us always (John 12.1-8) [Sermon 03-13-2016, Lent 5c]


March 9, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for this coming Sunday. March 13, 2016 (my 36th birthday–middle age, here I am). 5th Sunday of Lent. Year C.

Texts for this week:

Isaiah 43.16-21

Psalm 126

Philippians 3.4b-14

John 12.1-8

For those who would rather listen, an audio link is embedded below.


More dinner party drama

In less than a week—by John’s story line—Jesus will be crucified.

But for now, life goes on for Jesus, his friends, and his disciples. Our Gospel lesson this week takes place in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem. Jesus was with his disciples at the home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary, were hosting a dinner in his honor.

As was so often the case for Jesus, the dinner table became a place of controversy that evening. But—as was also so often the case—Jesus found a way to transform the controversy into a teachable moment.

A teachable moment for everyone gathered around the dinner table that night.

And a teachable moment for all of us who gather in his name today.


The spark that ignited the controversy that night was Mary pouring nearly a pound of high-end imported perfume on Jesus’ feet. John says it was pure nard. Nard is a fun word isn’t it? Nard has sort of a dark and clingy aroma. Musky. Spicy notes. Slightly sweet on the back end. It’s an ancient, earthy smell. And oh, it lingers! No wonder, as John says, the house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. I bet that dark and spicy and earthy musk clung to that house for weeks.

Here’s the other thing. The plant you get nard from doesn’t grow in Jerusalem. Nard had to travel nearly 3,000 miles to Jerusalem from the Himalayas. No wonder—as Judas protested—it was worth a year’s wages. It certainly wasn’t something you’d buy on a whim.

I wonder—how did Mary even get a year’s worth of wages? Who just has a year’s worth of wages lying around?

Here’s another thing. Remember why they were throwing this dinner party for Jesus? It was to honor Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead. That’s what the previous chapter—John 11—was all about. Now, you might recall, Lazarus had been dead four days before Jesus showed up. You might even remember what the very practical sister Martha said when Jesus commanded them to open up Lazarus’ tomb: Lord, by this time he stinketh! (John 11.39).

Well, that raises an interesting question: Mary has this copious amount of expensive ointment just lying around. Why didn’t she use it on Lazarus?

Because she was saving it. She was saving it for Jesus. Jesus knew it, too. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, he said.

And this is how she has used it.

This whole story takes me back to the first time Mary and Martha were ever mentioned. That was back in Luke 10. Luke told us that, Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. That evening, Martha was running herself ragged preparing the meal. And she came out and told Jesus to tell Mary to go help her in the kitchen. But Jesus said: Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her (Luke 10.38-42).

I tell you what. The church runs day-to-day, hour-to-hour because of Marthas. That’s the truth. And just after our Gospel reading today—just a few verses down, in John 12.26—Jesus has a blessing for all those like Martha, serving in the kitchen. And elsewhere. Wherever I am, there my servant will also be. My Father will honor whoever serves me, he says. So never put down Martha to praise Mary. Father God honors both. The church cannot live without both of them.

But on this night, it was Luke 10 all over again. Martha was serving. And Mary was at Jesus’ feet. Only this time, she wasn’t just listening. She was honoring him. She was adoring him. She was worshiping him.

All of the Gospels have a version of this story. But if we only had Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s versions, we might think that Mary was acting impulsively. But John’s version makes it clear that Mary knows something, deep down, that the others don’t. She knows Jesus isn’t long for this world. And she has accepted it. She has done the very thing the rest of the disciples have refused to do. Remember, the disciples spend most of the Gospels telling Jesus he’s not going to be killed. He doesn’t have to die. But Mary knows better.

She knows she will not always have Jesus. This thing she does—rubbing the nard all over Jesus’ feet, and drying his feet with her hair—it’s very in-the-moment. But it’s not impulsive. It was exactly the right thing to be done at that precise time.

Mary knows that the man who gave her brother back to her will soon die himself. And so she does the only appropriate thing. She pours herself out on him. When she lavished that costly perfume on Jesus’ feet, what she was really doing was pouring her very being—her love, her thankfulness, her heart—out on Jesus. Her hair cascading around his feet—she’s giving him herself in the most intimate way she can.

To see such an intimate act of adoration and devotion would probably make most of us feel uncomfortable, wouldn’t it? But in that moment, Mary was the perfect embodiment of worship in spirit and truth.

Her worship was extravagant. Intimate. Bodily. And it cost her.

Mary’s worship is all about being sensitive enough to do the right thing at exactly the right time. Mary’s worship is all about being present with Jesus in the moment. She behaves as if there’s no one in the room but Jesus and her. She’s not afraid of giving too much or looking too foolish.

A few days later—the next chapter in John’s Gospel—Jesus would get down and wash his own disciples’ feet. Just as Mary had poured her love out on Jesus’ feet, Jesus would do the same for his disciples. Mary set the precedent.

And not long after that, Jesus would be on a Roman cross. The feet Mary had anointed nailed to wood. I like to think that the scent of her perfume still lingered on them. To remind Jesus that, no matter how forsaken he felt up there, there were still those whose love clung to him. Just like Mary’s perfume.


Mary’s intimate act of worship—the extravagance of her gift, how she used her body, her hair, in adoration of Jesus—it was just too much for most everyone else in the room.

Mark’s version of the story says that, some grew angry (Mark 14.4) when they saw what she did. Matthew’s version says when the disciples saw it they were angry (Matt. 26.8). But John wants us to know it was the turncoat Judas who instigated the outrage. According to John, Judas Iscariot (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?”

Mark said that some grew angry and said that. Matthew clarified that it was the disciples who were angry and said it. But John wants to be sure we all know that it was Judas in particular who started the grumbling.

What’s more, John wants us to know that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.

Of course, I’ve always wondered: How did John know Judas was skimming from the community purse? Had he been caught at some point? If so, why was he still allowed to handle the money? Did they figure it out later—after Judas was dead? After his suicide, did they start counting the money in the community purse and realize a chunk of it was missing? What was he doing with that money, anyway? Squirreling it away somewhere for when this Jesus-as-Messiah thing fell through? I mean, going out and buying a bunch of bling on the road would have been obvious.

Well, John wasn’t interested in answering those questions. He just wants us to know that the one who started the gears of the outrage machine was Judas. A traitor and a thief.

Someone who is fundamentally double-minded and self-serving.

Judas is not the first—and certainly not the last—to pretend to care about the poor just to get something for himself. Our politicians pretend to care about a lot of people—the poor often named at the top of their list—just to grab a few more votes.

You know what’s fascinating here? Jesus doesn’t even call Judas out for being a thief. He doesn’t publicly expose Judas’ ulterior motive. He doesn’t say, You cheating, back-stabbing, two-faced dirty scab! You’re only interested in having a year’s worth of wages to pilfer! That’s what I would have done. He just tells Judas—firmly, but politely—to lay off of Mary. Leave her alone, says Jesus. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.

I have heard these words twisted to play off doing justice to the poor against extravagant worship. That Jesus is saying it’s more important to spend our resources on soul-winning or fine buildings or spectacular praise productions or life-sized replicas of Noah’s ark complete with animatronic animals; than on working with the poor and oppressed and marginalized.

Just remember, though—it’s not Jesus who framed the issue that way. It wasn’t Jesus who said that one was more essential than the other. It wasn’t Jesus who said you had to choose one over the other.

It was Judas.


So let’s talk about Jesus.

It was Jesus who said: You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.

A lost of folks take that to mean that Jesus is perfectly okay with inequality. Why, if Jesus said there’d always be poor people, why should we worry about the poor? If there’s no solution, then is it really a problem?

You know, here’s this week’s installment of preacher confessional: Nothing quite makes me want to slap someone upside the head than hearing them interpret the passage that way.

Jesus was actually quoting Deuteronomy 15. Deuteronomy 15.1-11 is all about how Israelites were supposed to lend generously to their poor neighbors, and be sure to cancel the debts in the seventh year. In one of the most ironic moments in the Bible, we hear this in v4 of Deuteronomy 15: Of course there won’t be any poor persons among you because the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, but only if you carefully obey the Lord your God’s voice. In other words, if the people of God will obey these commands—be open-handed in sharing with their poor neighbors, and cancel the debts as God requires—it should eradicate poverty. But then, in v11, it says: Poor persons will never disappear from the earth. Or, as Jesus said it, You will always have the poor among you.

Do you see why that’s ironic? At first, God’s people were told that if they obeyed the command about the Sabbath year, there would no longer be any poor people in Israel. But then, just a few verses later, they are told they will always have the poor with them.

Why? I suspect it’s because Moses knew full well they wouldn’t obey the commands.

So far from baptizing income inequality—from saying, Don’t worry so much about the poor—you’ll never solve the problem of wealth inequality; Jesus’ point is actually: Yes, do help the poor! You have the rest of your lives to do justice for the poor! But right now, only Mary knows what time it is. Only Mary knows how little time I have left among you.

For Jesus, it’s all about knowing what time it is. Not being sleep, but being woke. And acting accordingly.

You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me. Jesus doesn’t just say that in John’s version of the story. He says it in Mark’s version and Matthew’s version, as well.

So let’s back out of John for a bit. Matthew’s version of this story is found in Matthew 26. The chapter before that is Matthew 25. Where we find that parable about the sheep and the goats. In the final judgment, Jesus tells his sheep: Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

And all the sheep wonder about this: When did we ever see you in such a condition? When did we do these things for you? And Jesus will say: I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me (Matt. 25.34-40).

Jesus says that he has adopted the poor, the needy, the hungry and thirsty, the homeless and naked and imprisoned and enslaved people of the earth as his own family. His brothers and sisters. He cast his own personal lot with them. And whatever good we do for them, we are doing to him.

In this way we do, in fact, always have Jesus with us. He comes to us as the poor and the abused and the hungry and the lonely and the sick and the grieving people we meet. He is with us in their flesh and blood. In their clothes. In their eyes. In their need. And however we are able to reach out to them—when we do, we embrace Jesus.

A year’s worth of wages to make a dying man smell good!

Jesus told Judas; and everyone at that dinner table that night; and all who gather in his name from then on: This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.

Jesus was a poor man. A homeless man. And he was less than a week from dying.

Mary had just poured out a year’s worth of wages to make sure a man who was about to die smelled nice.

Think about that. I bet most of us would call that a bad investment. Poor stewardship. Criminally wasteful.

But Jesus praised her for it.

In Matthew’s version of the story, he says: She’s done a good thing for me (Matt. 26.10).

What changes when we hear the story this way? As a story about Mary doing something of extravagant beauty for a poor man? As a story of sacrificial kindness on behalf of a dying man?

I think that gives us permission to be extravagant. Not selfishly extravagant. Not self-indulgent. But when Jesus says that Mary has done a good thing by spending a year’s worth of wages to make a poor homeless man who’s about to die smell good—that’s an invitation to the church to go and do likewise.

What would extravagant worship look like, if we used Mary’s gift to Jesus as an example? What would our worship space look like, sound like, feel like, even smell like, if Mary’s gift to Jesus is our guide? What about our life together as a church? Our sense of community, of fellowship, of family? What might it mean to welcome each other extravagantly, if Mary’s  welcome of Jesus has anything to say about it? And what about our ministries to our community? To our neighbors? To strangers? To the poor? The homeless? The lost? The hurting? The lonely? What might it mean if, when we started imagining how we will reach out to others, we remembered that Mary poured out a year’s worth of wages on a homeless man who was going to be dead within a week?

What if the point of the story—the message Jesus wants us to take from it—is that nothing we offer in the name of loving God with all our heart and being and will and ability; and loving our neighbor as ourselves; no matter how extravagant it seems; is ever wasted?



2 thoughts on “Jesus and the poor with us always (John 12.1-8) [Sermon 03-13-2016, Lent 5c]

  1. Thank you for this. I am a member of the small Mennonite congregation in Lawrence, Kansas, and I’m speaking in church March 13 on this story. I had already explored a couple of the themes that you highlight, and I found a couple of your paragraphs to be so much more eloquent than mine that I am using them — with lavish attribution, of course! Thanks for writing.

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