One day, I was talking with a guy, I’ll call him Joe. I said, “you come here often, Joe?” “Not much. I can’t get out that often.” “Really, why not?” “Because there are some guys watching me.” “You in some kind of trouble?” “Oh yeah. We are all in big trouble.” “How do you mean? “ It’s the CIA they are watching all of us. So I don’t get out much.”
I walked away from that conversation, looked over at Sister Henry and Sister Hermenieta. They waved at me and smiled. I said to myself. “This person is insane.”
Gospel lesson for today, Jesus says to Judas, “You will always have the poor, but you will not always have me.” That passage has sometimes been interpreted to mean that we do not have to be particularly concerned with people who are poor. That it is more important to pay attention instead to Jesus.
I am not so sure, for a couple of reasons. First of all, this statement of Jesus paraphrases a passage from Deuteronomy 15, which says that we have to care for the poor precisely because they will always be with us.
So Jesus is probably saying that, even as we care for the poor because they will always be with us, there are also times when we also imitate the preposterous abundance of God.
Here is how the whole story plays out. Jesus is hiding out in northern Palestine because some people tried to stone him down near Jerusalem. They don’t like all the changes he is bringing about. They don’t like how many followers are coming after him. They think that his followers will decide he is the Messiah, rebel against Rome under his leadership, and that the Romans will come and destroy everything, which they do, only thirty-five years later.
At this point, Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has fallen ill. Jesus waits two days, because he says this illness will lead to the glory of God. Then he decides to come down to Bethany, where Mary, Martha and Lazarus live. Bethany is in southern Palestine, just outside Judea. Jesus’s disciples tell him, “Jesus, people are gunning for you down there, you sure you want to go?” Jesus says “It’s time for me to go.” So Thomas says “Let us go with him, that we might die with him.”
They go down to Bethany, find out Lazarus has died. Mary and Martha bring Jesus to Lazarus’s tomb, hewn out of the rock. Jesus says, “Roll away the stone.” Martha says, “But Jesus, it stinks. He’s been in there four days.” Jesus says, “Didn’t I tell you that you would see the glory of God?” So they opened the tomb.
Jesus calls, “Lazarus come out.” Lazarus comes out, all bound up in his grave clothes. Jesus says, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
This makes things even worse. Now everybody wants to be a follower of Jesus, because he has now proved that he is the Messiah. Look at this, he brought Lazarus back to life. The authorities want to get rid of Jesus even more.
So this party Mary and Martha and Lazarus throw, it’s kind of a dangerous party. It’s a show of support of Jesus when some people really want to kill him. In fact, a little after the Gospel lesson for today, we find out people kind of want to kill Lazarus too. Destroy this guy who is living proof of Jesus’ power.
A dangerous celebration of God’s life. And here Mary gets this entire pound of perfume, called Nard. Nard is made from the plant called spikenard, which grows in the Himalayas of India, Nepal and China. Had to be hauled a long way. Mary, Martha and Lazarus must have been some of those wealthy folks who followed Jesus. They could afford a place in a rock-hewn tomb for Lazarus: an expensive piece of real estate. Now Mary has spent the amount of money that a day laborer would get from a year of work on this pound of perfume. Nowadays, with a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, that comes to about fifteen thousand dollars, what a regular laborer earns in a year. She drops fifteen thousand dollars on this perfume with which to anoint Jesus’s feet.
Imagine how much you make in a year. Is it twenty-five thousand dollars? Forty? Sixty? A hundred or more? Imagine spending that much money on a pure expression of praise. Because that is what this is.
Mary is not just expressing her thankfulness and joy that Jesus has brought her brother back from the dead. She is expressing thankfulness and praise for the fact that Jesus’ power, Jesus’ hope reaches beyond death.
Mary’s act here reaches back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry, to another act of outrageous abundance, at a different party. Jesus is at a wedding at Cana, where he changes a hundred and twenty to a hundred and sixty gallons of water into the richest, sweetest, most potent sort of wine. This is the first of Jesus’s signs, Jesus’ miracles by which he shows the world what God is like. So here, we know that God likes a party. God likes celebrations of life and laughter and love. And God is outrageously abundant. Now, Mary imitates God’s outrageous abundance, so that the whole house is filled with the scent. Before, Lazarus’s corpse stank after four days. Now the whole house is filled.
Mary is also echoing something Jesus does a few days later, when he washes the disciple’s feet. There, he wipes their feet with a towel, just as Mary wipes his feet with her hair. After washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus says “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” Mary is providing an example of the ideal disciple ahead of time, in that she is showing the depth of love.
Jesus extends the meaning of what she has done by associating it with his own death. That Mary’s act does not just celebrate God’s goodness to her and to her family by raising Lazarus from the dead. It points to Jesus’ greatest and final sign: the crucifixion and resurrection, by which he brings life to the whole world.
From this passage, I guess I would like to clarify why we try to help the poor. Because there are a lot of reasons for helping people who are poor. For example, well fed people with educations and good jobs generally are more peaceful than hungry people with nothing to do. Also, sometimes we help poor people just because we can. For example, smallpox is no longer considered a significant threat to people. It was once a killer of millions. We are on the verge of eradicating Polio as well. We have the capacity to do away with Malaria. We have cut Malaria deaths in half. We can feed everyone. We have enough food. It’s bad roads, bad governments and bad wars that keep us from getting that food where it is needed. We can do a lot.
But that’s not the only reason why we seek to help people as Christians. We help people who are poor as Christians because we believe that there is a power that is deeper than poverty. We believe that even the tiny things we do echo God’s destiny for us, which is beyond poverty, beyond death. We help the poor for the same reason Martha pours out fifteen thousand dollars worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. Because we wish to celebrate the preciousness of God’s life, which has come to us. Which has come to the whole world. That’s why.
I went back to St. Anthony’s center many times over the next four years. Saw Joe again. Talked with a lot of other people, mostly sane. Mostly just trying to get along. It was not an easy thing. It cost me. But Jesus was there. And if I could listen to Jesus there, then I could hear him in all the other places where I went. When we care about the poor, then we sense God’s care about us, touching us this moment, touching us beyond death into that last, eternal party that God throws, that outrageously extravagant celebration.