“Larry” (I have no idea if this was his legal name) used to sleep under a bush in the back lawn of the church more than a decade ago. He painted apartments for a guy who needed to paint them white between tenants. He worked off the books I imagine. He didn’t want to spend his hard earned money on rent or many of the other things most of us chase. His passion was drinking and that was his life.
He’d often come and sit in that chair in my office and talk to me about his life. One day he comes in with a can of beer and puts it on the table. He says “my life is in that can”.
The complexities of his choice or bondage wasn’t lost on him. He was estranged from his biological family and had lost many important relationships along the way. I was most useful to him as a listening ear to process his life, his losses, his future.
The last time I saw him was a decade ago. He had stumbled into Florin Rd. drunk one night, got hit by a car and broke his hip. He was living in the bushes of the church across the street, trying to make his way around with a walker. I suspect he’s dead.
The Poor You Will Always Have With You
Jesus quotes the book of Deuteronomy when he says “the poor you will always have with you”.
Who did he mean? What is poverty?
If you had to say “my life is in this __________” what would it be?
Howard Hughes died a hermit collecting jars of his own urine. Middle and upper class people expend themselves on exercise to stay fit or embrace monastic or ascetic practices and lifestyles to become spiritual or moral.
When I tell stories of Larry and others people are often fascinated because I think we all see that our story and his is not so different even though much around us says it is. We know that but we ponder the gulf. We want to put Larry in a different class but we know that thin circumstance separates us. We hunger for assurance that his fate and miseries will not be ours and we search our whole life long for the power or the access to secure the glory and joy we desire. Our quests usually bring us to spirituality or religion.
A Magic Man of Unlimited Power
Chapter 11 of the gospel of John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The way John tells the story Jesus intentionally delayed in arriving at his friend’s home so that he would in fact die and that he would be dead for four days. This would demonstrated that Lazarus was actually dead and put him past the three days that Jews at the time imagined the soul would linger with the body. Jesus shows up and calls Lazarus from the tomb in front of a large crowd.
Now I know that some of you will not believe the story because it attests that Jesus worked an extraordinary miracle, but I want you to pay attention to the reaction and ask yourself how believable that would be. A standard religious fable might have everyone who witnessed this or heard about it fall down and worship or believe, but the fallout of this miracle seems to have the air of authenticity.
Evidence for Jesus’ miracle in fact set the authorities on a path to kill Jesus. Why?
Fountain of Youth or Streams of Living Water
Let’s imagine that Lazarus was raised not by Jesus calling him but by the discovery of the fountain of youth. Let’s imagine that upon finding this fountain Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters went to the fountain, filled a jug with its miraculous water, went to the dead corpse of their beloved brother, poured it in his mouth and he arose from the dead. What would happen after that?
It isn’t hard to imagine that of course word would spread, lots of people would hunt down this fountain but quickly those in power, who had governing authority and military might would wall off the fountain and use it as a source of their own power. Wars would be fought for such a fountain but its occupying army would have access to the water to heal their wounded soldiers and return them to guard it once more. The very wealthy and powerful would purchase the water or cut political bargains for it and they would live perpetually in beauty, youth and health while their political enemies, their adversaries and the poor would go on living in frustration and death. The entire history of the world would begin to orient around this fountain.
What if the Fountain were a person?
Now a person having such power would be a very different thing from a fountain. A person decides. A person decides to heal or to not heal. A person with such power could even decide to kill with a touch or a word. Such a person could, in himself or herself, become the center of that world orienting power that we can easily imagine would develop around the fountain. Such a power was exhibited in in the raising of Lazarus and the religious authorities who had credible evidence of this event understood immediately its implications. This Jesus has the power to become their master and therefore became a threat that must be stopped and killed. The decision was obvious.
John 11:45–57 (NET)
45 Then many of the people, who had come with Mary and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and reported to them what Jesus had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many miraculous signs. 48 If we allow him to go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.” 49 Then one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish.”51 (Now he did not say this on his own, but because he was high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation,52 and not for the Jewish nation only, but to gather together into one the children of God who are scattered.)53 So from that day they planned together to kill him. 54 Thus Jesus no longer went around publicly among the Judeans, but went away from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples. 55 Now the Jewish feast of Passover was near, and many people went up to Jerusalem from the rural areas before the Passover to cleanse themselves ritually.56 Thus they were looking for Jesus, and saying to one another as they stood in the temple courts, “What do you think? That he won’t come to the feast?” 57 (Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should report it, so that they could arrest him.)
What does the use or failure to use his power say about Jesus?
So with all of this power,
- the power to still and therefore start a destructive storm.
- The power to raise the dead and therefore to kill,
- the power to feed a multitude and therefore to starve a city
- the power to heal the sick and therefore to start a plague
Jesus hides until a time that he sees fit. Why not confront the soldiers of the religious authorities or even the legions of Rome. Surely he could overpower them and with such power enforce his will, even his justice upon the land. Men have conquered lands and continents with far less, more mundane power, but Jesus waits.
We we’ve noted in the last few sermons Jesus is big on parties. He comes out of hiding for one with this friends.
John 12:1–2 (NET)
1 Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 So they prepared a dinner for Jesus there. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was among those present at the table with him.
At this party an incident develops among his closest friends.
John 12:3–11 (NET)
3 Then Mary took three quarters of a pound of expensive aromatic oil from pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus. She then wiped his feet dry with her hair. (Now the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfumed oil.)4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, 5 “Why wasn’t this oil sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” 6 (Now Judas said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it.)7 So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She has kept it for the day of my burial.8 For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me!”
9 Now a large crowd of Judeans learned that Jesus was there, and so they came not only because of him but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to kill Lazarus too,11 for on account of him many of the Jewish people from Jerusalem were going away and believing in Jesus.
This incident is famous and raising a number of intriguing ideas
- With a miracle man who heals the sick, raises the dead, and can multiply loves and fishes why keep money for the poor at all? Why doesn’t Jesus simply resolve everyone’s problems upon request. Many times he certainly seems to help those who ask.
- The text asserts that Judas, who managed the fund for the poor was corrupt. If John knew about this didn’t Jesus? Why would Jesus tolerate such corruption within his inner circle?
- What is nard for? Would it really be preferable to sell the stuff so that some rich person could use it rather than it being used for Jesus? Is this how God’s economy works?
- Why is it that again and again, of all the disciples this Mary is the only one who really gets Jesus and seems to fully understand what is happening and what is at stake?
The Great Contradiction of Jesus’ Miracles
If you read the Gospels in the Bible you are immediately impressed by the miracles that Jesus does. He was known for his miracles. Miracles always have a certain frustrating quality to them. All those raised to life by Jesus died again. All those fed by Jesus grew hungry again. All those healed by Jesus would again suffer illness. A lake calmed by Jesus would again receive storms.
People again and again ask “why would God allow ______ (some unfortunate or evil thing) to happen.” The question gets heightened with the presence of Jesus. If you were walking with Jesus passing beggars, Roman soldiers occupying the promised land, child molesters and rapists walking among us. Why didn’t Jesus simply fix everything while he was here.
We like to say “give a man a fish he eat for a day, teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime.” Well why didn’t Jesus start a campaign to tell people to dig latrines and keep water sources clean for good sanitation? Why didn’t Jesus give them the secrets of penicillin? How many people would have been saved over the years if antibiotics had been invented? Why didn’t Jesus tell people about germs and viruses? Why not in fact simply magically create a fountain of youth?
If Jesus real goal was simply to give poor people a leg up, or improve crop production, or improve health care, or etc. etc. , then he was remarkably bad at his job. His one-off miracles really didn’t do the trick.
Judas as Social Justice Warrior
Let’s set aside the corruption aspect of the story for a moment. If you look at two co-texts in Matthew 26 and Mark 14 you’ll notice a similar account where in Matthew “the disciples” make a similar protest and in Mark “some of those present” raise the same concern. While so many are poor it seems like bad stewardship to use this costly product for such an extravagant purpose.
The protest is certainly common and valid in many circumstances. We are poor stewards of God’s planet and we regularly misappropriate God’s good gifts so that some of us lavish ourselves with fine and expensive things while others languish without even basic necessities. There is, however, a strange misalignment between this attitude and the creation itself. Life is uneven in many respects. The poorest person can enjoy the greatest joys of love, friendship, raising children, and the glories of nature while the wealthiest person can be crippled by misery and despair while drowning in excess. While Howard Hughes famously suffered in his own wealthy squalor millions of far poorer people enjoyed the happiness of common blessings. Life is like this.
We must also ask what nard is for? Who gave it its qualities within the social context of this conversation? Should God not give us really excellent blessings and the ability to appreciate them but rather just make everything “good enough” for subsistence? The world was made for joy and glory and parties where that joy and glory can be magnified. Jesus comes out of hiding for the party and what would be a moment that should not be forgotten.
Wisdom in Tolerating the Corruption
We should also note that Judas was a corrupt social justice warrior. We don’t really know what all was in the mind of Judas. We can only speculate. My own theory is that Judas quite likely was a true social justice warrior who wanted to see an end to the Roman occupation and the release of his people and homeland from what he consider a cruel and unjust political, economic and social oppression. He hoped that Jesus would use his power to deliver his people from what everyone saw was the most obvious injustices.
It is not to me inconsistent that he also suffered from a personal weakness for money. Name a great hero, MLK Jr., FDR, Gandhi, whomever and you will discover someone who had a weakness for one thing or another. This is how we are. It is an amazing thing to realize that the greatest of us are not that far from the poorest of us. Just as we know Larry’s life could be ours, how many who might have done great things have all the same weaknesses?
If you start to look at the whole picture. Why did Jesus not teach his disciples about clean water and good sanitation or give them key insights into modern medicine? Why did Jesus leave beggars unhealed and hungry unfed? Why did his disciples have a benevolence fund? Why did he tolerate Judas’ corruption in the same way he tolerated his disciples error and ignorance? It’s the same reason a parent lets their child try their hand at cooking or gardening in a poor or haphazard way as they mirror their parent. We are image bearers, sub-creators, stewards of the earth.
Augustine saw here a lesson for the church.
Augustine makes the same point: “See, brethren: He does not say to [Judas], ‘Thou speakest so on account of thy thievishness.’ He knows him to be a thief, yet did not betray him, but rather endured him, and [thus] showed us an example of patience in tolerating the wicked in the Church.”
Bruner, F. D. (2012). The Gospel of John: A Commentary (p. 703). Grand Rapids, MI;Cambridge, U.K.: Eerdmans.
The miracles, the uneven blessings of creation and the corrupt miseries all come together to form this world in which God is working and Jesus is running through with a highlighter. The parts are all being played around him and he is pointing to something beyond the poor and the social justice warriors and the politics and our common sins and corruptions. He is pointing and it seems only Mary is seeing.
Mary, the Most Excellent Disciple
In the midst of the mess that is this Jesus movement Mary seems to be the only one that gets it. She seems to know what nard is for. She understands where this all is heading. She sees why beggars are left and sick people still die and she understands that Jesus will not become some fortress of petty political power or tyranny so that only a select fortunate few can enjoy the glory and the blessings for which all of creation was brought into being. She knows that since this man of amazing power has not used his power to secure himself or force his brand of justice upon an reluctant and rebellious mixed group of chosen and pagan that he is going to allow the only outcome this world guarantees for itself. He will become its victim. They will take fountain of youth and destroy it because they cannot possess its power and wield it for their own end. If Adam had been allowed to continue to manage the garden of Eden he would have done a similar thing to the tree of life. We are exposed for how we are by Jesus’ power and his unwillingness to employ it as we do in our own corrupt and selfish games to make ourselves gods upon the earth. He will die.
None of the rest of Jesus’ disciples see it quiet yet. Mary is his best disciple.
In this story we are exposed.
We are exposed like Judas, his good side and his bad.
We imagine that with the disciples money bag or our organization or somehow bottling Jesus power we can remake the world according to the economics we find to be just or right or good.
We are corrupt in doing so, as we always are tweaking the systems so that we at least eat first or best or most securely. The benefits to the poor and the other are slanted to benefit our own reputation for justice or benevolence so that even in our gifts to the poor we might receive glory.
Into this fray Jesus comes as the tree of live, the fount of living water. He shows his power, shows his love, gives miracles in a particular direction to show who he is and what he is about, but only gives samples of the age to come. It’s probably most important to note the miracles he does not do. He does not use them as we would. He does not use the fount of living water to secure a fortress or a government or an empire along the lines of what we would do.
Mary gets it and anoints him because she can see how his kingdom and the empires of the world conflict and where this all will go. She knows they must kill him if they cannot possess him. They like the two brothers of Luke 15 love the power and wealth of the father but don’t want him. Since he will not kill them he will allow them to kill him, and so she takes what is most glorious, most valuable, and anoints him in the most personal and intimate way.
There is a lot of Judas in the church. We wish to employ the church in our imperial way. If we had the living water, the fountain of youth or the tree of life as our personal possession to wield as our hearts dictate they would all become the ring of Sauron. Again and again we demonstrate that we cannot possess power without it possessing us. We are like Larry with his can, or an emperor with his armies.
Jesus invites us into his other way. Mary shows us the way.
Our inability to “fix” the poor reveals who we are and what our dilemma is. We cannot fix the poor because we cannot fix ourselves. We are no different from Larry. We are not different from the poor. What makes for poverty is what makes us. It is inside all of us. This drives the divisions between rich and poor and fuels empires.
The poor will always be with us and if we possess the love of Jesus we will always be serving the poor. Without Jesus, however, our service of the poor becomes corrupt and a tool for our own glory and a means by which we use the poor to establish for ourselves an empire just like all empires of the world.
The antidote to the worldly social justice empire is the cross and it is this way that Jesus invites and Mary shows.