by Raymond Pickett
Professor of New Testament
We are coming towards the end of our Lenten journey even as we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Gospel of John. The Lazarus story marks the turning point of John’s narrative, and Mary’s anointing of Jesus is the closing scene of an episode that began with Jesus raising his beloved friend (maybe the “beloved disciple”) Lazarus from the dead. Life for Lazarus means death for Jesus, just as death for Jesus means life for his followers. The stench of death is once again in the air, but is countered by the aroma of love and life. Just as Jesus confronted death’s hold on Lazarus, now Lazarus’ sister Mary unashamedly attends to Jesus as he prepares for his death. All this to say that in the Fourth Gospel, as in life itself, we are always moving from life to death, and from death to life! It doesn’t matter whether you are at the beginning, end, or somewhere in-between on your journey.
I heard a cardiologist say in an interview the other day that at the level of the cell life is defined in terms of there being more energy in the cell than outside of it. Just as in the Lazarus story death and life are inextricably linked, so also for us death and life are gauged by the life giving or denying power of our thoughts, words and deeds. Lazarus, who had been decaying in a tomb for four days, was not the only one under the spell of death. When we lose touch with the Source of Life, we find “death” stalking us. This is true of Judas in today’s Gospel, but not for obvious reasons. Yes, Judas will come to a tragic end, but already in the home of the Bethany clan he is unable to discern the signs and smell of life in his midst. Mary’s extravagant expression of love toward Jesus stands in stark contrast to Judas’ protest that the money from this expensive perfume should have been given to the poor.
I know that we are inclined to identify with Mary here because Jesus affirms her. We always like to think of ourselves as the person who does the right think so that Jesus would be proud of us. Hindsight is 20/20 and everything is clearer in retrospect, but come on. We are talking about a pound of nard worth almost a year’s worth of wages in world where people are trying to eek out a living. I doubt that there is a church council in the ELCA who if confronted with such an excessive and expensive act wouldn’t raise their voices in dismay and disbelief: “she did what? Just think of all the ministry we could have done and bills we could have paid with that money”.
Judas has the chutzpah to ask a question I could imagine most of us asking: “Jesus, couldn’t you have used these resources to more effectively address the needs in our community?” Judas is asking a justice question, is he not? But the problem is that Judas has already been demonized and blackballed. So the narrator impugns his motives and paints him as misguided thief. But Judas is probably a more complicated character than he appears here, as are we all. The truth of the matter is that we will never know what was going on inside of Judas, and neither does the narrator.
But just for the fun of it and in the spirit of Jesus, let’s take the high road and give him the benefit of the doubt here. Let’s assume for a moment that Judas actually cares about the poor, and about justice. What stands out then is Jesus’ haunting reply to him: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”. What’s up with that? Doesn’t this contradict everything Jesus stands for, not to mention the teaching of Torah? In fact, Jesus here may be alluding to Deuteronomy 15:10-11:
Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”
Do Jesus’ words betray an indifference to people in need, or an act, a practice more radical than the collecting and distributing of charity?
A co-worker of Dorothy Day tells this story about her. A donor came into the Catholic Worker and gave Day a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her for it and put it in her pocket. Later a rather demented lady came in, one of the more irritating regulars at the house. Dorothy took the diamond ring out of her pocket and gave it to the woman. Someone on the staff said to Dorothy, "Wouldn't it have been better if we took the ring to the diamond exchange, sold it, and paid that woman's rent for a year? "Dorothy replied that the woman had her dignity and could do what she liked with the ring. She could sell it for rent money or take a trip to the Bahamas. Or she could enjoy wearing a diamond ring on her hand like the woman who gave it away. "Do you suppose," Dorothy asked, "that God created diamonds only for the rich?"
Mary’s insight and affection are impressive in this scene. She is a prophet who grasps the gravity of moment and acts with reckless abandon. So profound and humble was her act of devotion that it may have been the inspiration for Jesus washing the feet of his followers.
Mary here is operating according to the Divine economy that cherishes the dignity of life and embodies lavish giving, and that is difficult not only for Judas but for people like us who are so deeply conditioned to calculate the net value of every exchange and put a price tag on everything
Einstein evidently had a sign hanging in his Princeton office that read: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." Mary’s act is pure gift - without a hint of calculation. In this respect she treats Jesus as he treated others. It is interesting that word for “poor” is used only twice in John - both times by Judas. I doubt very much that Jesus used that label or thought of himself as dealing with the “poor” per se because he seems to utterly disregard economic and social categories. He sees human beings who bear the image of the Creator. How does one calculate or put a value on that?
Today we commemorate the life and witness of Bishop Oscar Romero. We know him as the Bishop of the poor in El Salvador who was martyred while celebrating Mass. But Oscar Romero was a surprise in history. He was 60 years old when he became bishop, and his appointment was met with surprise, dismay and even incredulity. The poor never expected him to take their side and the elites of church and state felt betrayed. He was a compromise candidate elected to head the bishop's episcopacy by conservative fellow bishops.
He was predictable, an orthodox, pious bookworm who was known to criticize the progressive liberation theology clergy so aligned with the impoverished farmers seeking land reform. But an event would take place within three weeks of his election that would transform the ascetic and timid Romero. The new archbishop's first priest, Rutilio Grande, was ambushed and killed along with two parishioners. Grande was a target because he defended the peasant's rights to organize farm cooperatives. He said that the dogs of the big landowners ate better food than the campesino children whose fathers worked their fields. The night Romero drove out of the capitol to Paisnal to view Grande's body and the old man and seven year old who were killed with him, marked his change. On that night Romero passed from death to life.
How does a bishop undergo that kind of conversion at 60? Evidently Romero had been seeing a therapist for some time about his compulsive perfectionism, a perfectionism he said “that makes me lose much human richness in my relationships”. This is something he wrote in a journal: “I must be more natural and spontaneous in affection”. Somehow in his encounter with the campesinos of El Salvador Romero ceased counting and calculating with regard to himself because the campesinos helped him discover what really counts. Romero became their friend and brother, their companero, and it changed his life and theirs.
For the last several years that I taught at the Lutheran Seminary Program in Austin we took students to the border the week before school began for a cross-cultural immersion. We would simply tag along with congregations doing ministry on both sides of the border. At first I would always brace myself for what could only be described as extreme poverty as we crossed the border and traveled to the colonias in Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo, and Renosa. Frankly, I was always initially overwhelmed until we gathered with the people in these Mexican congregations around worship and meals and they taught me about hospitality, about how to let go of myself, to quit counting and calculating and celebrate the gift of life abundant.
Sisters and brothers, perhaps we who have never washed another person’s floor, let alone someone’s feet with our hair or expensive perfume, need to learn from Mary, form Jesus, from Oscar Romero and all those humble people who do not live according to the world’s accounting principles just how extravagant is this love that inspires Mary’s devotion to Jesus, who is for us the bread of life; a love and devotion that moves Jesus not only to wash his followers feet but lay down his life for his friends, which include you and me!