Always With Us
On a visit to friends in London 22 years ago, I found myself a guest for lunch at the home of one of their friends. When that gentleman heard that I lived in New York City, he lit up; he asked me if I were familiar with New York Hospital. I was. He proclaimed with deep fervor, “They saved my baby!” It turns out he’d been working in Manhattan ten years earlier, and his only child was born during that time. He was very premature, had many health challenges, and it was reasonable to think that he might not survive. But through many interventions, he did survive, and was now a strong, healthy, active boy. More than two decades after this brief kitchen conversation, I still remember it because of the profundity of that man’s gratitude. Hospital staff had saved the life of the person he loved most in the world, and his gratitude clearly would last the rest of his lifetime. He would sing the praises of those nurses and doctors every chance he got. How can any of us repay the ones who save a life? How do we repay for a miracle?
Of course Mary of Bethany spent a year’s wages – 300 denarii – on a pound of perfume to spread on the feet of the man who had raised her beloved brother from the dead. Of course she had decided to forego many things for a long time in order to afford it – maybe the family would eat less, wear their shoes down to tatters. Of course she wiped his feet with her hair; what a gesture of humility by her and of honor towards Jesus. How can she repay the one who gave her brother life? How can she honor him enough? How can she show him how much what he has done means to her? How can she show the depths of her love, the depths of her thanks? In truth, there is no adequate way for her to do it, or for any of us. All Mary can think to do is some over-the-top extravagance. She could have bought inexpensive perfume and anointed his feet all the same, but that wouldn’t be enough. Nothing was enough. All she could do was take it to the hilt.
Judas was right. If you want to honor Jesus, why not feed the poor whom he loves, begging for a crust of bread in the streets of Bethany? When you think about how many desperate people could be served, lifted up, even saved from death by starvation with your annual salary, how can you spend it on cologne? Do you spend $1,000 on shoes, or $125, or $12.99? Think about how you spend your money, says Judas, and how you justify as necessities things you don’t really need, but want. Think about all the money that you actually have to give away, and be honest with yourself about whether you truly want to do it. Judas has a challenging question for Mary and for us, and we do need to let him speak to us, make us uncomfortable, and perhaps even change. We live with such a mindset of scarcity; we begin our thinking about our material assets in a place of doubt and insecurity. We see what we don’t have and not what we have. We feel vulnerable of losing what we have. In truth, we live with such abundance, not scarcity! We are the non-poor in the wealthiest society in history. Judas is right.
And Judas is wrong. Mary’s ointment is an amazing gift, a spectacular act of true generosity. Her humility is genuine; his is self-proclaimed. He puts her down publically; he humiliates her in the name of his own humility and compassion. He is clueless as to this irony. Mary isn’t; she just keeps her mouth shut. She leaves it to Jesus to name what is happening. Mary is all action – here she acts out of her love and gratitude. It is not enough for her simply to feel these things for Christ; she has to show her love and gratitude physically, concretely. Let her be a model to all of us in our relationships with those whom we love, to all of us with real compassion for people who suffer, especially those whom we do not know. Love-in-action is the way of the followers of Christ.
It is not the way of Judas. He is Mr. Righteous Indignation. There is nothing more tiresome than his kind of company! Such people get under our skin very fast – holier than thou! We can all probably think of examples in our sphere of relationships, from the mild to the extreme. Jesus described them as people who decry the speck in their neighbor’s eye without noticing the log in their own. As Mary shows us, we should never be in competition with one another for good deeds; we just do them because it is right. We care nothing for who notices; we simply act on our compassion. As Judas shows us, when we notice other people’s love-in-action, we are not to diss them, compete with them, or diminish their goodness. We should only evaluate them, or join them, not because it makes us right, but is the right thing to do.
The truest acts of generosity in our own lives – especially those done for the sake of God and Christ – are not gong to be noticed, or be seen as responses to our love and gratitude. We do them anyway, and with greater fervor! They will not get us a tax deduction, a dedicatory plaque; they will not be naming opportunities (although these are always welcome at Princeton University!). We will not get something concrete in return for our acts of generosity, and so some might say they are a waste of money. You don’t get a trophy for giving money to the poor. In fact, the best gifts we give to others are often intangible; they disappear into thin air as soon as they are done. A genuine word of condolence to someone living with loss; a book - read and put away; a gift card spent and done. The flowers on our altar are gifts given in memory of loved ones; but they will wither as all flowers do. They grace our services and end up in the trash. The anthems that are such wonderful gifts to us from our choir – the effort and time in rehearsal, the purchase of music – the voices fill the Chapel, and then the last notes fade into silence and are gone. So many of the gifts that fill our days are so temporal; they glow for a moment and then fade. And yet, they’re not gone – they move us, they lift us, they change our spirits’ trajectories, we are different for having had them. If we can nurture whatever goodness they brought to us, we make those gifts live in us always, and make them our inspiration to “go and do likewise.”
Always with us – yes, the generosity shown to us, the gifts given to us – they live on. Always with us is also our opportunity at every moment for humble, extravagant acts of Mary-like generosity. That’s why Jesus reminded Judas and us that the poor will always be with us. Judas (and we) will always have an opportunity to be generous to the community he loves so much. Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 15:11 “The poor you shall always have with you. Therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother [and sister], to the needy and the poor in the land.” Jesus knows that human hard-heartedness and greed mean that humanity will never choose to eradicate poverty. Yes, the poor are always with us.
So is Jesus Christ. He tells Judas that he will not always be among them – indeed, he knows that Judas will be the very one to betray him. Mary spent 300 denarii to honor Christ; Judas will cash him in for 30. In his despair, Judas will later take his own life, never knowing of the resurrection. Now Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age.
Just so, God our Creator is always with us. Sometimes we doubt that. Sometimes life is very, very hard. The Judeans in exile in Babylon doubted that God could possibly be with them. They had gone through hell. They had lost everything. Had they lost God as well? The Prophet Isaiah, in our passage for this morning, reminds them of God’s miraculous presence throughout their history by way of reassuring them that God is with them now, and is restoring them to their homeland. We all suffer, and sometimes we wonder if God is no longer with us. Isaiah tells us that God is always with us, even – or especially – when we find it difficult to believe that.
Always with us – always with us are the poor; always with us is the opportunity for generosity, the opportunity to live out our love and gratitude to God and Christ through extravagant acts of mercy, kindness, justice towards others. Always with us is the chance to gift those around us with what they need – a word of encouragement, a gesture of hope, a fleeting thing of beauty that fades and vanishes but leaves us changed, enriched. It is always with us.
Always with us are God the Creator, Christ the Savior, the Holy Spirit our Sustainer. They accompany us with power through every challenge or delight. Their love and faithfulness are unwavering. Certainly we have all that we truly need, and all we need to be extravagant in acting out our love and gratitude for every gift that continues to fill our lives.
Feasting on the Word , ed., D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, Year C, Vol. 2, John 12:1-8, pp. 140-145.