Charity and Justice
Some years ago a student came to speak to me about many things. He was a Christian, very devout. Our conversation turned to the suffering of so many people across this country and around the world who live in poverty. We spoke about what our faith means in terms of our commitment to those who are poor. We talked about what comprises a life of dignity – that it isn’t large houses and fancy cars but a good education, sufficient nutritious food, healing health care for whatever health challenge comes anyone’s way, the opportunity to choose a profession to which one feels called and to be trained to do it, homes that are safe. At the conclusion of our conversation, alas, the student exempted himself from concern about any who are poor. He said with a shrug, “Well, as Jesus said, ‘You always have the poor with you.’ Whatcha gonna do?”
Whatcha gonna do, indeed! That young man is not the only Christian – far from it – who has interpreted Christ’s words as a fatalistic acknowledgement that poverty is a fact of human life – permanent, unchangeable, inevitable. Christ was undoubtedly quoting Deuteronomy 15:11, “There will never cease to be some in need.” The testimony of his life’s teachings, of course, is not that poverty is an acceptable societal flaw. The great majority of Christ’s parables and teachings recorded in the New Testament concern poverty and wealth, and the sinfulness of societies and individuals who make their peace with economic injustice. Jesus was a rabbi who knew his texts – he knew that the verse in Deuteronomy that acknowledged the ongoing fact of poverty was preceded by verses that instructed on how to end poverty – by the forgiveness of financial debts. Were this to be done, as we read in Deuteronomy 15:4, “There will be no one in need among you.” Jesus knows that the perpetuation of poverty is the choice of societies, and he looks right at Judas and says, “You will always have the poor with you.” Judas, who steals from the common purse; Judas, who laments that Mary did not put the three hundred denarii that she spent on perfume into that common purse for the benefit of the poor (which he could then take) – yes, Judas will always have the poor with him. Every person and community that would rather enrich itself than end poverty will always have the poor with them, among them. Jesus grew up in the synagogue, and he learned his community’s faithful teachings on how to eradicate the scourge. He grew up looking at the very human people around him and he saw how holy plans were argued away with common sense and practicality. He looked at the poor around him and declared, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” He looked at Judas and said, “You always have the poor with you.”
There was someone else present in that Bethany house who understood Christ. She had saved up a year’s wage, 300 denarii, and she didn’t give it to the poor through Judas’ purse, she gave it to the Messiah. Christ, who loved the poor, saw her extravagance not as pulling food from the mouths of the hungry but as his very anointing as Messiah and for the day of his death. The advent of the Kingdom of God is the day when God, at last, will be all in all. Human hunger and thirst will be over. All miseries will be past. The day of peace that wipes out all oppressions will be upon us, and night will be no more. Mary knows enough to believe that all the promises of her God will come true though the man who is a guest in her house. She doesn’t give her years of savings to Judas, she gives it to Jesus. She “blows” it on perfume for his feet. She may not know where those feet are going – to Calvary – but she knows that they tread a holy path – the way of hope, the way of salvation.
Mary not only pre-anoints Jesus for his burial, as he notes, she arguably formally anoints him the Messiah. In ancient Israel God would elect a prophet to anoint another man king, as Nathan anointed David. The one who anoints is the one who is given power by God to effect the kingship of another person. Mary anoints Jesus, by the power of God. She anoints with oil not his head, as would happen with any other king, but she anoints his feet. She takes many, many thousands of dollars worth of ointment and she makes it something he will step on. Did we need any further reminder that riches are not what matter? That all the material things we hold dear will one day be trod upon, or turned under the soil, in a garbage dump, renovation, or scrap heap? The word “messiah” means “anointed;” let’s remember who did that anointing, and where she located on his body her precious nard. It was not the stately head but the lowly feet, our feet – the servants of all that we plan and hope to do.
It was women and slaves in those days who served the feet of guests – the free men of the house were considered above it. Christ Almighty takes joy in being anointed King of Kings by the woman who kneels at his feet. No only does she anoint him Messiah, by the application of perfume to his feet, she then dries his feet with her hair – her long, loose, free-flowing hair. Then, as in some communities today, uncovered, unbound hair on women was considered too sensual and tempting to men to be acceptable in polite society. The women who wore their hair loose became equated with having “loose morals.” In front of a group of honored strangers, including the one whom she knew to be Messiah (he had, after all, resurrected her brother Lazarus from the dead), this woman let down her hair so that she could dry Christ’s very feet with it.
In that room, the counter to all of Mary’s faith and hope is Judas. Judas publicly scolds her for not giving all her money to him – I mean – to the poor. Christ publicly calls him out on that – he says “Leave her alone.” In my reading I hear anger in those words of Christ. I think he was incensed that Judas would co-opt the language of solidarity with the poor in order to get this woman back. In this, Christ calls out all the people who publicly shed crocodile tears for the suffering of others while they do nothing about that suffering. And in doing so, Christ makes a critical point of distinction between Judas and Mary, between charity and justice.
On its surface there is nothing wrong with charity – with giving away some of what we can spare to the organizations and communities that we know we like. We should continue that. But we must, if we are Christians, also do justice. Unless we do, we will always have the poor with us. Charity is about giving, justice is about changing – changing the structures that impoverish and oppress. Charity is about speeches; justice is about action. Judas talks a good game, but look who really cares about the coming reign in that Bethany living room. Judas and charity are about piety; Mary and justice are about audacity. Charity is easy; justice is hard. It challenges relationships and privilege. Charity is about affordable generosity; justice is about sacrifice.
We really will always have the poor with us if we are charitable rather than justice-seeking; we will have treated symptoms rather than root causes. Let us strive to live not safely, like Judas, but courageously and outrageously, like Mary. Judas talked such a good game about caring and compassion while he used a culture of charity to do as well as he could for himself. Mary upended all that was supposed to be taking place in order to testify to a new kind of king, a new kind of kingdom, a new way of relating to all of earth and heaven. She tells us not to accept the way things are if they are unfair, hurtful to some, or demeaning. It is our choice – every society’s choice – of how we should relate to one another, and what we should accept and condone for people’s quality of living and dying. Our religious communities, among others, have always been proposing faithful ways in which to change our heartless acceptance of others’ misery, and to change therefore the structures by which we live together, such as the Deuteronomist’s call for the remission of debts so that “There will be no one in need among you.” Jesus, anointed as the Messiah who will be murdered and buried soon for us all, knows one of society’s great change-agents when he sees her – not the unctuous disciple who kindly volunteers to keep the common purse, but the woman at his feet with holy unction who lets down her hair in testimony to a whole new way to relate to others, to Christ, and even to God on high. May we have just one denarii worth of her faith and courage, and there will be no one in need among us.
Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez, www.workingpreacher.org, 3/13/16, John 12:1-8.