The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
Christ Church, Shaker Heights
Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought [the nard] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
It’s interesting the amount of attention this particular verse about the poor always gets from people, evoking mostly adverse responses. I say this because the other verses really should draw our attention considering how provocative – even racy – this Gospel story is. Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with this outrageously expensive nard and then wiping them with her hair is scandalous! So, it’s interesting to see people zeroing in on the phrase about the poor and not the racy stuff. One would think that it is Mary’s actions, which are fraught with suggestive imagery, especially in the context of the culture of first century Palestine, would draw attention, even outrage. After-all she is a woman touching a man’s feet in a culture that would have interpreted such an action to be those of a woman of ill repute. And Mary’s hair is down, uncovered in front of a group of men, none of whom is a relative or her husband, another serious cultural taboo. Add to that her taking this exotic perfume worth nearly a year’s salary for a common day laborer, and then using it all up to anoint Jesus, an action seen as one of significant wastefulness, well, at least by Judas! As I said, this is a shocking, suggestive Gospel passage.
But this racy material gets relegated to a secondary status. It is Jesus’ comment about always having the poor with us - offered as a reprimand to Judas when he criticized what he saw as Mary’s wastefulness - that catches people’s attention and even offends them.
What drives this is its seeming contrariness of who we believe Jesus to be. We think, “Jesus should be on the same page as Judas. He certainly would not tolerate such wastefulness when there is so much poverty and suffering that needs to be addressed. Jesus would never sublimate the poor to a secondary status for his own benefit. Jesus wouldn’t utter such a callous comment about people he clearly has a preference for in everything he says and does in his ministry.”
But there you have it, right there in the text. It does seem like he does all of those things. And if that’s true how do we account for it? How do we not lose the Jesus of our faith? How do we reconcile the Jesus who says such a thing about the poor in the midst of such extravagant waste?
I understand people’s objections. This passage is worthy of some study and explanation, not the least because it has been so misinterpreted, and even abused by some folks.
Think about it. On first glance it appears that Jesus is giving his blessing to using money extravagantly in a wasteful manner, to the exclusion of taking care of the poor. This passage has frequently been used to justify a defeatist attitude toward efforts – both secular and religious – to ease the plight of the poor. This argument believes that this scripture tells us that even Jesus sees such programs as a waste of time and money. “See! You’ll always have the poor with you, regardless of what you try to do to improve their situation. It’s hopeless. If this is Jesus’ attitude toward the poor, then why should we be funding Medicaid, Head Start, the SNAP program, and subsidized housing? After all you’ll always have the poor with you, regardless of what you do. Better to use that money in other ways. Better to look after your own needs; be extravagant with yourself, get those things you want. Better to use the money by giving tax breaks to the richest 1% in our society; pour the nard of abundant and aromatic tax cuts on their feet. Then we’ll incentivize a trickle-down economy and we’ll all benefit.”
If you think what I just said is harsh and a bit sarcastic, it’s meant to be. And I’m fine with that because the reality is Jesus could be harsh when people took God’s words, which are intended to build up God’s Reign, and twisted those words to their own devices. Which is precisely what is taking place when this passage is used to justify not funding, not contributing, not volunteering to help the neediest among us. For those who doubt the veracity of this claim, please reference Jesus’ parable about the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25; that’s the plumb line by which we measure Jesus’ desires for our behaviors.
So, is Jesus disparaging the poor when he tells Judas to leave Mary alone, not fret about this extravagant act, because, well, “you always have the poor with you?” Is he telling us to forget them? Is he saying it’s okay to just tend to our own needs? No! He is saying just the opposite. Mary’s actions inform us just how costly discipleship is: just how sacrificial following Jesus will be for us, if we do it faithfully.
Ask yourself this question. Where did Mary acquire the money to purchase the nard? Did she use money from her dowry, thereby jeopardizing her changes at a good marriage, or a marriage at all? Certainly, buying the nard would have diminished her dowry, and her behavior in anointing Jesus’ feet certainly diminished her reputation. It actually put it in great jeopardy. Her seemingly inappropriate behavior would have deterred an eligible man to take her as a wife, even if she had a substantial dowry.
What her actions are intended to do is have us see and understand that in all she did, Mary was sacrificing her own security, her own future, her reputation and her dignity so that she could be a witness of what faithful disciple to Jesus looks like. Mary’s action informs us that the cost of disciple can be expensive.
In her actions Mary risked impoverishing herself both financially and reputationally, so that she could honor the One who taught her how to care for the least of these by his teachings and his example. Can we see in her actions that she loved Jesus because he was the One who taught her that she mattered, that she had value as a person, despite how the rest of society marginalized her as a woman.
Frankly, I think Mary learned her lessons about God’s Reign well, when she was taught sitting at Jesus’ feet. I think that is why she did what she did: in gratefulness to Jesus for recognizing her self-worth. For giving her dignity. Mary’s witness is an object lesson that caring for the least of those among us changes everything; for them and for us.
In this moment of sacrificial discipleship as Mary anointed Jesus so extravagantly, intimately and at great cost to her, Mary teaches us a lesson of critical importance for our own faith lives. It is a testimony of love. Jesus’ accepting and defending her sacrificial gift invites us to witness the sacrificial gift he is about to make of his own life on the Cross. It is through his passion and death that Jesus testifies to God’s abundant love for the world. It is through Mary’s witness that we see abundant love for God’s ways, here and now. Hers is an object lesson showing us that we can sacrifice all we have to live into God’s ways as well. It’s a witness to authentic discipleship.
I think that’s the pearl of great value hidden in the field of this story. When we understand the outpouring of love Mary offered to Jesus in her sacrifice, and then witness the love Jesus offers the world in his sacrifice, we are empowered and encouraged to a life of sacrifice as well, so that we may care for the poor all around us, not ignore them.
The next time Jesus’ words and behavior throw a curve ball at you, remember this: Jesus is always looking to startle us, challenge our assumptions, get our attention, prod and nudge us forward, even if it means shocking us into having us doubt his reputation.
Frankly, you’ve got to watch out for this Jesus guy. He won’t stop trying to get us to build up God’s Reign. He’ll sacrifice everything – including his life - to call us to discipleship.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.