“Keep the Poor Among You Always”
7 April 2019, Lent V
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
West Walworth: Zion and East Rochester United Methodist Churches
John 12:1-8 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=421294457)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it 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.”
Allow me to clear up some confusion.
Mary, the sister anointing Jesus feet, and wiping them with her hair
Is not Mary Magdalene.
This was a medieval western Christianity legend
That attempted to connect her with an unnamed, sinful woman
From St. Luke (7:36-50).
This was an injustice to Mary Magdalen that is perpetuated to this day.
That unnamed, sinful woman
Also anointed Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair
While he was eating with one of the Pharisees
At his house in Jerusalem.
Likewise, this pair of sisters, Mary and Martha,
Is not the Mary and Martha sisters
- Mary who sits at the feet of Jesus
while Martha waits on them hand and foot -
As depicted in the Gospel of St. Luke (10:38-42).
That pair of sisters lived in the region where Jesus began his ministry,
In the north,
In the region of Galilee.
Great story; different sisters.
John’s Gospel account of Mary and Martha
Is about a completely different pair of sisters,
Coincidentally also named Mary and Martha.
Mary and Martha were common names.
St. John’s narrative about Mary and Martha
Takes place in the south,
In a suburb of Jerusalem called Bethany, and
Includes a brother by the name of Lazarus.
You may remember,
Lazarus was dead, stinking, and rotting four days in a tomb
When Jesus came and raised him from death back to life.
Raising Lazarus from the dead, St. John records,
Led to some Jews in the crowd believing in Jesus and following him,
While others went to the Pharisees and the council in outrage.
The council decided to have Jesus arrested.
Jesus withdrew further away from Jerusalem to Ephraim,
Near the wilderness, and
Remained there with his disciples. (11:54)
When Passover drew near,
Jesus makes his way back towards Jerusalem,
Stopping back in Bethany to have dinner with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
I wonder if Jesus inquired about Lazarus’ health?
Passover is near, and so too is Jesus’ hour.
A number of items from the Gospel of John,
About this act of love, followed by the confrontation with Judas Iscariot,
Catches my eye.
The stench of Lazarus dead four days in a tomb. (11:39)
The smell of costly perfume made of nard,
Filling the house with fragrance. (12:3)
Death and life are contrasted in both scenes.
Corruption, on the one hand, and wholeness, on the other.
Smell calls the observant to attention.
Pause for a moment to smell.
Breath in deeply the smell of Mary’s perfume.
Imagine this house filled with its fragrance.
Rudyard Kipling wrote
“Smells are surer than sounds or sights
To make your heart-strings crack.”
The smell of costly perfume
Can be a foretaste of the Passion that is to come.
One can almost smell the newly crucified Jesus,
His corpse washed and wrapped,
Stuffed with myrrh and aloes and laid in a tomb. (19:39)
Mary purchased the perfume
For the day of his burial. (12:7)
Kings are anointed at coronation.
Priests are anointed at ordination.
The newly converted are anointed by the Holy Spirit.
The dying are anointed on their deathbed.
The dead are anointed recognizing new birth to eternal life.
This very day,
On the eve of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem
Jesus is anointed by Mary, the sister of Lazarus,
As a wonderful, beautiful, loving act of preparation
For Jesus to complete his mission:
To redeem the world,
Reconciling the world to God.
Too often, we experience the love of God, through Jesus His Son,
Moving in a single direction,
From God to humankind,
From God to me.
Mary is one of the rare examples of reversing love’s flow.
She loves Jesus,
Is willing to sacrifice greatly to show him love and compassion.
Mary returns to the Lord the love that first comes from God.
Mary’s love isn’t withheld.
It isn’t miserly or a mere token.
Mary’s love is extravagant, over the top, excessive, enormous;
Exactly like God’s love is for you and me.
We may say we love Jesus.
We often talk about loving Jesus.
Talk is cheap.
Actions speak louder than words.
Mary’s act of love is actually demonstrating love for Jesus.
How might we do the same?
What can we do to actually show our extraordinary love for Jesus?
It is impossible to separate Jesus from the poor.
The Gospel author of John
Recognizes how deeply entwined the message and meaning of Jesus
Is tied to how we respond to the poor of this world.
It is no accident that Judas Iscariot,
The one who was about to betray Jesus,
The one who kept the common purse and used it for his personal benefit,
Brings up the topic of the poor.
True, perfume that cost a year’s wages
could have been sold and given to the poor.
After his skimming, the poor would have probably received a fraction of the proceeds.
Judas wasn’t concerned for the poor.
But, John correctly notes that Jesus was.
Jesus brought good news in tangible ways to the oppressed and vulnerable.
He fed the hungry.
He healed the sick.
He returned the broken to wellness and restored them into community.
Jesus resisted oppressive political, religious, and social systems
That lay at the root cause of the worlds suffering.
There is an important insight to John’s Gospel
That comes from the ancient Greek, so I have learned:
Sometimes the present indicative form of a word
Matches the present imperative;
which is an academic way of saying
“maybe we should read Jesus’ statement not as indication of the way things are - ‘You always have the poor with you’
but as a command: … ‘Keep the poor among you always.’”
(With thanks to Lindsey Trozzo, as found at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3993)
Keep the poor among you always.
Living a life of Christian piety is a life immersed in poverty.
One who understood and practiced piety was Francis Asbury.
This past week I have been reading his biography,
“American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodist” by John Wigger.
Asbury rode thousands of miles on horseback
During the American Revolution and in the decades thereafter,
Preaching the Gospel,
Converting the masses,
Expanding the Methodist movement beyond the wealthy coastal cities
Deep into the wilderness and frontier.
Asbury owned little,
Gave most everything away,
Lived on the generosity of host families.
His primary concern was with the saving of souls,
Bringing people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ,
Then discipling them by organizing people into class meetings.
Class meetings, patterned after the class meetings of John Wesley,
Were led by a lay leader,
Served to support one another in their discipleship,
And to reach out and serve the poor.
It’s rigid discipline encouraged love and devotion;
A modest, pious Christian life moving on towards sanctification.
Asbury avoided the trappings of wealth and power,
Eagerly seeking the farmer, the slave, the common person.
Asbury avoided locating in the comforts of cities on the Eastern seaboard,
Preferring the interior wilderness of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee.
Boarding with a frontier family,
Warmed by their hearth,
Speaking of mortal and immortal concerns,
Warms the heart and quickens the soul.
Keep the poor among you always, Jesus commanded.
Opportunities abound to not just talk about poverty
But to do something about it.
One in five children in America live in poverty.
Of our total population, 48% are poor or low income.
At the same time, 1% of the population own 43% of the nation’s wealth.
The bottom 80% are left with just 7% of wealth.
And that’s just in America.
Love the Lord, the Great Commandment tells us.
Love your neighbor as yourself, it is quickly followed up.
When we can love our neighbors as extravagantly as Mary loved Jesus,
We will go a long ways towards keeping the poor among us
And serving their needs.
Just as Jesus fed the hungry crowds,
So too can we feed those who are unable to feed themselves or their families.
Just as Jesus healed the sick,
So too can we make health care affordable and accessible to all who need it.
Just as Jesus railed against systems of injustice and oppressions of this world,
So too can we.
Breath deeply and smell the fragrance of Mary’s anointing perfume.
Be inspired to love Jesus,
Not just by our words,
But through our actions
With acts of love and charity.
Love God and
Especially our poorest of neighbors.
Roll up the sleeves and don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty.
Serve the poor.
You’re doing the Lord’s work.
Keep the poor among us always.
Be God’s extravagant love.
Let the rest take care of itself.