If we had interpreted Jesus’ words, “you always have the poor with you but you do not always me” (John 12:8), to mean we should not concern ourselves with social justice and serving the needs of the poor, we fall for the gnostic trap:
Gnosticism in the early centuries was a belief system that, basically, separated the material realm from the spiritual realm. And, in the gnostic worldview deemed heretical by the early church, this material realm is essentially bad and worthless.
But if we look at the broader context of this text, we can gain a richer and deeper understanding of what is going on here. Especially as this text invites us to experience the senses of sight and smell: “The house was filled with fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). This story is very much rooted in the material reality of nard, perfume, feet, friends, the poor, homes, impending suffering and meals.
We cannot spiritualize this text away to mean something other-worldly, heavenly, eternal — basically disconnected from ordinary life. We cannot walk away from encountering this text only saying, “It’s all about sweet Jesus in heavenly glory and I can’t wait to get there!” Because the stuff of earth also matters dearly to our Lord.
To understand a difficult text it is often best to take a step back and see the big picture, what we call literary context. What are some of the contextual points?
First, the Gospel writer places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem where he will meet with treachery, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. Jesus accepts Mary’s extravagant gift of expensive perfume on the basis of his anointing for burial (v.7). Set in the broader context of Jesus’ passion, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says, “you do not always have me” in verse 8. Because, literally, the time is coming when his friends will no longer see him in human form on earth.
But there is more.
Jesus begins this journey to the cross by coming home. Bethany, in some respect, was the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, whom Jesus “loved” (11:5). These are Jesus’ dearest friends. We say home is where the heart is, where we encounter family and friends. Home is a place where we feel safe to be who we are and know that we will be accepted by our loved ones no matter what. Understandably Jesus begins a difficult journey by first touching base in this holy place for him. This text begins with friends gathering around table for a meal.
A holy place, as I have heard from many of you over the past few weeks, is an event, experience or physical place where we have met God and God has met with us. It is, to some degree, a place of comfort, stability and grounding — where we feel revitalized and energized. We want to go there. From this holy place we are able then to re-engage the world refreshed with renewed vigor and commitment.
Holy places are defined by transformative relationships. Even when we are alone, so to speak, in that secret place of our hearts or sanctuary, God is with us. And we are called from that place forward.
The holy place for Jesus is not simply escapism to a Caribbean beach or any other dreamy landscape where we are protected from any discomfort. Our true holy places are not about withdrawal or drugged immunity from challenge and conflict. Otherwise those holy places just keep us addictively stuck; they do not serve to grow us as people of faith.
It gets muddy in those holy places. Judas complains. And the reader knows what he is doing with the common purse: he is a thief, up to no good. We also know that he will betray Jesus in a few days. This is part and parcel of the holy place experience. Holy places in the presence God do not buffer or sanitize us from harsh reality. They keep us on our toes. And they ultimately pull us out of ourselves and challenge us.
Lest we shy away from going to our holy place, be encouraged by the implied promise of this text: From this holy place of Jesus’ emerges a great, extravagant, gracious and valuable gift. And this gift, this treasure, is not discarded and dismissed as wasteful. The gift of Mary out of gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, the gift about which Judas bitterly complains as ‘wasteful’, this gift is received and accepted by Jesus.
Everything in our lives is valuable to Jesus. Jesus values and deems important those very material concerns of our lives, and the lives of those in need — the poor. When I pray to Jesus for help often the answer may not be what I want. But the affirmations that often come are in the form of material reality. In other words, voices don’t boom from heaven. Lightening doesn’t strike in the moment of prayer. Supernatural responses don’t come so much as does a phone call from the accountant, a letter in the mail, the words of a friend, the seemingly unconnected event — all shed a clear light on the matter of prayer.
Perhaps, if anything, I am called during Lent and by this text to pay attention to the daily, ordinary, earthly matters of my life. Therein Jesus is present, active, and values each ordinary decision I make. Because it’s important to him.
But it’s not just about my material needs. Mary makes a supreme material sacrifice, likely foreshadowing Jesus’ even greater sacrifice of love.
You have the poor with you always. Serve the poor. By focusing on serving others we let go of those distractions and obsessions of life that keep us trapped. You heard the advice given by the new pontiff, Francis, who advised his Argentinian church members not to spend money on attending his installation in Rome but rather to give that money to the poor.
But know this: In that good work, pay attention to the presence of Jesus who is always with us and guiding us and supporting us. We do live in the shadow of the cross. But we also live in the presence of the risen Christ. We may be surprised, in all our work for good.
So here is an invitation to daily companionship with Jesus — at the Table, in extravagant acts of compassion and generosity, in moments of worship in those holy places. (p.145, H. Stephen Shoemaker, Feasting on the Word). Because Jesus will not abandon us.
So, come! Come, eat with us. Come, share this time with us. Commune together with God and with one another. Come, join together with the people of God in holy places defined by relationships of love, to serve those in need and celebrate the great treasure we have and that we offer to the world.