The poor you will always have with you

It is birthday season in our household. First it is Em, then Andrew and then just two days ago it was George’s 21st birthday.

As a family we usually celebrate with a meal, we invite those who we love to join us and we eat lots. Quite often we combine the meal with a treat especially if it a big birthday – a day out somewhere that would suit the birthday girl or boy – for George’s birthday this week we went to the Body World Exhibition – seeing cut up human bodies plasticised so you can see every nerve ending, every last blood vessel – fascinating (and surely this couldn’t have happened by accident, there must have been a designer!), this was then followed by the Science Museum; a very George kind of day out. For Andrew we had a spa day – a time to relax and recoup for the body as well as the soul.

These days are not necessarily cheap days, and being a clergy and student family, we are not rich – but they are worth the cost, because they are a celebration of the love we have for one another, the friendship that we enjoy – and the thankfulness for the many blessings we share.

Today we read the story of another family; Lazarus, Mary and Martha – we know them, we’ve read several stories about this family. They are interesting because they are not disciples in the same way as others– they don’t follow Jesus around as the twelve do, but they seem to know who and what he is and they welcome him into their home regularly. Did they grow up together, were they friends before Jesus’ ministry started? – well it seems so, but we just don’t know. What we do know from previous stories is that they recognise Jesus as the Son of God and they offer him love and kindness, somewhere to call home….a family.

The story we read this morning is not really so surprising – they are friends, they talk, they will have heard from Jesus what he knows is about to happen to him in only a few weeks time. He has after all only recently raised their beloved brother Lazarus from the dead – wouldn’t you want to lavish as much love as much money, and care and gratitude as you could?

The rest of the disciples were there too, each with his own gifts and graces. Judas’ job, we read, was to carry the common purse, but he was corrupt. Of course we know, Judas later betrays Jesus to the authorities, but in this passage he raises a fair question. Why doesn’t Mary sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. It could have bought meals for hundreds, maybe even saved a life or two.

But Jesus assures them that Mary was in the right. In fact, she might even be the model disciple here, prefiguring when Jesus will wash the disciples’ feet just a few chapters away. Each character in the story has his or her own role. Martha, Mary, the disciples, even Judas, all living together seeking to serve.

But none of this makes Jesus’ answer any more explicable. On the surface it doesn’t make easy sense. Jesus, the guy who is always helping out the poor and giving preferential treatment to those in need, accepts — even praises — a gift that could have been sold and the proceeds given to so many others.

Congregations today sometimes have a similar debate — how to spend or raise large portions of money for an organ, for repairs for decorations for the buildings. A church I read about recently in Atlanta, USA once voted not to replace their air conditioner due to the high cost, and gave the money away instead. Then there was that episode of the ‘Vicar of Dibley’ where after much debate they replace the large broken stained glass window with just plain glass and give the money they would have spent away to charity. Other congregations debate that organs are so very expensive and used only a few times a week. Should they be sold and the money given to the poor? Who knows. God speaks to different congregations in different ways. But this passage suggests, that God isn’t always put off by extravagant gifts that are short-lived.

Ultimately, though, this passage is not a lesson in economic justice, but in theological awareness. Mary knew, more than any other of the disciples, that Jesus’ death was near. He soon would be arrested, tortured, and crucified. Mary’s anointing seized the moment, one of the few moments left, with Jesus. Mary’s act of anointing reminds us all of other biblical anointing, anointing of kings, just as she anticipates anointing Jesus’ body for burial. She knew what was coming, so Mary was lavish in living out in the present.

Sadly, throughout Christian history some have used Jesus’ response to Mary, “The poor you always have with you” as justification not to help the poor. These interpreters miss the fact that Jesus was probably alluding to a passage from Deuteronomy which commands generosity toward the poor exactly because “there will never cease to be some in need on the earth” (15:11). It’s a call to action, not inaction. Or the theologian Stanley Hauerwas takes an event further step: “The poor that we always have with us is Jesus. It is the poor that all extravagance is to be given.” Hauerwas: Feasting on the Word, Year C, v2, p. 145

So what is extravagant giving for us? What is a lavish life of service? Well, we know it doesn’t look the same for each of us. At least, not in practice. Some have time to give, others have skills, others give money. Just as we are gifted from God with different gifts, we respond to God’s grace in different ways. But there’s a commonality, and a similar goal.

Following in Mary’s footsteps, in Jesus’ footsteps, isn’t something to do half-heartedly or partway. A few chapters later in John’s gospel, Jesus gives his life, his whole life for all of us. We miss the point if we’re just Christians on Sunday morning. Responding to Jesus’ ultimate gift takes our whole life our whole self every single day.

And if that’s the case, if giving one’s life to God isn’t about a big act or two, but about one’s whole life, then it turns out gifts are hard to measure. It’s like when Paul instructs believers to “pray without ceasing,” he wasn’t meaning to walk around with one’s hands clasped and head bowed all the time. What Paul was getting at in 1 Thessalonians, is making one’s whole life a gift, so much so that every act, every breath, is an offering to God.

Or in our second reading form Philippians this morning Paul says; Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ in my life. In other words, nothing is worth anything if we don’t have God.

When our whole life is a gift, when our every act becomes prayer, then lavish giving comes naturally. There will be times when you feel called to give in a way that the world sees as uncalled for when in your estimation it’s just living a life of service to God. I think of those who give of their professional skills to help others – Doctor’s who give up their holiday time to volunteer for Medicine San Frontiers, Or Lawyers who give their free time to help asylum seekers. Or those who offer their gifts to others beyond those whom they know and love for those who visit in prisons, or hospitals, who give up their time to feed the homeless, to volunteer at Kids clubs or uniformed groups. As a church we offer those who come the best of what we have, the best coffee, food and hospitality – those who help or serve others succeed without judgement or counting cost – just seeing it as their gift to give.

Ultimately, maybe the biggest difference between Mary and Judas, is that Mary gives out of her abundance while Judas sees scarcity. Mary understands the enormous gift Jesus will give, and out of that ultimate gift she sees plenty, grace enough for all. But Judas, well he’s like many of us. He sees scarce commodities, and few resources. If we’re always worried about getting more, buying more, making more, then it’s hard to give because we’re focused on what we don’t yet have.

If, like Judas, you love “more” you will never have enough. If, like Mary, you love “grace” then everything — even life itself — is a gift from God. And giving of oneself is giving out of God’s great gift to us. Let us never forget that like Lazarus, Jesus promises us raising from the dead.

So as we journey to the end of Lent, and look upon Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem and his ultimate gift on the cross, may we be moved to give of ourselves as well — not out of fear or scarcity, but in free response to God’s love and forgiveness. Amen