https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png 0 0 Tom James https://www.toledoeastminster.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Title3-05.png Tom James2019-04-10 14:25:002019-10-30 08:25:07Extravagant care (John 12.1-8)
Extravagant care (John 12.1-8)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church/Lent 5C (April 7, 2019)
What’s the most important thing about human beings? What is it that makes us human? Twentieth-century philosopher Martin Heidegger said that perhaps the most important thing about us is that we care. “Caring” is more than what we do for other people, or for our pets. Caring is the basic pattern of our lives. We care not only for our loved ones, our animals, our friends—we also care for ourselves, for our bodies, for our projects, for our cars, for our yards, for our futures. Why do we care? We care because life is short, Heidegger believed. We care because things in our lives are valuable to us, and they are valuable to us because we know we cannot enjoy them forever. Care is related to our mortality, to the fact that we must die, and to the fact that we know it.
Have you ever had a brush with death? Maybe a bad car accident or a near miss? Perhaps you have struggled with an illness or have been concerned about the results of a medical test? I don’t listen to country music very often, but there was a crossover hit a few years ago about the singer’s wish that everyone could learn to live as if they were dying. Because it is only when we are faced with our mortality that we can truly experience the rare value, the treasure, that even the simplest details of life embody. It is also, perhaps, only when we know that we are dying that we are willing to take the risks that can truly make us alive.
In the movie, “The Bucket List,” two old men from very different situations in life but united by a terminal diagnosis of cancer discover together how they might truly be alive in a way that they had not been before. It involves wild things like sky-diving and mountain-climbing, of course (what would a “bucket list” be without those things, right?), but it also includes much riskier and harder things like mending relationships with estranged family members, and learning how to be open and vulnerable, when they had taught themselves to be invincible, and independent.
In other words, even though it takes terminal illness to do it, they learn how to care. In our gospel text for today, though, we witness an act of care that is inspired by someone else’s impending death. We read this passage during Lent because it is clear in the Gospel of John that Jesus drops by his friends’ house with full knowledge that he is making one of his last stops. Mary, because she seems to know it, too, pours out an amount of expensive perfume that might have cost her the equivalent of a year’s wages. This would have been a kind of burial preparation. She really cares! She cares enough to spend an extravagant amount, some might say a ridiculous amount, an amount all out of proportion with the good that it might do. After all, anointing someone for burial is not going to be able to fend off the stench of death for long when Jesus is killed. These kinds of acts, as impressive as they are, are not going to reverse the processes of nature. She can’t save Jesus by her act of love. So why expend so much of her wealth for the sake of such a futile cause?
Judas is a realist, it seems. Judas knows the value of a dollar. He realizes that extravagant acts of love are not going to save Jesus from his fate; he knows Jesus’ death is inevitable. In fact, a little later in the story, Judas sees no reason not to hasten it by betraying him to the authorities. In light of such inevitability, in light of such futility, wouldn’t it make much better sense to cut your losses and use your resources for something more useful? Couldn’t a year’s wages do a lot more good serving the very pressing needs of the poor? In fact, isn’t that the only sane strategy?
For a follower of Jesus, it’s pretty hard to argue with Judas’ logic. We think of Judas as the bad guy, but here he wasn’t far off from what Jesus had preached hundreds of times. In a world of haves and have-nots, in a world in which the rich regularly trample the poor, how can a Christian, a follower of Jesus, justify using her money on such a hopeless and even trivial cause, when the needs of the people are so screamingly evident? In other words, Judas cared.
But we all remember Jesus’ famous response. “The poor you will always have with you.” Now, we have struggled to understand these words over the centuries. Often, we have used them to justify our own indifference to the presence of the poor in our cities and towns. In that way, we have been probably worse than Judas, who was, apparently, not indifferent. Giving to the poor would not release them from the conditions that have made them poor, but it would make life just a little better, at least for a while. But I worry that we today quote Jesus from this text, and when we as North American Christians use his words to throw up our hands at the inevitability of poverty in our society, we do so in bad faith because it turns out that we have the power to do something about it. In a world where productivity is so high and technology is so advanced, there is no reason why anyone should go hungry, why anyone should not have a roof over their heads. So, when we say that there will always be poor people, I wonder if we are not excusing ourselves for our unwillingness to do something about it?
Why did Jesus say it, then? Perhaps he wasn’t making a prediction about what kinds of macro-economic conditions we should expect in the future so much as making a more fundamental point about the kind of world we live in. In fact, in Greek, he doesn’t say, “You will always have the poor with you.” Rather, he says, “The poor you always have with you.” Not a prediction, but a present statement of fact.
But what does it mean? In a zero-sum world, a world of scarcity, you have to act fast, or forever have missed your opportunity. But the real world, Jesus seems to be saying, isn’t scarce in that way. The real world is abundant and full. Mary’s offering of expensive perfume, her extravagant outpouring, gives witness to an abundance, a grace, that Jesus himself has been announcing and enacting in his three years of public ministry. And, though it may seem odd to say it, the poor themselves are abundant, too. That is to say, the poverty of the poor cannot be dispensed with by means of a year’s wages. Selling the perfume and giving it to the poor would not have changed anything. Judas seems to forget that the calling to faithfulness issued by the realities of poverty and other kinds of human need is constant and persistent. We cannot escape the moral and spiritual claims the poor put on us. We can’t hide from their presence. We can’t get around the fact that they are here, with us in the world, in our communities. Poverty is not necessary—we really could end it—but as long as we have it, the poor are always with us. Philanthropy like the kind Judas is trying to advocate is often a way to separate ourselves from the poor, to satisfy our conscience that we have done what we can. Philanthropy can be of making ourselves feel better, of shifting responsibility for a society that allows poverty away from ourselves. Jesus wasn’t going to let Judas do that—and I don’t believe he will let us do that, either. The poor are always with us.
In contrast to Judas’ carefully measured philanthropy, in contrast to his desire to be useful and pragmatic, Mary’s gift is extravagant. But it is only an echo of the extravagant love of God, poured out in the life of Jesus, flowing out to embrace her. This kind of extravagance is not a sign of carelessness, but of care with no bounds, a care that believes in God’s abundance, a care that is not afraid of death, a care that is prepared to give everything. This kind of care is not the anxious, fearful care that Heidegger found when examined human experience, but a kind of care that joyfully believes in the kingdom of God—a kingdom in which community is possible among enemies, in which togetherness and care between all kinds of people begins to take shape, in which being a neighbor is not something you are because of where you happen to live but is instead something you do.
We live in a time in which anxieties over scarcity are probably higher than Judas’. We hear it in political debates of all kinds at the national level. We hear it in conversations about the fate of our congregation and its assets here. We care. But scarcity is not the truth. The truth is that our lives are filled with treasure just because we are embraced by a love that is insistent and persistent. We are graced with abundance because we are connected with God and with each other, and the resources of energy, imagination, and love that are available to us are therefore almost unending. The truth is that we are wealthy, not because of our bank accounts, but because of each other, because of our relationships that have lasted decades or even generations, because of the persistent calling of the poor among us, because of those who walk the sidewalks of East Toledo, because of the ceaseless presence of those who invite us to faithfulness in our midst, because of the endless capacity to be neighbor.
Judas is not the realist of the story, actually. Judas lives in a fantasy world, a world that isn’t real at all, a world of separation and segregation, a world of alienation and distance, a world where relationships are optional and easily dismissed. It turns out that Mary, with her extravagant gift, is the true realist. And not because Mary knows that Jesus is going to die—Judas knows that, too. No, Mary is a realist because Mary knows what it means for Jesus to live. Mary is in touch with the deepest reality of Jesus’ life, and ours; and that reality is grace, the grace of expensive perfume, the grace of costly time, the grace of insistent love. And so may we be also. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.