Today’s Gospel we open with some familiar players. We have Mary and Martha and Lazarus now arisen form the dead. Jesus, the twelve, the crowds and the Chief priests.
Nicholas King puts it this way…
“this meal, which is placed at the same point in the narration of both Mark and Matthew, in this Gospel has an air of a ‘thank-you’ to Jesus for Lazarus’ restoration to life, and Mary’s gesture of anointing, intimate as it is, feels like an act of gratitude.”
A meal of gratitude of thanks giving in which the family is celebrating Lazarus restored. The man who once was dead restored to life.
In the Play Corpus Christi by Terrance McNally we get a little different view of this miracle.
“Simon there was an old man Lazarus. He’d been dead for six days and was starting to smell to high heaven. He had a wife and six daughters. I wish you could hear the racket they were making.
And we do as the DISCIPLES become the WAILING WOMEN.
They are Loud.
Joshua Arise Lazarus.
Simon I think this was one of the practical miracles. I mean, there was no big reason for it. Lazarus was no big Cheese or even especially a nice guy. Joshua just couldn’t stand the noise.
Joshua Shut up, women. Thank you. Lazarus arise.
LAZARUS suddenly sits up. (in the 2006 version everyone screams in horror)
LAZARUS what’s the matter with you? You’d think you seen a ghost!
Joshua You have been asleep Lazarus – not for six days but for all the years of your life. Now live as if your very life depended on it.
LAZARUS How do I live? Teach me.
JOSHUA Be awake every moment and give thanks to God the Father for it. Give back as much – no, more! - Than you have been given. Laugh. Fill your lungs with His good air and Pray. You have all forgotten how to pray.”
So, in this Gospel scene it would seem the whole family took this advice they are gratefully living in the present, they have invited Jesus and the twelve and their companions for a thanks giving meal. In the thrill of the moment and the need to show Jesus her true heart filled with thanksgiving Mary anoints Jesus feet with some expensive oil called nard. Then she dries his feet with her hair. The aroma fills the room.
Something different is happening here. Something unique. Remember in Luke is the first time we encounter Martha and Mary
“She [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore, tell her to help me.’ And Jesus answered and said to her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken from her’” (Luke 10:39-42).
Since then their brother became ill and Jesus was there to revive him, resurrect him form the dead. It was Martha who ran out to greet him …Mary did not come out till word was sent that the master had called for her. It is Mary who believed that “My brother would not had died had you been here.”
Now we meet them again. Martha is busy in the kitchen. Not out of duty but out of Joy for this is her ministry. We find Mary once again at Jesus feet. The place she took to listen and learn from Jesus. In her Joy and in her gratefulness, she chooses to anoint Jesus feet. A pound of Mary’s nard, yes you can find it at Walmart, would sell for 543 dollars today it is cheaper because of mass production. Judas believes it is worth about 1086 dollars either way it is nothing to laugh at this is expensive oil.
So what is an anointing,
“In Old Testament times, people were subject to anointing when they were called to the offices of prophet, priest, and king. For example, when Saul became the first king of Israel, Samuel the prophet anointed his head with oil in a ceremonial fashion (1 Sam. 10:1). This religious rite was performed to show that the king of Israel was chosen and endowed by God for the kingship. Likewise, the priests and prophets (1 Kings 19:16) were anointed at God’s command.”
“’Messiah’ is a Hebrew word translated as ‘anointed.’ In the proximity of the Passover independence celebration, Mary anointed the Anointed. In this passage, we see that the Gospel of John offers a radical view of the power that women hold. Whereas throughout much of Western history the pope (a male) crowned the king (another male) or vice-versa. Here Jesus is anointed (given power) by a woman from the countryside, from the working class, from the laity.
Mary anointed Jesus’ feet
In that time and place, it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman. Still more, women’s loose hair was perceived as being sensual by men in Galilean culture, as it is still true in some segments of present-day society.”
So, Mary choose to anoint Christs feet. She anointed the anointed one. But his feet…why his feet? This Gospel takes place the day before the ride into Jerusalem. This feast takes place before Christ is to be betrayed. This feast takes place before Jesus shall walk the Via Delarosa, the way of suffering. She anoints Jesus feet for they are about to carry him on the most painful, intentional, journey in all of history.
Those feet that carried him for 3 years will have to carry him for just a week more but what a week he is about to embark upon.
It is an emotional time. The family is grateful and joyous. Everyone is celebrating and then we get Judas who interrupts everything with an accusatory tone. Why did you waste the oil that could buy us dot dot dot…John does add the swipe at Judas telling us he is a bit of a thief and though he holds the purse he has been keeping part of it for himself. Which makes it easy not to like him and to feel his motives are insincere at the minimal or downright evil at the max.
Jesus turns and scolds him …Leave her alone! Then He alludes to the future…” let her guard it for the day of my burial…for the poor you will always have with you but me you do not always have.”
It is interesting that there seems to be no more reaction to this than that. We are kind of left with our own thoughts after this. Unfortunately, our thoughts are not always the best.
“What does it mean to fight against poverty, when we face the reality: The poor you always have with you?
Maybe we should start by considering where and how we’ve heard this phrase before. Maybe we should work to re-imagine its meaning. I for one have heard this phrase used to justify apathy or inaction in the face of poverty, to account for outrageous expenditures in luxurious church buildings, to criticize movements that work for systemic change.
If Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” -- so the argument goes -- we should attend to spiritual needs over, above, or instead of tangible needs. “Just a closer walk with Thee” instead of a march on Washington; thoughts and prayers as opposed to votes and legislation. Even at its best, this perspective promotes only individual acts of kindness but keeps the church out of the realm of policy making and community activism. But immediately this interpretation presents significant problems:”
There may be a language problem here there is a way of saying things in Greek such as you will always have the poor with you that can also mean Have the poor with you always. Can you hear the difference? It moves from a simple fact to a command.
With this in mind, let’s return to the story. The disciples and some close friends of Jesus are eating dinner. They are celebrating a life, a life lived and life lived to the fullest. “And Mary (friend of Jesus, sister to Lazarus) brings in a pound of expensive perfume (amounting to what a day laborer would make in an entire year). She pours this perfume on Jesus’ feet and his head.”
There are two times one may see an anointing in Jesus’ time: a coronation and a burial. This scene shows that Jesus is a king, a king that stands in opposition to empire a very different kind of king and it shows that he is about to die. Though he is about to die he remains on mission and reminds those with him; “I am going away,” but the poor are always with you. Keep the poor among you always.
Jesus’ life, journey and mission is anointed by a woman. In a way that stands against all common beliefs and hierarchy. Then that mission is commissioned upon his followers in the very next sentence. Keep the poor with you…keep the poor close…
If we look at Jesus’ walk this is who we are to be concerned with first and foremost. Often the thought is feeding the hungry but there are so many other aspects that come with the care for the poor.
Care for the poor means health care
Care for the poor means Education
Care for the poor means Housing
Care for the poor means Clean water, air and land
Care for the poor means providing safe community
Care for the poor means access too everything I just listed
Once we hear these things and the list goes on, the list goes on to many things I did not cover. The List becomes overwhelming and we much prefer the concept of’ “well we will always have the poor with us.” If we keep this old understanding then we are commission to do nothing or at least not much but if we listen and understand and keep the poor close, keep the poor in our sight, in our thoughts and deeds daily or here is a radical thought, living with and among us not regulated to the poorest part of our largest communities.
Then we are called to keep this anointed ministry going, we are called to not just seek out ways in which we can provide what we can but, we are called to stand against empire. We are called to stand in opposition to systems that allow systemic poverty to thrive. Just as Christ stood against empire. We are called to seek out and create communities of equity and care. We are called to provide clean air, clean water, medical care for all! Whatever you wish for your family, your siblings and your children this is what we are called to provide for all so then shall we seek it for the least of these. And in doing so we too shall stand anointed…Amen.
King, Nicholas. The Bible: A Study Bible. Buxhall, Stowmarket, Suffolk: Kevin Mayhew, 2013. P.2038
Terrence McNally, Corpus Christi: A Play (New York: Grove Press, 1998), 58.