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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 5, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 21, 2010

John 12:1-8

You have poor people with you always’

When Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus, it is not just a sensual gesture of devotion. It is financially extravagant too. John tells us this perfumed oil – pure nard – is worth about a year’s wages. One commentator suggests we imagine four litres of Chanel No. 5. Judas protests that the perfumed oil should have been sold and the proceeds used for the relief of poverty. We are focused on making poverty history, he says, bringing economic good news to the poor, not high-cost, extravagant displays of devotion.

Not only does Jesus defend her, the Gospel holds up Mary’s action as the model of getting it right, and contrasts it with Judas’ outburst, which is the model of getting it wrong. In the narrative structure of John’s Gospel, this story occupies the same place as the one in the other gospels where Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Simon Peter says, “You are the Messiah”. In that story, Simon Peter gets the dubious distinction of being both the one who gets it, and then a moment later when he objects to Jesus’ prediction of his imminent suffering and death, the one who doesn’t get it. Both these stories are crucial turning points in their respective gospels. They mark the point at which Jesus starts talking openly about the impossibility of his mission ending up anywhere other than with his conviction and execution. And they show us contrasting images of those disciples who get it (the life that comes through death), and those who try to dissuade Jesus from such a course and persuade him of some other way.

In commending Mary’s action, Jesus offers a particular interpretation of it. He doesn’t compare her action to the festive anointing of a king. He suggests that she is anointing his body for burial. In other words, she gets it. She is not fighting him like Peter and Judas, suggesting that he should find some other way, some way of triumph and defeating the enemies. No, she gets it. She sees that his championing of life for all in the face of the forces of death will inevitably have them turning their sights on him. His insistence that there are no insiders and outsiders, no clean and unclean, no worthy and unworthy, no deserving and unlawful non-citizens, can only end in provoking the fury of those who maintain order and control by dividing and sacrificing. Such provocation will inevitably make him the one who needs to be sacrificed. Mary gets it, and Jesus describes her loving foot massage as her knowing preparation of him for burial.

But why would Judas’ plea on behalf of the poor be dismissed as “not getting it”? Judas’ approach is turning care of the poor into a moralism or legalism that robs it of joy and drains the life out of it. “You can’t do this. It’s too expensive. You must think of the poor instead.” It becomes simply a burden, and when that happens, it creates anxiety, then resentment and disillusionment that lead to inaction. Judas, also, is not seeing that what Mary is doing is precisely where service of the poor in the name of God begins. For in lavishing her gifts in preparing the sacrificial victim for his burial, she is serving the poor.
She is attending to the one who represents all the victims of the callousness and greed of this violent world.

Service of the poor is always actual service of particular people. It is not just general do-gooding. And while there are times and places when we need to be sober and measured and careful so as to ensure that our resources meet the most urgent needs of as many as possible, most of the time, the Gospel call to love others as Jesus loves us means to lavish whatever we have on those who are right in front of us right now. Extravagant generosity to someone might not bring an end to poverty, but it is a sign of new life in God. Jesus said, “You will always have the poor with you”. This is not a statement of resignation. He is not saying, “O well, there is nothing you can do to end poverty, so don’t worry about it”. Rather, he is saying you will never be without opportunities to serve the poor (they are to be “with you” in community)
so understand where true compassion begins.

Compassion begins in knowing the love and freedom of God. It begins in experiencing the freedom to respond in extravagant devotion to the one who would rather get himself nailed by the powers that be, than allow the violence of their exploitation and impoverishing to go unchallenged. For it is when we grasp how extravagantly generous God has been to us, and how, in the Spirit, reciprocating that generosity to others is actually showering our love and devotion on Christ, that we will find ourselves growing in compassion and motivated to care for the needy and the most vulnerable. It is from such a place of love and freedom that a lasting commitment to the ways of mercy and social service is born.

What we are doing in worship is pretty extravagant. We are spending a couple of valuable hours expressing our love and devotion for the crucified and risen Messiah. We choose to do that in ways that are somewhat lavish and could perhaps be accused of being wasteful. Some might even say that spending two hours like this is wasteful when we could be in the streets doing something useful for people in need.

But Jesus said it was Mary who got it right, not Judas. Jesus affirmed her in her honouring of his way of the cross and her devotion to him as the one who carried the pain of all the broken, of all the poor and needy. And if we are understanding aright, then the apparent extravagance of our worship will give rise to a compassion that takes flesh in the service of others.

While Jesus could say to Mary and Judas, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me”, here in the giving and receiving of the life of God in compassionate service of others, we find that the poor with us and Christ with us have become one and the same thing, and no gift is too costly and no devotion too outrageous.

When have you experienced care for the poor as a debilitating moralism (creating anxiety, resentment, disillusionment – leading to inaction)?

What kinds of devotion – or gift-giving – have helped you to become a more compassionate person?
Is there something you might like to give to someone else who walks a tough journey in costly love?
… Amen.

Based on reflection by Nathan Nettleton.