John 12:1–8 (NRSV)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
We started our service this morning with a reading of what was perhaps the shortest sermon that has ever been preached. It’s not even as long as the scripture citation from which it is based.
Jesus stood up at the synagogue on the sabbath day to read from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, [and] to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After rolling up the scroll, Jesus handed the scroll back to the attendant and sat down. Those in attendance weren’t exactly sure what was going on. They expected him to say something.
That’s when Jesus gave a concise exposition of what they had just heard: “today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Boom. Mic drop. That’s all that needed to be said.
[Now, don’t get your hopes up too much after hearing such a short sermon from Jesus. It’ll take a few more than 9 words to fully unpack the word for us today.]
You would think that such a short sermon would go over well with his audience. They could tell him, “nice sermon, Rabbi,” while not being exactly sure what he meant, and then head on home to eat their Sabbath meal.
No, see this was Jesus’s home synagogue. He had grown up listening to the Scriptures read from that pulpit his whole life. It was there that he would have first heard these words of Isaiah: “the spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” The crowd knew who he was. He was no prophet. He wasn’t even the son of a prophet! His dad was a simple carpenter and, while he made perfectly nice furniture, they didn’t turn to Joseph for the right interpretation of the Torah.
Not only that, but this carpenter’s son was putting himself in the position of the great prophet Isaiah. There hadn’t been any real prophets in quite some time, especially none of Isaiah’s caliber. They knew how important these words of Isaiah were, but to them these were the stories of past liberation. It was a reminder of God’s goodness.
How dare Jesus-son-of-a-carpenter insinuate that he would now be God’s instrument of good news. How dare he get their hopes up that now was the time of the Lord’s favor.
Of course, those in the synagogue who were already doing well with the present economic climate of the area may have also felt threatened by these words. Good news to the poor may be good news for those who lack material wealth, but all that goodness has to come from somewhere. The well-to-do probably wondered how much this new anti-poverty program would cost them in lost profit. Those who were just getting by on the fruit of their labors would have been suspicious that the tax collectors would take further advantage of them.
If Jesus was going to really release the captives, then those who had been victimized by those who were imprisoned wouldn’t be too happy either. They wanted justice, and justice they had gotten. Freeing the oppressed would have a significantly negative impact on those who were taking advantage of them.
No wonder Jesus got chased out of town. Sometimes good news can seem like a threat.
In a somewhat longer sermon, Jesus continues to spout this scandalous message: “blessed are the poor, for they will receive the kingdom of heaven.”
No, no, no Jesus. Come on. You know that “God helps those who help themselves,” don’t you? You know that “you reap what you sow.” Those who are poor, in spirit or otherwise, have to start working to pull themselves up before they can be blessed. Jesus, don’t you know that we’ve worked for what we have. Shouldn’t you be saying, “blessed are those who are self-made, who have earned all that they have”? Or “blessed are those who have whatever they want, for their cup runneth over with material blessings.”
Jesus’s words offer a challenge to all of us who do not want, all of us who have so much food that we end up throwing some away, all of us who can just swipe our bankcard for everything we need without a second thought. “Come,” Jesus says, “follow me.”
That’s what Jesus does. He tells, first, some working-class fishermen to abandon their boats and sole source of income to become itinerant, going from place to place, relying on the hospitality of others to survive. The disciples have abandoned their only assets, becoming poor so that they could follow Jesus. Jesus does the same thing with the wealthy. He approaches the rich young ruler and says, “if you truly wish to be perfect, sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then you will be rich in the kingdom of heaven.”
It’s kind of a wonder that this Jesus guy got so famous, isn’t it? He didn’t build any churches. He didn’t have any material wealth or influence on the upper eschaton of society. He was a traveling evangelist and faith healer who went around telling people to give up everything they had for other people.
Why does Jesus make this all so hard?
Because, he says, “the Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
When we think about Jesus’s primary mission, the reason why he humbled himself, took on human flesh, was born in a podunk town in ancient Palestine, and went around teaching people. If try and summarize Jesus’s work in one sentence, we may skip over most of the stories in the Gospel and go directly to the end. “Jesus came to earth,” we might say, “to die for our sins, so that we could be forgiven.” It’s not a bad answer. The cross of Jesus is certainly one of the core messages of the Gospel, the good news. But if you were to ask Jesus early in his ministry what he was doing and why he was doing it, what would he say?
Well, we don’t have to ask that question, do we? He says it right here: “I have been sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Maybe some of those themes should be more pronounced when we try to explain to others who Jesus is.
As Methodist Christians, we do have a long history of caring for the poor and continuing to follow Jesus in this ministry of good news. John Wesley did all sorts of things for the poor, the prisoners, the sick, and the oppressed. He visited them, he took collections for them, he ensured that they received health care, he set up schools and provided housing. The Methodist preachers who followed Jesus’s call under Wesley’s leadership were probably just about as wealthy as Jesus’s first disciples (i.e. not at all!). They went place to place, earning just enough to cover their expenses.
This wasn’t just something that Wesley expected of his preachers. He preached that people should work hard in their professions and build up the economic community through honest dealings, but he also stressed the importance of living well below our means. He encouraged people to pray before they spent any money and to think twice about whether they needed to buy something. All that savings, he said, shouldn’t go to building up our net worth, but rather be given to those who were in need.
Could you imagine what the world would look like if people only spent what they needed and gave all the rest to caring for the poor.
But Wesley also went beyond personal piety. He critiqued the institutions that exacerbated cycles of poverty. He publicly criticized any who exploited the poor, whether they were employers, doctors, lawyers, or distillers who drove up the price of certain commodities. Like Jesus, John and his brother were not too popular among “important” people.
We may not be quite as good at living into this calling in the Methodist church today, but we still do many things to advocate for the poor. Like Wesley, we do this both through hands-on work and through advocacy, in hopes that the systems that exploit the poor will be changed to better care for the economic needs of all people.
When we need encouragement in this endeavor, as we focus on doing ministry with the poor, we can find it in all those who have gone before us in follow Christ in bringing good news to those who are in need. We can see the ways that they caught the spirit in the past for inspiration.
We should be careful though. Not all of those who seemed to catch the spirit of Jesus’s words actually did good for the poor. Just look at Judas!
Judas seemed to be following Jesus with every step. He left everything to follow Jesus. He showed that he knew how important the ministry to the poor was, in part because he volunteered to hold the common purse. Whatever Jesus or the disciples needed, Judas would dole out the money. Whenever there was someone in need, Judas was in charge of distributing the benevolence funds.
As we heard in our reading from John 12, Judas advocated for the proper use of monetary resources. He wanted the disciples to “save all they could,” by not buying things they did not need. So, when Mary took a pound of costly perfume, worth about a year’s wages, and poured it on Jesus’s feet, Judas was perturbed. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”
Judas’s question seems pretty righteous, commendable even! Why would you waste a year’s salary on Jesus’s feet when that money could have done so much good! What does Mary think she is doing? As John tells us, though, Judas didn’t actually care about the poor. He was only interested in building up the common purse so that there would be more money there to steal.
No, in this instance, it is Mary who will be commended for her sacrificial, if extravagantly wasteful, act. Not only does she show us the importance and worth of Jesus, that such pure aromatic oil is what Jesus deserves as the king of the universe, but she unmasks for us Judas’s hypocrisy.
Judas, who makes a big fuss over a $20,000 gift to Jesus sold his savior out for pennies on the dollar. Thirty pieces of silver. A month’s wages. That’s all Jesus is worth to Judas. And the poor? Well, we know how much Judas actually cared for the poor.
Here’s the thing: our care for the poor is a direct outpouring of our love for Jesus Christ. When we recognize how much Jesus is worth to us, we’re willing to give everything we have, like Mary did, not just for Jesus, but for all those Jesus came to save and those for whom he died.
There are many organizations that do great work to help the poor and to build them up to take care of themselves, but our work as a church is more than that. We’re an outpost, an embassy of God’s kingdom. We’re a place where all can see the blessings of God that transcend all material blessings. We’re a group of people who are called, like the disciples, to give it all up for God and our neighbor.
Jesus’s words in response to Judas challenge all of us: “you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” These may be the most frustrating and challenging words Jesus ever said. Why would Jesus be so cynical, so hopeless about what we can do to lift people out of poverty.
It’s true. We wish that we could solve the problem of poverty. We wish that we would no longer have the poor with us, that all could live a life of the abundance we know (at least in part).
But part of our desire to just solve the problem of poverty probably, in part, because we don’t want to have to deal with poor people anymore. We wish everyone could just be self-sufficient.
Sorry, it doesn’t work like that.
Jesus tells us that we will always have the poor with us. Notice the preposition. With. Jesus doesn’t call us to do ministry for the poor. He calls us to be in relationship with them. To remember that all of us are called to give everything up for Jesus’s sake. He reminds us that those we call “the poor” are our brothers and sisters in the faith and are those who have been created in the image of God.
The poor will always be with us. May we always, in everything that we do, be with the poor. This is the call of Christ Jesus our Lord to us. Amen.