Fifth Sunday In Lent

by Crossings

John 12:1-8
(Fifth Sunday In Lent)
analysis by Steve Kuhl

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5″Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

DIAGNOSIS: Our Hidden Poverty

Step 1–Initial Diagnosis: Hiding behind (“robbing”) the poor
One of our enduring problems is deciding what we should do about the poor among us. We agonize (and rightly so) about political, economic and social strategies that will truly help the poor. But the text identifies a deeper problem of the poor among us. It identifies the way Judas (and we) hide behind the poor, giving the illusion of concern, but only to betray them and advance our own self-interest (v. 6). Health care reform, welfare reform, are all undertaken to help the poor, or so the rhetoric goes. But whose pockets get lined in the process? The fact that “the poor are always with us” gives us the answer: not the poor, but we would-be helpers, the Judas’ of the world. As such, the persistent presence of the poor in our midst represents more than failed economic and political systems. They represent our thievery, our greed, our moral poverty, though always well-hidden.

Step 2–Advanced Diagnosis: Hiding from Jesus, the Poor One
Judas hid behind the poor not only to rob them of their due, our charity, but more for the purpose of hiding from Jesus and rob (betray) him of his due: faith and devotion. This he did in a satanic (i.e., accusatory) way (13:2) by pitting devotion to Jesus against helping the poor (v. 5). The absurdity of this opposition is evident when we really look at Jesus who is truly the Poor One in our midst. He is in complete solidarity, not opposition with the poor. Never once did Jesus throw a dinner party; he couldn’t afford it! He always had to accept the charity of others (v. 2). Yet this tactic of pitting service to the poor against devotion to Jesus is one of the greatest temptations to faith. True, the fact that “the poor are always with us” should cause us to worry about our failure with regard to them: our thievery, greed and moral poverty. But to relieve that worry by piously hiding behind the poor and from Jesus is far worse.

Step 3–Final Diagnosis: Condemned Already.
The worst thing about hiding behind the poor and from Jesus is that, in the final analysis, that will be precisely all we have left: the poor and no Jesus. Moreover, the poor will not always be there to hide behind. They will always be there, however, not as a security to hide behind but as our accusers, or more precisely, God’s accusers of us: exposing our thievery, greed, moral poverty. But the Poor One Jesus will not be there. He will be silent. Only the accusing voice of the poor will be heard; and they will confirm what has been true all along: that a world hiding behind the poor and from Jesus is a world that stands “condemned already.” (3:18)

PROGNOSIS: Our Defense on Which We Are Banking, by Faith

Step 4–Initial Prognosis: “Leave her alone,” says the Poor One
All that has been said thus far about Judas is also true for Mary and us in so far as she and we heed Judas’ words, his criticism and the implied solution to hide behind the poor and from Jesus. Indeed, the diagnosis would be the end of the story unless Jesus himself comes to her and our defense and shouts, “Leave her alone!” Here Jesus does battle for Mary and us against the pious but false words of the satanic Judas. But the depth of the battle is more than a shouting match. Jesus knows that the poor are more than just poor: they are God’s truthful accusers against us. Therefore, Jesus’ defense of Mary is not a call to ignore the poor as poor, but it is intended to silence their role as God’s chief critics against us. The time in history at which this silencing was accomplished was the cross, “the day of my burial” (v. 7), as Jesus puts it. In the burial of the Poor One Jesus, God’s condemnation of us is buried; and in his resurrection salvation is come, now, already.

Step 5–Advanced Prognosis: “Keeping it for the Day of my burial”
What Mary is doing by her devotional act is applying the benefits of the “day” to herself. In other words, it is an act of faith. Faith alone is the way she appropriates and “keeps” (v. 8) for herself Jesus’ hard won salvation on the cross. Even though that “day” (v. 8) of Jesus’ crucifixion had not yet fully come, for Mary what Jesus later won on that “day” is applied already to faith. By the same token, even though we latter-day devotees express our faith in his death far after-the-fact of that “day”, what that “day” won also applies to us now, already by faith. Faith is the very opposite of hiding from Jesus. It is, rather, a matter of identifying with him, the Poor One, in his death (v. 7), publicly and completely, including the use of ritual and liturgy.

Step 6–Final Prognosis: Serving the poor always
As we noted in the initial prognosis, Jesus’ rebuke of Judas is in no way a rebuke of service to the poor. On the contrary, when Jesus dismissed Judas from the table at the last supper, the presumption of the disciples was that Jesus wanted Judas to go and “give something to Poor” (13:29). Service to the poor and devotion to Jesus are not at odds. They are correlatives, like fruit on a vine (15:5). Devotion to Jesus (i.e., faith) and the victory it brings over all condemnation is precisely the boost we need for endearing the poor to ourselves. For those of us who live by faith, the poor no longer carry with them the intimidating judgment of God. Quite the opposite is true. The poor now remind us of the Poor One Jesus himself. So reminded, serving the poor now becomes for us an integral part of our devotion to Christ, an act of faith in its own right.


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