Pastor Roger Barkley digs into John 12:1-11 where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. He also shares the meaning of the often misused passage, “The poor will always be with us”.
John 12:1-11 April 7, 2019
Last week, I was looking for some clip art for the order of worship I was making for Nicole’s memorial service.
I was scrolling through various options of “In memory of” pieces when I came across some that allow you to customize them by adding the name of the deceased, but the way they show it is “In memory of ‘your name here’”.
Well, it stopped me cold.
We all know that there will come a time … but this sucker punched me.
Out of the blue, my own collision course with death felt real and immediate.
Today’s passage from John 12 is bracketed with death.
It opens on the scene of a family dinner honoring Jesus, who in the preceding passage had raised Lazarus from the dead.
No sooner had he done that than he learned that the religious leaders were now planning to kill him.
Really, how could the priests keep control of things if a prophet was roaming the countryside miraculously feeding the poor, ignoring their boundaries between the righteous and sinners, and now raising dead people?
And then the passage closes with Jesus being anointed for burial plus the shocking revelation that the chief priests are plotting to kill Lazarus as well.
We’re offhandedly told that Lazarus is lounging at the table with his sisters, Jesus and the disciples.
Given that a couple of days before he had been rotting in a tomb, the image of Lazarus chatting away while dipping his flatbread in hummus is almost comical.
You know exactly the questions that’d I’d be asking him:
What was it like when you died?
Did you see a light?
Did you see loved ones from the past?
But we don’t get to eavesdrop because the conversation is abruptly interrupted when Mary breaks open a jar of expensive perfume that she massages into Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair.
It is a shocking moment – not just because of the extravagance of this gesture; this perfume was worth a year’s wages – but also because of its sensual nature.
A first-century woman would only let down her hair at bedtime, and here she is on her knees, bent over Jesus and massaging his feet with perfumed hair.
She may have intended this to be an expression of extravagant gratitude for what Jesus had just done for her family, but Jesus sees it differently.
For him, this is the anointing of his corpse for his burial that only he knows will come within the week.
John 12:7 Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial.”
Jesus may have raised Mary’s brother from the dead, but in one way or another, Lazarus will die again.
Only Jesus’ sacrificial death will bring lasting life.
This is when Judas Iscariot pipes in with his disingenuous concern for the poor.
Jesus’ answer, commonly paraphrased as “the poor will always be with us” has often been used to justify apathy or inaction.
We hear this a lot in the big “prosperity gospel” churches who promise riches to the faithful and blame the poor for their condition.
In fact, the first church I attended somewhat held that attitude: We’re here to work on ourselves, to spiritually grow, to become successful.
Yes, there are problems out there and there always will be – the poor will always be with us; my church time is about me.
But the Greek, though a little confusing, does not say that.
John 12:8 You will always have the poor among you can be equally well translated as Have the poor among you always, or even Keep the poor among you.
These second translations are more consistent with Jesus’ teaching.
You see, Jesus knows that he is about to leave these men and women whom he’ll charge to continue the ministry he began, and looking at them he says, Have the poor among you always.
Jesus was referencing Deuteronomy 15:11
There are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous, open purse and hands, give to your neighbors in trouble, your poor and hurting neighbors.
We live in the most Christian of the industrialized nations, and yet at least 46.5 million people, including 1 of every 5 children, are living in poverty, an increase of more than 9 million since 2008.
It doesn’t feel to me that we’ve quite gotten what our Lord was talking about.
So, this short portrait of an intimate dinner is bracketed with death, and so is a microcosm of our life.
We have a few decades here, and if we are not careful, we miss how precious and fleeting they are.
In his book, How to Be Here, Rob Bell tells about visiting a man he’d not met before who was in late stages of cancer.
The man was pale and frail, lying in a hospital bed set up in his living room and the first thing he said to Rob was, “They don’t get it. They just don’t get it.”
The man was realizing how few of us appreciate the gift of life until it is almost over.
The likelihood that you are alive is infinitesimal – it is by pure grace.
Every breath you take, every tree you see, every meal you eat, every person you love is a gift.
That’s why all the great religions have a practice of regularly spending a few minutes contemplating the end of our life so that we can appreciate the life we have.
If you haven’t tried to write your own obituary, give it a try.
That little exercise is not meant to be morose, it is to help you see the gift of today, of this moment and of all that you have, as well as to help you get in touch with what’s really important to you.
It’s like doing a Marie Condo on your life, not just your closets.
Fortunately, like our lives, today’s narrative is not just bracketed with death, it is also bracketed with love.
First, there is the love of family hosting this meal with friends, and then the extravagant love shown by Mary wiping Jesus’ feet with luxurious perfume, and the loving sacrifice Jesus is about to make for all of us.
Jesus had an impossibly difficult week ahead.
In the morning he would enter Jerusalem cheered as king by people who would then turn on a dime and jeer him.
He would be betrayed or denied by members in his inner circle, arrested, endure the frustration of a mock trial, be beaten and then crucified.
But I suspect that Mary’s extravagant love helped him through it all.
I suspect that in the midst of all that suffering he thought back to Mary’s love and felt comforted and encouraged.
If you’ve ever experienced this kind of love then you know what it means to be loved forward into your future.
When Ian was attending UC Berkeley, he’d sometimes take the Greyhound bus home, even if it didn’t arrive in L.A. until close to midnight, just so he could spend a few days with us.
We didn’t do anything special when he visited.
We just had dinners together and hung out, but the love we have for him would recharge him to go back to the demands of school.
We were loving him forward into his future.
I think Jesus took Mary’s love with him into Jerusalem.
He may have been reenacting her love when he washed the feet of his disciples, even those of Judas who was hours away from betraying him, and Peter who would soon deny even knowing him.
I think he remembered her loving care when he gave his long, sometimes poetic teachings about love, including John 15:1 “I am the vine you are the branches” and John 15:9 “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love.”
There are people in your life who need to be loved into their future.
Before yesterday’s memorial service, a friend of the grieving mother came to me deeply concerned about how she can help.
I said that she can’t fix the problem or erase anyone’s pain.
The greatest love she can show is to not disappear on her, as often happens to friends after a tragic death because they feel awkward and don’t know what to say.
I said her greatest gift would be to just be present for her friend and to listen, and then listen some more.
I said it will be an act of love to invite stories about Nicole this year and next and next – never thinking that bringing up the name of her lost child will somehow make her feel bad.
Because when you’ve lost someone, you’re already thinking about them all day long and if we can’t talk about them then you end up feeling isolated in your pain.
That is how to love her into her future.
I am sure you know someone who needs to be loved into their future.
They also might be grieving the loss of a loved one.
But it might also be facing a financial crisis or illness.
They might be feeling insecure or depressed or shamed, and more than anything they need you to love them into their future.
So, we choose how to live this life that is bracketed both by death and by love.
I found Rob Bell’s discussion so helpful as he highlighted some ways we turn our backs on life.
He points out that boredom is lethal.
Boredom says there’s nothing interesting, or challenging or important left to do.
We’ve all seen the studies about how common it is for men who had been executives, to die within a few years of retiring.
Once they left the careers that had absorbed their life, they had nothing else and literally gave up on life.
Cynicism, Bell says, is just as lethal, and I would add that it is virulently contagious.
Cynicism poses as wisdom, but it actually is a toxin oozing from a wound.
Cynicism acts as though it’s seen it all and knows how the world works, smirking at others’ efforts, shooting down new ideas and courageous efforts as childish.
My dad was one of the most cynical people I’ve known – deeply wounded and protecting himself with an armor of put downs and criticisms.
He spoke as if he was above it all, but really, he was crying out that he wasn’t a part of anything.
If you keep everyone at arm’s length, then they can’t hurt you.
But maybe the biggest life killer in our culture is comparison – a natural tendency supercharged by social media.
All unhappiness is caused by comparison but when all you see is smiling faces and happy vacations, then the gift of a normal day is lost.
Rob Bell writes, “Decide now that you will not spend your precious energy speculating about someone else’s life and how it compares with yours….We rob ourselves of immeasurable joy when we compare what we do know about ourselves with what we don’t know about someone else.”
About ten years ago I shared a poem with you – I don’t know who wrote it – but maybe it’s time to share it again.
Maybe it’s just me, but this changed my life thirty years ago, and I need to remember it regularly:
Let me be aware of the treasure you are.
Let me learn from you, love you, savor you and bless you before you depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may for it will not always be so.
One day I am going to dig my fingers into the earth,
or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut or stretch my arms to the sky
and want nothing more than your return.