Fasting from Greed; Feasting on Gratitude
I know I’m not supposed to, but I always end up feeling a little bad for Judas when I read this story. Jesus and the disciples have returned to Bethany to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (whom Jesus had raised from the dead, the story reminds us). Mary, in her gratitude, dumps expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet (the cost was close to a year’s salary) and washes them with her hair.
When Judas sees this, he complains. The cash could’ve been used to help the poor, he says. But even before he opens his mouth, John has already maligned him: he’s the one that’s going to betray Jesus. Oh, and by the way, he said what he said not because he cared about the poor, but because he wanted to rip off the treasury. Maybe he has a good point, but do you really want to hear what someone so rotten has to say? And then Jesus’ reply comes, which feels a bit glib: “The poor you will always have with you.”
There is, of course, more than meets the eye in these texts. First of all, this story comes after chapters and chapters of Jesus’ teaching about poverty. He compares the chances of a rich man getting into heaven with those of a camel getting through the eye of a needle. He warns about storing up treasures on earth. He tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he owns. He sends the disciples out, telling them not to bring anything with them, but to rely on hospitality for sustenance. And then there’s the matter of Jesus’ quote. It is a rephrasing of Deuteronomy 15:11, which reads, “There will never cease to be need on earth” as an encouragement to the Israelites to give generously and support the poor.
Perhaps it is a prefiguring of Jesus’ burial, as Jesus’ comment would suggest. The practice at the time would have been an extravagant spreading of expensive oil over the body, a practice that would not have been considered extravagant for such a use, but rather fitting and proper. And as always in John’s gospel, there is the reality that the author is more focused on Jesus’ divinity than the other gospels. So to give to the poor is intimately related to giving to God. It’s not a case of “either/or,” but rather “both/and” because it is the same act. To give to God is to give to the poor and vice versa. We give to the poor because we see the image of God within them.
The timing of today’s topic, of Greed and Gratitude, is odd, admittedly. We are in the midst of what I have heard referred to as a “jobless recovery.” Many of you are struggling with the economy, taking jobs that are less than ideal because, after all, they are jobs. Families that would rather not are taking on a second job to make ends meet. Some of you are staying with jobs you would, in an ideal world, get rid of, because at least they pay. Some of you are underemployed; others unemployed. Some can’t find a job because everything that’s available is something you’re overqualified for, and they won’t hire you. So maybe this isn’t the best time to talk about greed. But then again, maybe that makes it the perfect time to talk about greed, a time to adjust, a time to be more aware than usual?
Greed and gratitude boil down to this: greed focuses on what we don’t have; gratitude focuses on what we do have.
There’s the old joke of the grandmother walking with her grandson along the beach. A wave comes in and takes the boy out to sea. The grandmother falls to her knees and prays for God to bring her precious grandson back. Sure enough, another wave crashes onto the beach, and there’s the boy; coughing and spluttering, but absolutely fine. The grandmother looks down at him, then looks back up at heaven, calling, “He had a hat!”
Greed focuses on what we don’t have; gratitude focuses on what we do have.
We learned a few weeks ago about one of the churches in the Presbytery closing. It was heartbreaking, and yet the congregation recognized that the time had come. And in closing, they wanted to be a beacon for other churches in the Presbytery. And so they announced on one Saturday that they would open the doors for churches to come and take what they might need. A couple of our members went, father and son, to see what might be up for grabs. There were lots of other churches represented there, many of them with needs much greater than ours. And as the father was thinking to himself (rather ungraciously, he admits), “What a dump,” his son turned to him and said, “Aren’t we lucky that we have the things we need?”
This idea about greed and gratitude could certainly apply to many of us individually. I think it could also be a concept we could grapple with as a church. We could focus on what we don’t have: money, enough members, nice bathrooms, and elevator. Not that they’re not true, mind you. Or we could focus on what we do have: a building that’s paid for, a phenomenal music program, a top-notch Preschool, Sunday School that our children want to go to, the list goes on. And maybe, just maybe, if we can bring the text back into the conversation for a moment, could we see that it is the presence of Christ before us, God’s very self?
This expensive perfume that Mary poured out at Jesus’ feet is a sign of God’s lavish, even wasteful, grace. As it pours down on us, may we pour it out to a world in need.