Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Poor You Always Have With You

“The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8

In a Palm Sunday Sermon (The Nation, April 19, 1980) Kurt Vonnegut once observed that “…being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far. Perhaps we will get another idea that good by and by - and then we will have two good ideas. What might that second good idea be? I don’t know. How could I know? I will make a wild guess that it will come from music somehow. I have often wondered what music is and why we love it so. I t may be that music is the second good idea being born.”

He is commenting on John’s story about Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with oil from the spikenard plant. The story ends with a much quoted line by Jesus - “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” This often misunderstood response of Jesus to Judas has resulted in much un-Christian behavior. People think that Jesus is commenting on the poor. People say, “See, even Jesus admits the poor are a problem! We will never be rid of them.”  This then devolves into even worse statements like the poor are hopeless, lazy, drink too much, have too many children - the list of complaints is endless. Vonnegut, on the other hand, thinks it is meant to be a joke – a dark one at that – and a way of calling out Judas on his own hypocrisy.

In the text from John, it is the night before Palm Sunday when Jesus will enter Jerusalem in a brilliantly choreographed satire of the sorts of pomp and circumstance accorded to the Emperor and all high officials of the Roman empire. The result is his crucifixion on a Roman Cross.

He is visiting his close friends in Bethany, Mary, Martha and their brother Lazarus. He is having supper with them. His table companions are unusual: Judas who will betray him for 30 pieces of silver and who is already identified in the story as a thief who steals from the common purse, and Lazarus who was recently dead for four days. So dead that when Jesus ordered his tomb to be opened Martha exclaimed, “But there will be a stench!” Vonnegut suspects Lazarus to still be somewhat dazed and confused, not much of a conversationalist, and we never learn if he is grateful for being alive again. It can be a mixed blessing to be brought back from the dead.

Indeed, read a little further in the text and discover that there was a crowd outside wanting to see Lazarus so they could kill him. How dare he allow Jesus to bring him back to life! It ain’t natural. Kill them both! Vonnegut’s take on it: “Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.”

Mary and Martha appear to be sympathetic and wanting to be helpful. Mary begins to massage Jesus’ feet and anoint them with perfumed ointment from the spikenard plant - a costly ointment we are told. Jesus is a man, with the blood, flesh and bones of a man, and has walked a long way from Nazareth to Bethany outside of Jerusalem - so we can assume this feels really good. Perhaps we might imagine Jesus closing his eyes and truly enjoying one last moment of peace and comfort before his march to the scaffold begins the next day.

It is obviously too much for the thief, traitor and hypocrite Judas. Evidently trying to be more catholic than the Pope he cries foul. “Hey- this is very un-Christian of you to be wasting this expensive nard on your feet when it could be sold and given to the poor.” Parenthetically, the text observes, “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and, as he had the money box, he used to take what was in it.”

So what Judas is really saying is, “Sell the ointment so the money can go into this box and I can then steal more of it!”

To which Jesus replies in Aramaic, translated into Koine Greek, then into Latin and eventually into ancient English something like, “You always have the poor with you, you do not always have me.”

Vonnegut contends that this is the joke, and that when one translates from Greek to Latin to old English jokes are the first thing to go!  If Jesus in fact said this, it is a kind of black humor that says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor. It is a kind of inside Christian joke which allows Jesus to remain civil to Judas, but to chide him about his hypocrisy. “Judas, don’t worry about it. There will be plenty of poor people left long after I am gone.”

No doubt Jesus’ response is lost on Judas, as it has been on countless Christians ever since. But it is in the spirit of his pronouncements in the Sermon on the Mount which suggests a mercifulness that never wavers or fades. It says that every day in every way we have limitless opportunities to serve and help the poor in our midst, either directly or as advocates on their behalf. Just ask Dorothy Day, Phil and Daniel Berrigan, Elizabeth McCalister, Saint Francis of Assisi and countless other Christians who got the joke and the profound truth that lies within it.

For people like Judas this does not compute. For those of us who meditate on these words and these stories it can mean all the difference in the world for the world. Who knows if we will not turn out to be a part of the second good idea being born?

This is why it is so important to continue, as the Psalmist asserts, to sing to the Lord a new song. Then we will be like those who dream, our mouths full of laughter and our tongues with shouts of Joy as we join ourselves with the Love of God that surrounds us on all sides all the time. At the end of the day we are those people who know that we come from Love, return to Love, and Love is all around. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”


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