What Is Important?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 13, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 12: 1-8
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But 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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 
We learned many things in Seminary about the Bible and Biblical Scholarship, that most people rarely think about, and perhaps for good reason, because in a sense it misses the point, but it can be fascinating and it many times does appeal to our general curiousity. One example is the quest to find the so called "historical" Jesus. For the last hundred years or so, Biblical Criticism has come into vogue. It seems that somewhere in the late 19th and well into the 20th century the mystique came off the Bible, and seeking the answers to questions became much less taboo. One of the areas that people have delved into is the quest to find what they call the "historical" Jesus. . . the Jesus who lived, beyond the missing pieces, into the cracks in the story, deep into the discrepancies within the record, especially the gospel record, because there are many discrepancies, especially when you include John's gospel, in comparison to the other three. . . as we have seen throughout John's gospel, there is something more going on here than simply trying to tell a definitive historical narrative record of Jesus' life and ministry headed to the cross. Now I don't bring this up because I put much stock in their quest, except I want to let you in on some of their criteria as a way to introduce the story from this morning because it gives us a lens.
Part of their work is they are trying to determine which parts of the story are what they call authentic, in other words that they really happened, and which are made up or altered, or shortened, or summarized somehow for some desired effect. There are two main criteria that they say give more credibility to an episode or a quotation. One is called multiple attestation. . . which means that the episode is recounted in more than one of the gospels. . . this points to greater authenticity, especially when John's Gospel also includes it. . . and that should make logical sense. . . if you have more than one witness a given testimony has more weight in a courtroom, this is based on that same principle. . . and the other they say is, if the statement doesn't fit the general accepted norms, then it is likely to be Jesus, that if the statement Jesus makes is somehow embarrassing, or troubling to the movement. . . that the disciples or the gospel writers would have preferred to have left it out, but they seemed to have to include it because Jesus must have really said it. You see it seems really basic. . . why it matters is a whole different story. . . but here in this story we have both.
The woman anointing Jesus' feet with the expensive perfume that has nard in it is found here in chapter 12 of John's gospel, but the story is also told in Matthew 26 and in Mark 14, but in those tellings the so called, woman, is unnamed, but here we have Mary, the sister of Lazarus. . . and if you add that great apocryphal telling from Andrew Lloyd Webber it's Mary Magdelene, which in a way can show how details can be shifted and changed to form some desired effect, in the case of Jesus Christ Superstar, it is for simplicity of the plot. . . but this story is accounted with much vivid, though divergent details in three of the four gospels, and you could make the case that we also have shades of the Mary and Martha story from Luke, here, because we are told that Mary is perfuming feet, while Martha is serving, very similar to the Mary at Jesus' feet while Martha does all the work from Luke 10. In both the Matthew and Mark account it all takes place just as it does here, in the town of Bethany, but they add the detail that it takes place in the house of Simon the Leper. . . some have taken this to suggest that Simon the Leper is in fact the father of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. . . another interesting twist on the story. . . and I have to admit, I can see why a faithful person might be interested in trying to figure out how these small episodes, that we get in such brevity in the gospels, how they actually fit together, because there may be more to come to know from such as study. We do, as we talked about a few weeks ago, have a great thirst to know more about the people Jesus comes into contact with. . . we want to know more about them because we just want to know more about Jesus, what it is like to be in contact with Jesus, with the divine on that life changing level, because it is all so curious. . . especially, when you start to wonder why would Matthew and Mark leave her nameless when John names her Mary. . . why would they not connect her to Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. These questions call out to our curious bones. . . but what may be the most important here, because it is what we are given, despite are curiosity, is what Jesus actually says, because it fits the category of multiple attestation, being the same here, and in Matthew, and in Mark, and it just doesn't quite seem to fit the movement. . .
"Leave her alone. . . you will always have the poor with you."
Because care for the poor is very basic, and fundamental, and foundational to the movement Jesus is building, and it is very fundamental and foundational within Judaism. Paula read in Jeremiah direct words about care for the poor:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
14 who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
15 Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16 He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
17 But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence
Could it not say, woe to him whose feet are anointed with perfume, especially perfume with Nard, when people are hungry, starving, and impoverished. . . Despite the character change, Andrew Lloyd Webber does capture the scene quite well musically. . . With Mary singing:
Try not to get worried try not to turn onto problems that upset you, O don't you know everything's alright yes everything's fine. . . .
While Judas jumps in with: People who are hungry people who are starving, matter more than your feet and hands!
That puts it there front and center doesn't it. If we are not about helping the poor, what is this all about?
Look at our Psalm, from the Call to Worship, Psalm 41,
Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.
The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land.
You do not give them up to the will of their enemies.
The Lord sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities.
You can see where Judas is coming from. . . what are we doing here? Think about it in today's terms. . . how long would Jesus get to keep his precious not for profit tax exempt status if he were using possible group funds for such wasteful luxuries as perfumed foot ointment, with Nard, for Goodness sakes. . .the IRS, Project Hope, guidestar, and givewell.org would be all over Jesus for such things. And where is Jesus' compassion, you will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me. . . . really???
Now it is interesting how Judas is thrown under the bus here by the Gospel writer. . . parenthetically of course. . . .Judas (the one who was going to betray him), or (he said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he is a thief, and was stealing from the common funds), wow, they are trying really hard to downplay what Jesus says here. .. he must only have said it because he knows Judas' heart, knows he's a thief, otherwise there is no way Jesus would ever have said something so heartless and hopeless about the poor. But in the other gospels its not even Judas, in Matthew it is just the disciples, and in Mark, it is just some and they. . . . some scolded the thoughtless her. Why does John include those pieces of information about Judas? Is it one of those textual additions that sometimes happens during the copying of manuscripts? Is it a gloss? someone's notes, someone pondering how Jesus could have said such things? It could be, but it seems likely, even according to rules of skeptical scholars, that Jesus said this. . . what does he mean? What is important? How could anointing feet be more important than using resources to help the poor? Because if it isn't caring for the poor, many people would just not be sure about this whole Jesus thing, or at least you hear that alot. . . when a mega church offers Starbucks Coffee, or you have a huge ornate gold plated cathedral surrounded by impoverished slums. . . criticism abounds. Echoing Jesus in other parts of the gospel. . . you hypocrite!
Why does Jesus support Mary in this case? I don't think it is because of a lack of compassion for the poor, though I have heard that sermon. . . .and I don't think Jesus would say it if he didn't really mean it, because I've heard that sermon, too. Those are the two extremes. I think it has to do with individual call. . . and it echoes throughout some of the other stories, too. We each have our own path, our own place, our own individual nature, talents, gifts, and we are each called to different things. It is possible that Mary is called to anoint Jesus' feet because she is preparing him for his death. . . while Judas has a different place. . . or the disciples, or the some/they. . . whose place is it to scold someone who is faithfully in the presence of Jesus doing what she feels called to do? Her center is Jesus, where is Judas' center? If you take the gospel literally, he is just a greedy money grubber out to steal from the community coffers, and the bigger the coffers the less likely people would know that things are missing. . . but even if Judas isn't the greedy antichrist the glosses present him as, and you take him at his word. . . that he does care for the poor. . . his center is not necessarily Christ. . . and the mission doesn't come through Jesus. . . it isn't ordered in that way. . . and so it is action, it may be selfless, it may be thoughtful, it may be benevolent, it may be sacrifice, it may seek to do some good, but it will never be effective because it isn't grounded in Christ, grounded in truth. . . . Now that is not a popular thing to say. . . it seems many disagree today both in and out of churches, and would be all over me for saying it, because it can excuse people from doing things that are good, and charitable. . . and that is dangerous, especially in churches, where you need to find volunteers to cover stuff, to keep programs going, to get the good things done. . . but how quickly can it become about exactly that, focusing on the ends, and not the means, not only does Jesus get lost in the shuffle, but so too do the individual people you are supposed to be helping. . . and it is never sustainable. . . people aren't energized by force, guilt, scolding, not long term, not in eternal ways, like what Jesus is calling us to. Remember Jesus has just raised someone from the dead. . . that changes the rules, it changes the landscape, it turns everything upside down, and the old definitions of material wealth and poverty, just don't hold water anymore. Poverty has nothing to do with the lack of nard or silver, but distance from Jesus. Judas, be patient, have faith, come near to me, and you will see. . .The brother of the Prodigal son, sees things the same way, so too does Jonah after Nineveh is saved. . . . how can she, how can he, why should I be doing this, when they are doing that. . . . Jesus says come to me, to you. . . and to others, not because of what you do or are doing, what they do or are doing, but because of Jesus. . . can you accept such things? If Jesus is the Son of God, What is Important? Jesus, it all else flows from him, else is nothing, even the most compassionate martyr who is out to save the entire world, without Jesus it would come to nothing. . . but could a human being be the most compassionate, actually selfless martyr, knowing and being able to give that kind of love, without Jesus. . . I don't think so. . . many may disagree. . . and that is fine.