A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison for
Saint Columbia’s United Reformed Church, April 3rd 2022
‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (12:8) That’s Jesus’s answer to what I think is a reasonable question, one which comes from Judas Iscariot.
Six days before the Passover (12:1), so close to the Last Supper, and to Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion, there’s a dinner at the house of Lazarus, ‘whom he [Jesus] had raised from the dead.’ (12:1) At the meal, Martha served (what’s new) and Lazarus dined, along with Jesus.(12:2) At some point in the meal Mary appeared, carrying ‘a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, [and] she anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair,’ filling the house with the fragrance of the perfume.’ (12:3)
The perfume certainly was expensive. It cost about the equivalent of a year’s wages for a labourer. Three days ago the UK National Living (or minimum) Wage rose to £9.50 per hour for workers over the age of 23; £9.18 per hour if you are 21-22; £6.83 per hour if you are 18-20. Presumably, those who are younger eat less, or have better gas and electricity deals than their seniors. That comes to a year’s salary being somewhere between £14 200 and £19 800; far from riches beyond the dreams of avarice, but a heck of a lot to spend on a one-off purchase of perfume.
Hence, Judas’s quite reasonable question: ‘why was this perfume not sold [instead] and the money given to the poor?’ (12:5) Indeed. In his Gospel, John comments that Judas asked his question not out of concern for the poor, but because he used to dip his hand into the common purse; the one they kept in order to finance Jesus’s ministry, including, it seems, giving money to the poor. (12:6) Fair enough, but knowing that doesn’t render Judas’s question invalid. Imagine if St Columba’s received a gift of £20 000 and I suggested that although we could donate the money to Nitebite and Early Bird Breakfasts, we should spend it on perfume for Jesus instead. That would make for a very interesting Church Meeting.
And that brings us back to Jesus’s answer to Judas’s question: ‘you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (12:8) Jesus sides with Mary once again. Previously, he commended her choice of listening to his teaching over Martha’s default setting of serving. (Luke 10:38-42) Women, such as Mary, said Jesus, can be disciples on the same basis as men; learning as well as serving, just as the male disciples need to be serving as well as learning. (Mark 10:43-44) Now, dining in the house of Lazarus, he tells the others to ‘leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (12:7-8)
Perfume manufacturers may rejoice at Jesus’s words, but the rest of us are a bit bemused I would guess. In general, Jesus was in favour of giving money to the poor. That’s implied by John’s comment about Judas wanting an opportunity to steal from their common purse. That depended on a shared assumption that money raised from selling the perfume would go into that purse, and so might be distributed to the poor. So, it follows, Jesus was involved in giving money to the poor, but not on this occasion. So, along with Judas, we might ask, ‘Why not?’
It would seem that Lazarus, Martha and Mary did not constitute a poor family. They had a house. They could provide dinner, not only for themselves but for others. And at some point or other, there was enough money going spare to enable spending a substantial sum on perfume, or whatever else might have taken their fancy. It makes you wonder what Mary might have had in her jewel box!
The family of St Columba’s URC is quite well off too, as it happens; a combination of the generosity of former generations of church members and the committed giving of the present one. If someone was going to raise questions about our spending priorities, I imagine it would not be about perfume purchases but about building projects. After all, we are undertaking one to safeguard the fabric of the church building – its façade and roof. For the amounts involved we could purchase seven or eight jars of Mary’s favourite perfume instead; or, of course, give the money to the poor. Just imagine what Judas Iscariot would have to say.
Which brings us back, once again, to Jesus saying, ‘you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (12:8) Lavish spending, if it’s to be justified, needs to be spending arising from and expressing love for Jesus. Mary’s lavish – some think excessive – action, is focused upon and pointing towards Jesus’s death: ‘she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial,’ says Jesus. (12:7) Mary gives a lot in order to point out how Jesus is going to give everything, his life included, for her and for others; for us and for the poor.
Remembering Jesus, then, involves remembering how in love he gave his all for us, that we might live. Expressing our response to a gift of such magnitude demands a generous, lavish giving in return. We try to do that through gathering together to worship. To do that on an ongoing basis includes having a physical space, a venue, a building in which to worship. We could worship in a featureless warehouse, though many of us find that our worship is enhanced by doing so in a setting of beauty, which costs. Also, I note that churches which go down the ‘meet in a warehouse’ route tend to splash quite a lot of money on the technology of worship within them.
My view, then, is that it’s ok to spend significant amounts of money on a space for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing our worship of the God who has been made known to us through Jesus Christ. Such worship, though, being focused on God, includes acknowledging God’s concern for those who are poor. Committed worship, requires effort and resources, including financial resources. In bringing us into closer relationship to God, it should then inspire us to care for the poor, so reflecting the nature of God, who is both loving and just. Keep focusing on me and on the cross, says Jesus. You’ll need to if you are going to keep caring for the poor who are always with you.