You will always have me...
On Ash Wednesday we are invited to observe a Holy Lent by taking on a series of practices including: prayer, fasting, repentance, meditating on God’s holy Word, self examination, and self denial. Last week I spoke about self examination as we reflected on the reading in the Gospel of Luke known as the Prodigal Son. This week let’s look at this reading from the Gospel of John when Jesus has dinner at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany.
Just a little bit earlier in the story Jesus was summoned to Bethany by Mary and Martha because their brother Lazarus was ill and dying. But Jesus delayed his trip to Bethany and Lazarus died. When Jesus finally arrived Lazarus had been dead for four days and Mary and Martha were furious with Jesus and deeply grieving. Jesus became remorseful, and weeping, he asked the people to roll back the stone that blocked the tomb where Lazarus lay. Mary and Martha protested, the stench of the dead would be great, opening the tomb would serve no purpose. But then Jesus called out to Lazarus to rise up and walk. And out of the tomb came Lazarus, burial wrappings trailing behind him. Now, some time later, Jesus is back in Bethany and sharing a meal with them. Martha is busy with the food, Lazarus and the disciples are sitting with Jesus enjoying the meal. Suddenly Mary walks in with a jar of expensive nard, the perfume used to anoint bodies for burial. She pours the jar all over Jesus feet, unties her hair, baths his feet in the nard and dries them with her hair. Judas scoffs at her and insults her. But Jesus appreciates her action, her affection, her kindness. Then he says the most curious thing, You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
Last year we spent the entire Lenten season reflecting on these words using Liz Theoharis’ book, “Always with you: what Jesus really said about the poor.” We learned about the impact of the environment, of water, healthcare, food scarcity, and global economics which influence poverty around the world. The phrase, “You will always have the poor with you but you won’t always have me…” has been used throughout the centuries to underscore poverty as a societal norm, as if there is nothing we can do about it. But Theoharis, who is a proponent of the Poor People’s Campaign, argues that what Jesus really meant was - to be like Jesus we need to work to dismantle all the structures of society that reinforce unequal distribution of wealth so that the conditions that create poverty are eliminated.
Joan Chittister in her book on Benedictine spirituality, which is a spirituality about hospitality and generosity, writes that monks and nuns of the Benedictine order are not allowed to receive gifts. This is because the emphasis is on equality, all members have the same things, which are given to them by God, no one has more or less than another. They embrace an understanding of “enoughness”, They have enough and no more so that others can also have enough. The Rule of Benedict is not a suffering rule, it is not an ascetic rule of poverty. It is a rule of hospitality and comfort for its practitioners as well as those who are guests at their retreat centers, monasteries, and convents. Good food and wine, soft sheets and blankets, enough heat and comfortable clothing. Just enough.
So, how do we make sense of all of the enoughness as it relates to this story this morning?
The spirituality behind the concept of enoughness is a belief that when a person owns too much they become worried about losing what they have, When a person lives with just enough the are free of this worry. So one might say that Mary, in pouring out the jar of nard was giving away that which was too much because she had enough and she wanted to be free. But it’s not just that she became free by giving away the nard by anointing Jesus’ feet with it, she also shared her abundance with Jesus. Which, because Jesus is the love of God embodied in human flesh, means that she has shared this abundance with everyone. It was an act of love for love. Judas Iscariot has a different take on what happened. He insults Mary and suggests that she should have sold the nard and given the money to the poor. And, because Judas keeps the common purse with all the community money it also means that if she had sold it he would have had more money to steal. For Judas enough is never enough. He always wants more. His misery and greed eat at him and make him bitter, he’s never happy. If he were alive today he’d use his twitter account to say the meanest things about Mary all the while acting as though he actually cares about poor people.
And what about Jesus? First he acknowledges Mary and lifts up her actions, then he leaves us with these unsettling and uncharacteristic words about the poor. Jesus, who has spent his life caring for the least of those in our midst, feeding the poor and healing the sick, just throws them under the bus in favor of himself? Is that what he really meant? You’ll always have the poor, but you won’t always have me…
I wonder. I wonder if these words have been misconstrued over the centuries. Maybe Theoharis is on to something. Maybe Benedictine spirituality in its practice of eoughness provides us with guidelines for addressing this perplexing question. What if I were more like Mary, sharing extravegantly with others? What if I poured out my love for others abundantly? What if I gave back to Jesus the love he has shown me? I wonder if I did this, and if you did this, and if enough of us did this, lived by sharing abundantly and were content with enoughness, if we could make an impact on poverty? What if we voted for political leaders and policies that did this too, that supported concepts of sharing and enoughness? What if we eliminated policies that reinforce poverty, things like higher interest rates for poor people? What if we eliminated things like credit scores which help the wealthy and unevenly affect the poor? I don’t know. I’m not a politician and I’m not an economist. But I do know a little bit about systemic causes of poverty and I believe that if more people could practice a discipline of eoughness and radical sharing of abundance, that perhaps we would no longer have the poor with us, but we would always have Jesus.