Using The Right Words

Today we'll conclude our exploration of a single passage of Scripture from the Gospel of John 12:1-8: the story of Mary anointing Jesus feet in the middle of a dinner party.

Here's the passage once again:
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
The part of the passage I want to focus on today is the last verse, 12:8: "For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me."  

The misinterpretation of this passage has done a great deal of damage to the social witness of the Church for decades.  Let me explain. 

When I was growing up, I remember attending churches where all vestiges of what they would have derisively referred to as "The Social Gospel" were pooh-poohed and ignored. 

In fact, the passage above was essentially explained like this: 
Don't waste your time trying to help people who are down and out.  There will always be poor people.  You need to spend your time and energy making new Christians.  
As I got older, I began to wonder if any of the people who perpetuated that kind of bad theology and biblical exegesis actually read the Bible because in the book of James you have this: 
If one of you says to [a poor person], “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
When you do a close reading of John 12:8 you see clearly that Jesus is not advocating for his followers to ignore the poor.  In fact, everything that Jesus did served to contradict such a belief.

In addition to calling out Judas on his hypocrisy, what Jesus is saying here is that his time with his followers is short.   Mary got that.  She made the most of her moments with Jesus by showing her devotion, demonstrating that she was all in. 

It's uncomfortable sometimes to simply name things as they are, to confront the needs of the world.  It's easier to hide behind religious language sometimes rather than speak what's true and real, no matter how hard it is to hear it. 

Walter Brueggeman once wrote that it is the task of the Christian to "name things as they really are." 
Don't say "income inequality" when you can say "hungry child."  Don't say "racial tension" when you can describe rocks thrown at a family.  
May you find the courage and the strength to use truth-filled words even if they challenge you and draw you to action.  May you come to know that the nearest and best way to follow Jesus is by loving those whom he loves. 

And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you now and always. Amen.  


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