Sermon for Lent 5, April 3, 2022 (Year C): Keep the poor always with you (The Rev. Columba Salamony)
In the name of the one God: Our mother, our brother, and our friend.
I invite you to ponder with me and to hear this story told in a different way…
After spending some time in Ephraim, Jesus and his disciples return to Bethany of Judea.
This is where they had recently visited their friends, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. Perhaps to
show their appreciation for Jesus and the miracle he performed on Lazarus, the siblings threw him a party. I imagine they probably worked diligently for a few days in advance: Martha spent her time cleaning and scrubbing, airing out the house, and making sure there was plenty of bread; still recovering from his miraculous resurrection, Lazarus helped by preparing and cooking their fattest goat; and Mary went off to the marketplace to find some olives and cheese, and maybe something special for their honored guest?
Once Jesus and his disciples arrived, they celebrated with intensity. They sang and ate and
drank, and at one point, Mary disappeared from the room. No one really seemed to notice that she was gone for several minutes, but when she returned with a beautiful and expensive alabaster jar, she caught everyone’s attention. It wasn’t only the jar that caught their eyes, but her hair, too. Before all of their guests stood Mary with her hair, long and unbraided, exposed for all to see. Like so many times before, Mary sat lovingly at Jesus’s feet. With a precise and deliberate motion, she cracked open the neck of the alabaster jar. The delightful smell of the fine supper they had just shared was no more. The room was immediately filled with the unmistakable fragrance of nard. This pungent fragrance was even more familiar for some of them, the memory more recent, because they had smelled it on Lazarus’ corpse before he was put in the tomb.
The fragrance draws everyone’s complete attention to Mary at Jesus’s feet. They watch in
astonishment and confusion. An eerie silence, too, has filled the room as Mary begins to wash Jesus with the aromatic oil. She slowly, gently, sweetly rubs it onto his feet with the tips of her hair, washing his feet with the same motions she did on her brother Lazarus not so long ago. With this nard, she anoints Jesus—not starting at the head, as when a king is given his power, but starting at the feet, as when a corpse is prepared for burial. Mary washes Jesus with the entire bottle, emptying it to the very last drop. This extravagant moment is hauntingly beautiful and intimate.
A lone voice, loud and angry, erupts out of that stunning silence, condemning Mary and her
ointment. Judas stands from his place and chastises Mary to the other guests, “How could
she pour out this vast amount of fine oil? Why didn’t she sell it? It is worth nearly a year’s
wages; the money could have been given to the poor” (Jn 12:5, VOICE). Jesus’s demeanor
shifted quickly from calm, soothed, and relaxed, and his irritation rose to meet and then
exceed that of Judas: “Leave her alone! She has done this to prepare me for the day I will be
placed in a tomb. You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me”
(Jn 12:7-8, GW).
What commotion, frustration, and anxiety must have erupted after Jesus’s reply. What
bewilderment! It would be safe to assume their joyous and festive evening ended there.
This passage is absolutely loaded with drama. And for a good reason. This is a pivotal point in the story of Jesus. First, his return to Bethany to see Lazarus points us back to Jesus’s
miraculous power over death: Lazarus is a reminder that death does not have the final word. And, too, to see Martha, who serves him like a king, and Mary, who sits at his feet and adores him. During their dinner, Mary’s adoration moves to the next level, and she anoints his body.
Perhaps this was more meaningful than she intended, but Jesus’s reply to Judas
demonstrates that this is a crucial moment—another indication of death. But I am most
interested in the exchange between Judas Iscariot and Jesus.
Amid this powerful, climactic, and fragrant scene, Judas stands up and protests Mary’s
offering. Perhaps he is revolted by Mary’s blatant disregard of the social norms: uncovering
her hair for over a dozen men to see, and then using her long hair to sensually touch a man
who isn’t her husband (and in a public setting, at that!). Or, perhaps he was genuinely
concerned about the cost of the jar of nard—not, as the Evangelist points out, because he
wanted to use it for the poor, but because he might have liked the 300 silver pieces for
himself. And we know that in the end, Judas bitterly receives only 30 pieces of silver when he betrays Jesus. No matter the reason for his outburst, Jesus commands Judas to leave Mary alone. Mary isn’t the bad guy. I suspect Jesus knew of Judas’s inclination toward
mismanagement of the common purse, so he gently reminds Judas, “you always have the
poor with you”—there will always be poor to take care of—but today, this moment, is about
This turn of phrase that Jesus uses would have been familiar to the disciples. He references a line from Deuteronomy 15: “There will always be those among us […] who are in need, so I
require of you that you be always generous with the poor and needy in your land.” Jesus
outright confronts Judas’s counterfeit solidarity with the poor with this phrase.
It would do us well to remember that whenever scripture talks about “the poor,” we’re not only talking about those who are financially troubled. “The poor” is often a euphemism for anyone who is an outcast: the destitute, the unhoused, the disabled, and the displaced—anyone who exists on the margins, those pushed away by those in positions of power and privilege. In this phrase, “You always have the poor with you,” I hear Jesus slyly telling Judas he knows about Judas’s—how should we put it—unorthodox bookkeeping. And beyond this, to the ears of the disciples and to us, Jesus says, “You cannot coopt charity to the poor as a means to your own end.” Jesus means that the poor cannot just be objects of our charity but must be included in their own freedom from oppression. We can accomplish this by being with the poor. Further, I sense that Jesus’s declaration that we will “always have the poor with us” reminds us of the extreme imbalances in humanity’s social, economic, and political world. It isn’t only Judas who uses unorthodox bookkeeping techniques. Jesus reminds us that there is always a Judas in the mix—someone to point out the flaw of another while concealing his own, someone to chastise another, denigrate another, and push another toward the margin. Although the empire always promises peace and prosperity, is it ever balanced, just, or equitable? Empire has always made the rich richer and the poor poorer. There is extreme poverty because there is extreme wealth. I’ll repeat it: There is extreme poverty because there is extreme wealth. It’s a zero-sum game. Someone feasts while another starves. One person wins because one person loses. Over and over again. Corporations like Walmart—or, better, Amazon—could end poverty tomorrow. And yet… The economic justice that we require doesn’t come from well-intentioned philanthropy.
I want to propose an alternate reading of this key phrase we’ve explored. Instead of “You
always have the poor with you," another, more interesting, and perhaps more deliberate translation would be, “Always have the poor with you.” Hear it as a command, an instruction: never distance yourself from the poor, always stand alongside them, let their fight be our fight. I suggest this because I don’t think we should be content with always having the poor among us. I hear Jesus requiring us to change and disrupt the power-hungry political and social systems of empire that fundamentally create the poor. Again and again, he asks us to challenge death-dealing systems of oppression and stand with the disenfranchised, the imprisoned, and the refugee, welcoming them into our communities. These are moments where we encounter the poor, chances for us to respond with this extravagant hospitality that Mary offers Jesus, with true solidarity for the most vulnerable among us.
Jesus calls us to live in the tension between our hope for a generous and just world and the
reality that extreme poverty is part and parcel of how the world works—both then and today. Our systems and institutions are oriented to create the poor. Jesus tells us that we need new ways of thinking, some way to form a world where it’s easier to be human. Jesus invites us into this—invites us to be transformed, see the poor with new eyes, and participate in something bigger than ourselves. When we hear the voice of someone at the margins crying out, we can be changed, reborn into something new. We can see that there is enough for everyone—everyone can have their share with plenty left over! And, sure, this will take time! But the poor will still be here—waiting for us to serve them with the same extravagance Mary showed Jesus at that dinner party.