A man bought a retriever, and when he took him out to the lake to train him, he was stunned. He shot a duck and instead of jumping into the water and doggie paddling, the dog stepped onto the lake and ran across the surface. The man couldn’t believe his eyes. When he got back into town, he rounded up his hunting buddies. He could hardly contain himself. “Just wait till you see this new dog. You won’t believe it.” He piled them all into the back of his pickup and drove them out to the lake. They hid in the blind, and before long a flock of ducks flew over. The man shot, one went down, and he sent his dog to get it. The dog bounded out onto the water, ran over the top of it, and was back in the blind with the duck in less than a minute. “What do you think of that?” the man asked his friends. One of the friends said, “I don’t blame you for being so worked up. I’d be upset too – pay good money for a dog that can’t even swim.”
The gospel according to John is filled with stories like that. Jesus does incredible things, things never seen before, but people who see them completely miss the point. They’re so used to looking for one thing they can’t see anything else.
Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine. It was a sign he is lord over the most basic elements of the earth. To anyone who understood, it meant the creator of heaven and earth himself was in their midst. But what did people see? They saw what they were used to seeing. They assumed that the host had just saved the best wine till the end of the party.
One time, Jesus fed 5000 people with only five loaves of barley bread and two fish. For those who understood, it was a sign that Jesus is the bread of life, the one who gives life that never ends. But what did people see? They saw a free meal, and when they tracked him down the next day, they weren’t looking for the bread of life. They were looking for another handout.
The people in John’s gospel remind me of the dog I used to have. He loved to chase squirrels. Sometimes if I’d want to get a rise out of him, I’d point to a squirrel in the yard. “Look, Robbie, there’s a squirrel.” But he’d just gaze at my finger. That’s all he saw. He didn’t understand that he was supposed to look beyond my finger to the squirrel. I was trying to give him the thrill of a good chase, and he was trying to figure out what’s the big deal about my finger.
Mary had been watching Jesus. She had seen his signs. Recently she had seen Jesus raise her brother Lazarus who had been lying dead in a tomb for four days. People were still talking about it, still trying to figure it out. The religious leaders thought that anyone who could raise a man from the dead was a threat to their power and should be executed. Those who were looking for a revolution saw Jesus as the one who could overthrow the Romans and lead the people to freedom. But Mary got it. Mary saw beyond the sign. She saw what Jesus’ miracles had been pointing to. She saw beyond the obvious to that new creation God promised in Isaiah when God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isa. 43:19) Mary saw that Jesus is the one whom God sent to bring in the new creation.
Once Mary understood, once she saw beyond the signs, she did something that looked foolish – unless you understand. She took a pound of pure nard, costly perfume worth a whole year’s wages, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet. Then she stooped and wiped his feet with her hair. It was her way of showing that everything she had belonged to him. She belonged to him, body and soul.
Watching this spectacle was Judas. He saw Mary pour the perfume over Jesus’ feet and asked “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Judas looked at that puddle of perfume in the middle of the room, its aroma filling the whole house, and he saw all the food it could buy. He saw food that could be filling empty stomachs, food that could quiet the cries of a starving child, food that could give a destitute widow strength to make it through another day. What a waste of God-given resources, he thought. What a foolish waste.
But whom did Jesus side with? What did he say was right – pouring out a year’s wages’ worth of perfume at his feet or selling it to feed the poor? What would you say? Who was right, Mary or Judas?
It was Mary. She got it. Jesus praised Mary for her extravagance, for seeing beyond the nuts and bolts practicality of feeding the poor, to the completely transformed creation where poverty and suffering and hunger and sorrow don’t even exist. She saw that Jesus didn’t come just to feed the poor but to end poverty. He didn’t come just to heal the sick but to put an end to sickness. He didn’t come just to make the world a better place but to transform the whole creation.
Judas’ strategy for fighting poverty is a prescription for frustration. It’s the same mindset of those communist regimes that poured every resource toward the production of goods. They did away with things they considered irrational frivolities that distracted from the hard work of transforming society. Worship, Bible study, and prayer were a waste of time. Art had to serve a practical purpose. Instead, everyone had to make a commitment to the five-year plan, the rationally considered, well-developed scheme to end poverty and human need. And what did such a well-considered, rational plan lead to? Poverty and deprivation.
You see, if you carry Judas’ rational mindset to its logical end, you still arrive at the truth Jesus told Judas: “You always have the poor with you.” No matter how hard we work, no matter how much we give, there will always be poverty and inequality and injustice. And once you realize, through logical, rational consideration, that you always have the poor with you, where does that leave you? You either give up in despair and end it all like Judas who hanged himself, or you turn your back on the needs of others and don’t think of anyone but yourself.
Was Jesus being callous? Was he telling us to turn our backs to the poor? In the gospel according the Matthew Jesus tells us how we’ll be judged: by what we do to the least of those, Jesus’ brothers and sisters who are hungry and thirsty and in prison. When Jesus told Judas the poor will be with us always, he was alluding to Deuteronomy 15:11 where God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
It’s not within the realm of human possibility to end poverty and suffering on our own. We have to rely on a power that is greater than anything in us. That power is Jesus Christ. He understood Mary’s extravagant sacrifice as her anointing of his body for burial. Mary was pointing beyond that room, that dinner party, to the sacrifice Jesus would make in just a few days. She was pointing to the cross where Jesus put to death the corruption and greed and sin that cause poverty in a world where God has given more than enough for everybody. Mary was showing us what it takes to feed the poor in such a way that poverty really ends. It takes more than making a donation to a good cause. It takes more than giving what we’ve got left over after we’ve paid the bills. It takes pouring out everything we have and all that we are at the feet of Jesus, giving ourselves as living offerings for him to use in transforming the world.
When we give ourselves to Jesus as Mary gave herself, we do more for the poor, not less. We don’t settle for just a year’s worth of wages. That’s not enough. We give ourselves and all that we have. We proclaim the new creation he began on the cross. When we make an offering on Sunday, we’re not just making a donation but engaging in an act of extravagant praise like Mary’s because with our offering we give ourselves. When we help the poor and needy, we’re pointing to the one who came to end all poverty and suffering. We do that when we give backpacks to kids at East York Elementary School. We travel to North Carolina to help people rebuild their lives after natural disasters. We welcome refugees who have fled to our country for their lives. We help fill bags of food for Rise Against Hunger. Some will see what we do a commendable acts of charity, good deeds that make us feel good for having done them. But to those who have eyes to see, to those who are as astute as Mary, they can see what we do for the poor as signs, signs that point beyond the obvious to someone greater, to Jesus Christ who poured himself out for us. To him be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.