In today’s Gospel, Mary is chastised for wasting expensive perfume when the proceeds from selling it could have been used instead to help the poor. It is probably a familiar passage, or at least it is to me, and one that always puzzled me.
The question with which Mary is berated—why not sell it and give the money to the poor? —is a valid one, and Jesus’ response is perplexing to me, and possibly to many of you: “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.” Yes, he is referring to his impending death on the cross. But even so, if Christ himself had to choose between encouraging his friends to pamper his feet with 300 denarii—equivalent today to thousands of dollars—of perfume versus helping the needy, would he choose the pedicure?
It’s not easy to write a sermon on a gospel reading you don’t understand, believe me. So, I started analyzing it…and that’s when I noticed the odd way in which Judas is referenced.
In this passage in his Gospel, John reminds us that Judas was “the one who was about to betray him” AND that Judas asked this question “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.”
I found the explicit inclusion of these two facts a little jarring. In the sense of “Where did that come from?” Does John just really not like Judas? Then I had an epiphany: The abrupt intrusion of John’s commentary into the narrative is the key to resolving the puzzling nature of Christ’s words.
The link between the two became clear to me when I came across a sermon originally delivered in 1980 at Saint Clement’s Episcopal Church in New York City by a most unlikely preacher: Kurt Vonnegut.
Now, the name Kurt Vonnegut may be familiar to you as the author of Slaughterhouse Five, Welcome to the Monkey House, and Happy Birthday, Wanda June, among other works. You may know him as an atheist. What you may not know he that he described himself as a “Christ-worshipping agnostic”, who loved the Beatitudes, and once said “If it weren’t for the message of mercy and pity in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I wouldn’t want to be a human being. I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.” So, an interesting guy.
Anyway, Vonnegut said that “many people” he had known took today’s passage as proof that “Jesus himself occasionally got sick and tired of people who needed mercy all the time.”
He noted that “the reading… ends with at least two quite depressing implications: That Jesus could be a touch self-pitying, and that he was, with his mission to earth about to end, at least momentarily sick and tired of hearing about the poor.”
Vonnegut recalled that, growing up in Indiana, “whenever anybody…began to worry…about … poor people, …some [one] eminently respectable… possibly an uncle or an aunt, would say that Jesus himself had given up on doing much about the poor: ‘The poor people are hopeless. We’ll always be stuck with them.’
“The general company was then free to say that the poor were hopeless because they were so lazy or dumb, that they drank too much… and so on.”
To Vonnegut, though, Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel were not instructions to leave the poor to fend for themselves. Christ’s words were a response to Judas’ hypocrisy.
Vonnegut describes the scene: “It is the evening before Palm Sunday. Jesus is frustrated and exhausted. He knows that one of his closest associates will soon betray him for money and that he is going to be mocked and tortured and killed…There are two sisters of Lazarus there—Martha and Mary. They, at least, are sympathetic and imaginatively helpful. Mary begins to massage and perfume the feet of Jesus Christ.”
“This is too much for that envious hypocrite Judas, who says, ’Hey—this is very un-Christian. Instead of wasting that stuff on Your feet, we should have sold it and given the money to the poor people.’”
Jesus replies “don’t worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I’m gone.”
Kurt Vonnegut notes that “This is what Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln would have said under similar circumstances…It says everything about hypocrisy and nothing about the poor.”
Now, Judas would love for us to think today’s Gospel story is focused on the poor, but let’s examine it again. Today’s Gospel story foreshadows the death of Jesus. When Mary starts washing and perfuming His feet, as one would prepare a body for burial, Judas probably starts to panic. Already planning to betray Christ and be complicit in this death, OF COURSE Judas wants to change the subject. But Jesus won’t let him. He knows what Judas is up to and he gets right to the point: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial”, a statement Judas must have found startling, suddenly realizing Jesus knew the treachery brewing in his mind. For all Judas’ talk about the poor, Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He keeps focused on the matter at hand: “You do not always have me.” He could have added “as Judas here very well knows”.
Judas is basically being told “I know you plan to betray me, and I know you steal from the money box, so stop giving Mary grief and pretending that jar of perfume is your last chance to help the poor. They will always be with you, and so you will always have a chance to redeem yourself.” It is a message of love and sadness from Jesus specifically to Judas. One can imagine the agony and shame Judas felt from that day forward every time he walked past a poor person and was reminded of his hypocrisy and betrayal.
As Vonnegut points out, Christ’s answer in this passage is addressed to Judas concerning his hypocrisy. But I believe this passage is also a warning to us about hypocrisy, and the devious ways hypocrisy can be disguised by a veneer of sincerity or by using a truth to deflect from the real issue.
The cry “How can you ignore the poor like this?” might sound sincere if Christ weren’t almost constantly defending, embracing, and healing the lowest of the low throughout the Gospels. The cry “How can you ignore the poor like this?”, however, might also be useful to someone trying to deflect attention from himself when he’s about to betray his Lord for 30 pieces of silver. I can imagine that Judas’ next sentence might have been: “Hey, Mary I’ve got a great idea—Give the perfume to me and I’ll go sell it and give the money to the poor. Trust me!”
So if Jesus’s words are specifically addressed to Judas, what can we derive from them? Unfortunately, sometimes we can derive the wrong message. Before the pandemic, I was having lunch with an evangelical friend whose politics differ somewhat from mine. He asked me about my church. When I mentioned some of the work that Epiphany is doing with the homeless, he said that he appreciated that there were people who did such charitable activity, but ultimately, it was rather irrelevant to Christianity. After all, Christ said “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
The disconnect of a self-professed Christian earnestly quoting these words from the Bible, and drawing such a theological conclusion, was disconcerting. Did he truly believe this passage gave us a pass on the poor? So I did some research. According to a 2006 poll by TIME magazine, at least 17% of American Christians subscribe to what is known as the Prosperity Gospel, a belief that the wealthy are worthy in God’s eyes while the poor brought their fate on themselves.
We can search the web to find churches that preach this Prosperity Gospel and get an idea of their theology.
The pastor of one of them proclaims “If you honor God first, He will stretch your time and money” as his $5 million-dollar private jet attests.
Another one notes that the psalms say “The Lord takes pleasure in the prosperity of His children.” Yet another points out that Deuteronomy tells us “If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.”
As they do with today’s Gospel, they hold such passages up as divine justification for material gain and wealth inequality.
One wonders if the idea of material prosperity as a sign of divine approval wasn’t already a problem in the early Church: Saint John seems to be trying to refute the Prosperity Gospel in today’s reading by pointing out Judas’ hypocritical position. Unfortunately, the message isn’t quite clear, as my lunch buddy or Vonnegut’s Indiana neighbors can attest.
How does one counter such hypocrisy? The first step is recognizing it in all its forms. Two of hypocrisy’s most subtle, most insidious, and most common forms are cherry-picking and what-about-ism.
The cherry-picking of scripture out of context is a technique that too often succeeds to support a stance that would otherwise be suspect. This is what people do when quoting today’s gospel to biblically justify why they don’t give to charities or why they believe in cutting social services.
The devil himself, when tempting Jesus in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, cherry-picked scripture to justify his actions.
But Jesus didn’t fall for cherry-picked quotations, and neither should we. If Jesus spent all his time hanging around rich people and getting pedicures, then, yeah, maybe we could believe he’s saying to ignore the poor. But look at his actions—he lived and ate with the poor, he cured and blessed the poor. He died for the poor. One cherry-picked quotation that can be twisted to run counter to Jesus’ dedication to the poor shouldn’t sway us to think otherwise.
Sadly, ignoring the poor is only one example of ungodly theology being justified by cherry-picking quotations from the Bible. Scripture has been used to justify slavery, homophobia, misogyny, and war.
In addition to cherry-picking, hypocrisy can take the form of “what-about-ism.” Judas’s deflecting question is a great example of “what-about-ism”, the technique of setting up an apparently valid but false choice. By indignantly proclaiming “but what about the poor?”, he is implying that a choice must be made between honoring Jesus and helping the poor. But this is not a case of either/or.
You can serve the poor and honor Jesus. Indeed, time and time again, Jesus makes it clear that the best way to honor him is to serve the poor.
Furthermore, Mary’s act of anointing Christ’s feet was a spontaneous act of love, not a choice of actions. Mary didn’t aim to deprive the poor at the expense of honoring Jesus. And as I mentioned earlier in this Gospel, John emphasizes Mary’s actions are not at fault by noting Judas’ track record: “he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” When it came to criticizing someone’s spending habits, Judas was in no position to talk.
Claiming “what-about” can sometimes be about justice but can often be about deflection.
Returning to today’s puzzling reading, if we realize that it is not about poverty, but about hypocrisy, we can see it in a completely different light. Like disinformation and misinformation, hypocrisy may seem unavoidable in these times, but as we know here at Epiphany, the Jesus filter can be quite effective at cutting through it all. When faced with an awkward passage of scripture—like today’s Gospel—or a choice between two equally compelling courses of action, let us ask ourselves this about each of them: Is it about love? And if not, why not? Are we cherry-picking, what-abouting, deflecting, or accepting a hypocritical statement that’s disguised by a veneer of truth?
My Prosperity Gospel friend is a really decent guy who truly believes the dogma. He’s not putting up a façade of piety to hide sinister activities.
Being human, we can all easily fall for hypocritical behavior in ourselves or others without even knowing it. But if we use the Jesus filter, we can cut through all the noise and misdirection and find the love, even in the most puzzling Bible passages.