Gospel: John 12:1-8 1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this 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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
He was born in 1921 and died in 2004 at the age of 82. Known most widely by his stage persona, he despaired that real life often treated him as that persona and not himself. Claiming on stage that he never got any respect skyrocketed his career, but the man we knew as Rodney Dangerfield bore much of the brunt of his character’s ill treatment himself.
We think we know someone by what we see on the surface, and we often decide how we will treat that person based on incomplete views.
Today we see Judas, through the words of the writers of the Gospel according to John. (It is believed this gospel was written as a collaborative effort by a number of people.) Here we are told that Judas was a thief in charge of the common purse of Jesus and his disciple’s, and that he would steal what was put into it.
This viewpoint comes to us because we all know that Judas is the bad guy in the story. Those who heard this story centuries ago knew that Judas was the bad guy. The problem is that what he says here about Mary’s extravagance doesn’t seem so bad. I mean, how could concern for the poor ever be a bad thing?
Well, if Judas said it, and we know Judas is the bad guy, then it would make sent that it has some sinister motivation, would it not?
Here, the writers tell us that Judas didn’t really care about the poor, that what he really cared about was carrying the money. Oh… and that he was a thief. The writers do not actually tell us that he stole what was put into the bag. That’s a translators’ interpretation likely based on the text saying he was a thief. It is possible that at this point Judas was merely jealous of the expense, that the money had bypassed his control. That may not be any better, but the text says here only that he, a thief, carried the money bag, and that he really didn’t care much about the poor.
It’s no secret, though, that Judas is the bad guy. Just about every time Judas is mentioned in this gospel, even as far back as chapter 6, it is made clear that this is the one who would betray Jesus. This gospel does not, however, say that Judas planned to betray Jesus all along. Instead, this gospel tells us that Satan entered into Judas at the last supper, as Jesus told him to “do quickly what he was about to do.”
Much like Jake Roy, who lived with the side effects of his Rodney Dangerfield persona in real life, Judas has his entire life tainted by his most infamous moments. Did he really care nothing for the poor? Was he just trying to say the right words in order to earn praise from Jesus? It scarcely matters, because whatever his intention, his words would be forever interpreted and told to his own detriment.
I’ll admit that I at times have reactions very close to what we are told Judas said at the extravagance of Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ feet with ointment that was valued at an entire year’s wages. I cringe at the idea of naming rights for things promoted as actual charity. I wonder at the extravagance of some infrastructure that seems to place glory higher than function. I detest having to spend more for the right label to be on the merchandise—especially if that label comes to be more important than the fit or the function.
Why and how could it be a good thing that Mary did, filling the house with the aroma of costly perfume as she worked it into Jesus’ feet, and then into her own hair? How would Judas even recognize such a costly item? Does it matter?
Many people despair at Jesus’ words in this story, fearing that telling us that the poor are with us always will make us less likely to love them, less likely to do our best to provide for those with less than we have ourselves. I expect that Jesus’ intent was actually the opposite. In defending Mary, Jesus says, “The poor are with you always.” Is there a question underneath these words? Was Jesus asking when was the last time this keeper of the purse had given anything from that purse to the poor? When was the last time that purse was used for anything charitable? If Mary had indeed sold that perfume and added the money to the purse of the disciples, would it have made its way to the poor, or would Judas have zealously guarded it for future expenses for the group as they travelled through the countryside?
Might Jesus have been saying, “Judas, you won’t need that purse much longer for me, but the poor? Open your eyes. See them now. Don’t just use them as an excuse to belittle Mary and what she has done.”
It seems clear that Judas’ concern for the poor is a false concern as it is expressed here. His interest is in disparaging Mary for her extravagance.
I’m less sure that it has anything to do with Judas being a thief.
It is the time of year when taxes are due for most of us who live in this country. Our system of taxation is supposed to be for the benefit of all, supporting infrastructure like roads and bridges, providing for civil protections from violence and disaster, and assisting the needy—including the poor. How many people strive to resist paying a fair share of the taxes needed for these services? How many wonder what’s actually fair? Why are we often afraid to let others see how much tax we pay, or how much money we earn?
Are we actually concerned about the poor, or do we used the poor as an excuse, like it appears Judas did?
Let us pray for hearts as compassionate as God’s, that we may be able to love our neighbors just as God loves all creation, no matter how rich or poor we believe them to be.
In Jesus’ name. Amen