Jesus had a habit of eating out and drinking with people it was considered inappropriate for him to be seen with. It annoyed people, mostly his inner circle of friends, and they sometimes told him how annoyed they were about it. Not only did the weirdos have Jesus over to their houses for dinner, they gave him presents. Expensive presents. Once, Jesus had a woman smother his head with expensive perfume while he ate dinner at a lepers house. To the disciples of Jesus, this was a disgusting exhibition. Rather than enjoy seeing their teacher being gifted with an anointing by a generous worshipper, Jesus’ friends got well and truly ticked off. Maybe it was because it had never occurred to them to do what she did. Maybe they felt this woman was moving in on their turf, or just making a spectacle of herself. Maybe they thought she was attention seeking, or even trying to seduce Jesus. Who knows what they thought. All we know is what they said.
“What a waste.”
The Son of God, the Way, Truth and Life, reclines beside them at the table within an arms length, words of wisdom dripping from his tongue, grace exuding from his every pore, and these, his friends and followers, consider a simple yet significant act of sacrifice and kindness extended toward him to be a waste?
I once had a conversation with the pastor of a church about the possibility of starting up a welfare program for the poor in that community. He suggested I not go to the trouble. As far as he was concerned, that community had no poor. There is no poverty in this city, he said, and with that, he succinctly and effectively absolved himself of losing any sleep, or any of his churches resources, for their sakes.
Jesus looked up from the table to where his disciples stood grumbling, the fragrant oil still dripping down his forehead, the woman’s hands still in his hair, and answered their mutterings without disdain or anger. He knew they were, at least in that moment, lacking in any genuine concern for the poor. Their complaints against the gift had sprung more from their own shame and embarrassment than from a sense of duty or charity. Casting aspersions on the woman’s act was the only way to mask their own failure to honour their master properly. Rather than rebuke them outright, Jesus chose to honour the woman and her act, whilst gently prompting the conscience of his disciples.
“The poor”, he says, “you will always have with you. But you will not always have me.”
I’m going soon. Time is short. She is preparing me properly for my death. Relax, I’m not angry with you.
But think about what I’ve said. Yes, this perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. So, when I am gone, do what your conscience just told you was right. And for as long as you have the poor with you, do what is right. And you will always have the poor with you.
I know missions work is an important part of what Church is, and what it does, but it’s not just brown-skinned, big-eyed babies with distended bellies and bare-feet that qualify as our poor. I know we don’t like to hear it, but many of our poor live between brick walls and own televisions.
Everywhere I went for months after that conversation with the pastor, I looked at people through different eyes. There are no poor in this city, I told myself, more to justify my doing nothing for any of them, and my not planning to any time soon, than anything else. Not poor, not poor, not poor. It became easier to think of them as lazy for not fulfilling my aspirations for them, than to consider myself lazy for not doing anything to help them meet their own.
If there are no poor with you, you haven’t been listening. Jesus never said anything about the great paying job we would always have with us, or the two-storey rendered brick four bedder we would always have with us. He didn’t even say anything about the husband or wife we would always have with us, the friends, the church, or the pile of money we have in the bank we would always have with us. The poor. They are what Jesus said we would always have with us. Strange. Where do you suppose they could’ve gotten to?
Ever wondered what it must have felt like for that woman, hearing the disciples snarky remarks about her obviously well-thought-out (but quite risky) gesture? What if Jesus had pushed her away? What if that perfume were the last thing on earth she actually owned? What if she were supposed to save that perfume for her parents funeral, or for her own? What if she were actually one of the poor the disciples were referring to? Nice, you guys. Real tactful.
The poor are with us. And there are more ways to be poor than just financial. Whatever your currency is, that’s how you’ll judge worth. For some it’s fiscal, for others, it’s relational, others, political. Jesus didn’t care as much for the monetary price of the woman’s gift as he did for it’s spiritual worth. He saw a woman with what we might call these days ‘emotional intelligence’. As far as Jesus was concerned, she got it. And he bought into that currency. The disciples whining was a ruse, and Jesus knew it. Buy in, he said. I have come not for the things you will always have with you, but for the ones you will always have with you.
And so, my friends, have you and I.