The Poor are Always with You, or, A Tale of Two Smells (sermon)
It’s getting pretty dry these days… we could do with rain. But I guess some day soon it will rain and we will look back on it as the drought of 2013.
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing… I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert….
When the rains come we will quickly move on from the droughts of 2013. For Isaiah God is involved in the natural world… the wild animals (jackals and ostriches) honour God… but there’s more. God’s involvement in the natural world is a metaphor here for a new people… bringing the people of God to life …Why? ‘so that they might declare my praise’ says Isaiah’s God.
There seems like something odd about that… it reminds me of the movie ‘castaway’ with Tom Hanks stuck on an island on his own… and among the cargo of his crashed plane he finds a volley ball which he paints a face on and calls Wilson and talks to it. Isaiah makes me think of God being like Tom Hanks and getting Wilson to sing his praises. Is God really like that? Does God need us to flatter him?
Notice though, Isaiah doesn’t say that the praise is directed to God… he talks of a people who declare God’s praise in the midst of a world (including wild animals) which will honour God.
In other words God doesn’t need a world to support God’s ego, God desires a world that, that shares in God’s own goodness, and so God creates a people which will demonstrate to all of creation something of the beauty of God’s life. We are a demonstration.
Let’s hold that thought (a people which will demonstrate something of the beauty of God’s life) as an introduction to our gospel reading today:
The first thing that strikes me about his reading is the power of smell… Lazarus has become a celebrity… and Jesus is back at the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus and they are hosting a dinner in honour of him. Mary we learn has been saving up perfume, nard, strong smelling oil, for his burial. She has half a litre of it. That’s quite a lot really. She pours it over his feet. And we are told the smell fills the room. It must have been overwhelming, rich, sensual. And Mary adds to the sensuality of it by wiping his feet with her hair.
This is burial ointment, but he is not yet dead. This is a moment of great emotion. Love for a dying man. In the symbolism we see all of her grief, poured out.
And Judas, who is the treasurer, says Stop! What a waste! Think about how many poor people could have been fed if we sold this ointment! He might have said, think about how many plants were cut down to make this ointment! It’s a very practical accounting exercise. It’s a strong argument. It considers broad issues of justice. These kinds of spillages cost money. Financially they don’t make sense. And yet something is missing in Judas’s accounting system. Sure he is a fraud, the gospel writer doesn’t hesitate to remind us, but nevertheless his argument is persuasive… persuasive, but limited… persuasive, but one-dimensional.
Jesus reply is worth thinking about.
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.
With these words Jesus turns the moment around. It is not a spillage but a sacrament… Mary is beginning Jesus funeral. He’s not dead yet, but with the constant reminders that he is about to die, Mary, is finding a way to honour that fact, in a concrete, public act of celebration and grief… Leave her alone… burial practices matter… shared emotion matters… celebrations matter… and they matter in a way that doesn’t always fit with what we sometimes call the bottom line (by which we mean money… as if that were the most basic reality in life!). There are things in the life of the community of disciples that matter more than the so-called basics…
The second part is even more significant… mainly because it is often read, by people of a certain kind of political persuasion… to suggest that Jesus was disregarding the call of the poor upon a community’s resources… as if Jesus was saying that poverty was not an important issue, because there will always be poor people, as long as there are human beings…. Now it may be true that there will always be poor people as long as humans struggle for the resources of our planet… but that’s not what Jesus said! …Listen to what he actually said:
“You always have the poor with you”. (NRSV)
Would Jesus say that to us? “You always have the poor with you”? Jesus said that to his disciples because they had been living with him. They had been with him when he spent time with the prostitutes. They had been with him when he was with the blind street-beggars. They were with him when he touched and embraced the disgusting and untouchables on the outskirts of town – the lepers. They were with him when he befriended tax collectors and Samaritans – enemies of society. The poor were always with them. That was how they were learning to live as followers of Jesus. The poor, it’s a broad term (literally the little ones), the psychologically ill, the people you feel embarrassed to be around, the ones who probably won’t succeed, the ones you might think were not good role models for your children. Notice, Jesus didn’t say “there will always be poor people”, he says that they always have the poor WITH THEM.
Of course they do… they’re Jesus people!
Listen to the dialogue again. Judas’s suggestion is that they could have sold the ointment and given the money to the poor. For Judas the poor are out there somewhere. He can keep them at arms length and give charity to them. That’s easy. Especially if you have spare cash from luxury items like perfume. Charity so often means precisely that. I can continue to have the poor at a distance and feel good about that distance, because I have given some money to them… I can tell myself that’s all I can really do.
You know there are all sorts of reasons why it’s hard to be with the poor, aren’t there. We don’t share common interests, its hard work listening to them. We simply don’t organize our life that way. Our city is not structured with places for us to bump into them and chat. We are too busy working and looking after our family.
George Orwell, in his book The Road to Wigan Pier, thinks there is a deeper more difficult reason that lies at the root of our difficulty… and of class distinctions. He says they can be “summed up in four frightful words”: “The lower classes smell”.
Orwell says we can get over those other barriers, which have intellectual and cultural aspects to them, much easier than physical repulsion. Orwell says:
“You can have an affection for a murderer… but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him.”
Richard Beck, a theologian and psychologist in the field of ‘disgust psychology’ has this to say about the Christian life:
“When you welcome people from the margins you are going to have to cross a sensory boundary. There will be odors left on your person, in your house, in your car. You will enter places and encounter bodies where “sound hygiene” becomes thrown up against love and charity.”
Beck says that the Christian life, even the fate of my soul hangs in the balance when I come up to that smell… that threshold, that sensory boundary. The point where I choose whether to be or not to be… with the poor.
We began with perfume and we are back to smell again. It’s a tale of two smells. And Jesus point is to stick up for Mary, in her celebration and her grief. The community that lives with the poor does not deal in bread alone, it celebrates. It is not merely about survival it is about special occasions. And it’s often those who don’t have a lot to come and go on, who teach us how to let go of things, and celebrate.
Which links back to Isaiah again… God is doing a new thing, creating a people, a community which lives with the poor, which celebrates with the poor and celebrates life together… a people who declare (in their way of life) the praises of God.