I have a very clear memory of the sermons I heard as a child. Though–sadly, not what amazing theology they included.
What I remember is the illustrations. I have a crystal-clear memory of being about 9 years old and hearing a sermon about….something, and the associate priest talking about how when baby turtles were hatched, they had to make it all the way across the beach, to the sea, and MOST OF THEM DIED. This factoid so horrified me that I couldn’t listen to the rest of the sermon (I’m sure it had a great point, and was very enlightening.) All I could think of was the poor baby turtles being eaten by evil seagulls or something. Like Apocalypse Now on the Beach.
I say this because I am fairly certain I went into baby-turtle-territory in this particular sermon with my idea** that we should start a Bible Misquote Awards Show. We should give awards for the most flagrant misquote! The most self-serving out-of-context proof-texting! The most cringeworthy ignoring of irony!***
However, we SHOULD. Because seriously, people misquote “the poor will be with you always” with the bravado of a frat guy just discovering the Big Lebowski.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 7, 2019
Lent 5, Year C
If they gave out awards for Bible Verses most Taken out of Context, first of all, I would definitely watch that show. You could have categories like “Most Inappropriate Bible Verse to Quote on a Vision Board”. “Most Awkward Verse to Base a Self-Help Book on”, “Verse that Definitely does not justify the discrimination you think it does” and “Odd Proverb that Just Isn’t Quoted Enough”.
Someone should do this, is my point.
But one of the heavy hitters, I would argue, at least in the past thirty or so years in this country, would have to be a verse from this gospel. “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
Every so often, a politician or other famous person will quote this line. In 2017, a Kansas congressman said that he was in favor of massive cuts to Medicaid, because Jesus said we would always have poor people, and this reflected his belief that some people—he called them Medicaid people—just didn’t want to be healthy, or to be helped, so why bother?
While I will stipulate that Jesus, in this context, is not discussing the role of the federal government in poverty prevention, I also wish to state that Jesus is NOT saying that there is no point in helping the poor. Hence, why this verse is a contender for the Most MisInterpreted.
First off, we know this because the writer of John kind of says so himself. The objection to Mary’s actions come from Judas Iscariot, who the narrator immediately tells us is not trustworthy, and in this case, is lying. He doesn’t care about the poor—he just wants to steal more money.
But also, we know because Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy—something everyone in the room would have known. And the Deuteronomy verse he is quoting says, “SINCE there will always be poor among you, therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are in need.”
And if that wasn’t enough—there’s the entire context of why this is happening in the first place, so let’s backtrack a minute.
So, in the Fourth Gospel, the last major action that happens before the entrance into Jerusalem is the raising of Lazarus. In John’s gospel—Lazarus has just died, and Jesus has just raised him back to life. Now, Jesus is staying over at Mary and Martha’s house the night before he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, because Bethany is just outside the city walls. (Today, Bethany is called in Arabic, al-Lazariyah, in honor of this family.) Anyway.
That’s what’s just happened. Lazarus, who now is reclining at dinner with everyone else, was just DEAD, and Jesus raised him. So the emotions at play here make a lot more sense, right? Mary is overcome with gratitude because she has her brother back. She takes expensive nard and anoints Jesus’ feet with it. Nard was routinely used to anoint the bodies of loved ones who had died. Because the burial practice of the time was to use above-ground tombs, smells were a real concern. To put it delicately. It is likely this is what she had left over from her brother’s burial, and in an overflow of emotion, she offers it to Jesus, who recognizes a deeper meaning at work.
Judas, meanwhile, is irked. He is outside of the emotional moment here.
And there are many reasons why—the writer’s statement that he was a thief may or may not be true. There definitely were reasons that the writer needed to depict Judas as a clearly evil guy, given what he ends up doing. But it’s also worth noting that in a straightforward way, he’s not…wrong, exactly? I suppose Mary could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.
But Judas, like the other disciples, is really good at missing the point, and that’s what he does here. Sure, she COULD have done that. But that’s not really what’s called for in this particular moment. While God always commands us to be open-handed and generous to the poor, Jesus also points out that Mary’s act is one of generosity towards him, in particular…and that’s ok, too. (If for no other reason than Jesus too is poor. Remember, he is currently homeless, and relying on the kindness of two unmarried women and their recently-dead brother.)
It’s striking that at a moment right before he faces betrayal, violence, and death, Jesus accepts gratitude and love from his friends. He relaxes at a dinner cooked by Martha, he chats with Lazarus, and he receives Mary’s gratitude. Perhaps part of what Judas is struggling with here is that Judas doesn’t know how to conceptualize Jesus—Son of God!—accepting help and comfort from others.
After all, shouldn’t the Savior of the world be set on helping others? Isn’t that the moral of the world? Help others, and meanwhile, you should be able to stand on your own two feet, and pull yourself up via your sandal-straps. What business does Jesus have accepting anything from his friends?
And yet—that’s precisely what Jesus does. Even the Incarnate God pauses, for a moment, before the final act of his life, to enjoy time with his friends, and the people who love him best, to relax and renew. Because no one can stand on their own, not even the Christ.
We see glimpses of the value of that time through Holy Week, as Jesus mimics Mary’s action of washing his feet with his disciples, and as he mimics Martha’s actions at the Last Supper by feeding them. What has been given to him, he now knows how to give to others, and teaches them to give on to the world.
God calls us into community, so that we can recall that we are not alone. So that we do not have to stand alone against the challenges of the world. The communities we are placed in are meant to serve as reflections of God’s ever-present love and care for us, as we bear one another’s burdens, comfort one another, cheer one another, and support one another. We can provide, in material terms, the support we know that God offers us every day.
The poor will always be with us—both those who are materially poor and spiritually struggling— and so will the love of God. But it is up to us to connect those two things. It is up to us to support one another who travel with us in this journey, and to give to others what has been poured into our hands. As we build communities where God’s love and blessings are shared abundantly,
**My idea is brilliant. It’s a brilliant idea. If you would like to hear my actual pitch for this, please email me. I am taking meetings.
*** Currently, the world-record holder for Most Cringeworthy Ignoring of Irony by Person Quoting the Bible is Gov. Mike Huckabee, who suggested that God was in favor of capital punishment, because Jesus was crucified. Please clap for the governor, and his impressive achievement in cognitive dissonance.