We have a very poignant story in today’s Gospel: Jesus is invited to an amazing dinner party in the home of his friends Mary and Martha in the village of Bethany, which is not far from Jerusalem. It was actually quite dangerous for Jesus to get this close to Jerusalem. There was already a plot against his life, and undoubtedly that would have been one of the topics discussed at the dinner table that evening, among these, some of his closest friends.
Death and resurrection would have been very much on their minds since another of the guests was Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus who – John’s Gospel has just told us – Jesus had raised from the dead! The two women are fulfilling their expected and predictable roles – Martha bustling around serving the meal; Mary absolutely focused on Jesus and, no doubt, worrying about his fate and the danger he was in by just being there.
Her love for Jesus leads her to go far beyond the servants’ role of washing his feet, but to anoint them with expensive perfume – a kind which would have been imported from the Himalayan mountains! Judas takes offense at this extravagant offering, making what is actually a pretty logical argument that this expensive stuff could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Why waste it on someone’s feet?
The Gospel writer, John, interjects himself into the story at this point, calling Judas’ sincerity into question. Apparently, in this tradition, Judas wasn’t known for his commitment to the poor or for his generosity at all, but rather was known to steal from the common purse Jesus and his friends used to live on! In any case, Jesus sees a deeper meaning in Mary’s action (probably connected to the fact that they had been talking about his possible assassination).
He sees the anointing as a kind of symbolic gesture, the kind of “in-acted parable” that he and the prophets used to engage in. He sees it as a solemn warning. Before too long (Mary seems to be saying by her actions) there will be another anointing of this body. But it will be the anointing reserved for his corpse! The traditional anointing of the body before burial. So, Jesus says, “Leave her alone! You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me!” (John 12:8)
I’ve actually heard this line quoted to suggest that the Church has no responsibility to give to the poor! After all, there will always be poor people!
But Jesus was actually citing the first half of a verse from the 15th chapter of Deuteronomy. “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land!’” (Deuteronomy 15:11)
Believe me, everyone in that room would have been able to complete the second half of that verse, and would have known Jesus was not giving anyone permission to ignore the poor! I think he was saying, “You always have the poor with you (and you can help them whenever you will), but this is a special time, a unique moment in history…and it’s right for Mary to observe it in this way.”
In fact, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that when you make an offering to Jesus you ARE making an offering to the poor. And when you make an offering to the poor, you’re making an offering to Jesus. After all, didn’t he once say, “Inasmuch as you have done it to one of these least of these…you’ve done it to me?” (Pause)
Actually this is one of the reasons I like the “unified offering” system we have in The Episcopal Church. Except for emergencies and very rare occasions, we try not to take up special offerings for this and that cause, Sunday by Sunday, like some churches are wont to do. Offerings for domestic mission, offerings for overseas mission, special offerings to repair the church heating system…and on and on.
Instead, we ask you to tithe…or to give some percentage of your income…pledge to offer it here on Sunday mornings…and trust the Church to be good stewards of what you give. Because good stewardship is not “fund raising.” Good stewardship is not just paying the light or heating bills at St. James’ Church. And good stewardship is certainly not supporting things you approve of and withholding money from things you disapprove of. Good stewardship is doing what Mary did in today’s Gospel – offering something to Jesus because you love him! Taking care of the Body of Christ…because the Body of Christ cares for you!
I’ve been a tither for most of my adult life. That means ten per cent of my income given away for purposes that I believe align with the heart of God. A good portion of our tithe goes to the Church. Some of it goes directly to poor and marginalized people. Some of it goes to programs and efforts we believe make this world a better place.
Of the amount you and I pledge to the Church, some of it goes for institutional concerns – buildings and grounds, staff salaries and the like. Some of it goes for children’s and adult education, music, evangelism, and outreach. We will promise in a few moments to help Phoebe, the young person we will baptize today, “to grow into the full stature of Christ.” That means this church needs to be here and to be strong to support her in her lifelong pilgrimage.
Some of the amount we pledge here goes on to our diocese – to support youth ministry and campus ministry and small congregations, to continue our companion diocese relationships with SE Mexico and the South Sudan, to help foster good communications so that we can work together more effectively. Of what we give to the diocese, some goes on to The Episcopal Church and even to the Anglican Communion to support missionary efforts on national and international level that we could not possibly do on our own.
I know this is Lent, not “Stewardship Sunday!” But today’s Gospel is all about giving and the three traditional Lenten disciplines include not only prayer and fasting, but also almsgiving! And Lent is a good time to remember that we all need to take care of the Body of Christ because the Body of Christ cares for us.
To remember that what we offer to Jesus, we also offer to the poor and what we offer to the poor, we also offer to Jesus.
We need to be as sacrificial in our giving as Mary of Bethany was in today’s Gospel. We need to see our tithes and offerings as pure nard…anointing the body of Jesus…so that the fragrance of that perfume (that perfect offering) may fill…this…house! Amen.