The Poor Won’t Always Be With You: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 5
Lent 5 (Year C): John 12:1-8 and Deuteronomy 15:7-11
1) This is the fifth week of Lent, the last before Holy Week begins. We’ve been primarily traveling with Luke so far, but this week we turn to the Gospel of John for the story of the anointing at Bethany - best read alongside Deuteronomy 15:7-11, the passage Jesus invokes at the story’s pivotal moment.
2) We are on the verge of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem; Bethany is just outside the city, on the eastern side of Mount of Olives. As John tells it, the jubilant “hosannas” of Palm Sunday are about to ring out - and yet Lazarus’ sister, Mary, discerning what everyone else in the story overlooks, tenderly anoints Jesus’ body for burial.
3) This story has caused significant consternation over the centuries, since on the surface it can sound as if Jesus is condoning the permanence of poverty, as if to say: Don’t worry too much about ending or even alleviating poverty, because after all, “you always have the poor with you” (John 12:8). On closer inspection, however, as we’ll see below, Jesus is actually saying the opposite, echoing a classic passage in Deuteronomy on the theme of (wait for it!) providing help to the poor, including the end-goal of building a society in which there will be “no one in need among you” (Deut 15:4).
1) Deuteronomy 15 presents God’s instruction, delivered through Moses, about how the sabbatical year - a septennial “remission of debts” - should play out in practice. Moses warns against the custom being used as a pretext for unkindness toward indebted neighbors: “Do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, ‘The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,’ and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing;” on the contrary, “give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so” (Deut 15:9-10). In other words, don’t be “tight-fisted,” but rather “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land,” regardless of the sabbatical year’s timing (Deut 15:7,11). And moreover, this generous, open-handed stance should be continual, not merely occasional - since for all practical purposes in the world as we know it, we’ll always be able to find a neighbor in need. The tightly closed fist is never fitting, Moses insists, neither today nor tomorrow. Whether or not the sabbatical year is imminent, we are called to live out a continually open-handed way of life.
2) But doesn’t this picture of continual open-handedness imply continual poverty? Moses is clear about God’s ultimate answer to this question: so long as the people live “by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today,” then there will be “no one in need among you” (Deut 15:4-5). And this “entire commandment,” of course, includes both the sabbatical year and the directive in this very passage, the line Jesus invokes in his response to Judas: “Since there will never cease to be some need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy’” (Deut 15:11). Put simply, “no one in need” is God’s ultimate vision for society; “open your hand” is part of the pathway for getting there.
3) In John’s story, Mary, Lazarus’ sister, embodies both open-handedness and discerning wisdom, lavishing Jesus with precious perfume, effectively anointing his body, as Jesus puts it, “for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). She sees what the disciples either miss or refuse to see: that Jesus, even as he prepares for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, is also preparing for his death.
4) And in contrast, for John, Judas embodies the tight-fisted stance rebuked in Deuteronomy. Not only does he fail to recognize Mary’s wisdom, he accuses her of immoral excess: You should have used that money to help the poor, as Moses commands! But Jesus will have none of it: Leave her alone! She sees our situation better than you do: I am about to leave you; my death draws near. Will you not honor my body here in the shadow of death, as Mary has done? Even worse, will you dishonor her for doing so? And as for helping the poor, as Moses has indeed said, you can and should continually be generous - so why don’t you go ahead and do that yourself, Judas, rather than judging and demeaning Mary? You hypocrite: you make a show of being “open-handed,” but in truth your fist is closed, the most tightly closed of all… (John 12:4-8).
5) And then (just in case we missed it!), John editorially adds that Judas criticizes Mary “not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief” skimming off the top of the movement’s communal purse - and so would have profited if the money had instead been given to the movement (John 12:6). Thus for John, Judas embodies the perfect opposite of open-handed generosity: tight-fisted greed.
1) At its heart, this account belongs to the set of Gospel stories in which women following Jesus prove to be more discerning and devout than the male disciples - and in this story, both the contrast and the dramatic irony are particularly stark. Mary perceptively and kindly anoints Jesus for burial, and Judas, the one whose betrayal will lead to Jesus’ death in the first place, ignorantly and unkindly attempts to put her to shame. Accordingly, Jesus exalts Mary as an exemplar. She acts with more insight and open-handed grace than anyone else in the story. She understands the stakes. She sees Jesus is on the verge of a great trial and a horrific, degrading death - and so she honors him ahead of time, offering him solace and encouragement with almost unbearable tenderness.
2) And at the same time, Jesus puts Judas in his place by exposing his hypocrisy. Having an “open hand to the poor” should be a continual stance, Jesus contends, echoing Moses, not an occasional cudgel for judging others, much less a cover for tight-fisted greed. Yes, being generous to neighbors and moving toward a society in which there is “no one in need” should be our overarching goals - but along the way, there are milestones when special acts of generosity, moments of extravagance-in-love, are beautiful and fitting. Burying the dead is one of those moments, and Jesus, Mary perceives, is on the precipice of death. This is no ordinary dinner gathering. This is farewell.
3) In his rebuke of Judas, then, so far from condoning unkindness toward neighbors in need, Jesus reaffirms the opposite by invoking Deuteronomy 15: both the neighborly open-handedness God commands and the poverty-free society toward which God calls us, that new life together with “no one in need” (Deut 15:4; compare Acts 4:32-35). And that society, please note, will come into being not only through neighborly generosity, but also through social structures at least loosely akin to the sabbatical year. We may indeed “open our hands” to each other personally, and at the same time “open our hands” communally by building and protecting social systems that help counter the root causes of poverty in the first place.
4) The good news of the Gospel this week is that God calls us toward this personal and communal vision of a generous, wisely structured world - and at the same time blesses each of us, women and men alike, with the wisdom and discernment to follow Mary’s example, opening our hands in ways that honor one another in love and grace. We stand on the verge of Holy Week. The house is filled with the fragrance of perfume. The hosannas will come, the lamentations will follow, and the promise of Easter morning - that radiant new world, dawning even now, where crying and pain and poverty will be no more - beckons from the other side of the tomb.