Waste

I don't know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.
I don’t know which department regulates salmon in blog posts.

One of the consistent refrains we hear during elections is that our government is too big and inefficient.  Though Democrats and Republicans disagree about the nature of the inefficiency (Republicans talk about paring down the size of government; Democrats tend to talk about making government more nimble), complaints about government waste come from both ends of the political spectrum.  A favorite example of inefficiency and waste has to do with one of our government’s inexplicable redundancies: when salmon are in freshwater, they are regulated by the Department of the Interior; when they are in saltwater, they are regulated by the Commerce Department.  Our President joked in a State of the Union address that “it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”  This concern with waste and inefficiency is emblematic of a broader human impulse: we like to make sure that we don’t waste the resources we have, that we use them effectively and appropriately.

It is for this reason that we might find today’s gospel reading offensive, as it tells the story of someone who is praised for her wastefulness.  In the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus visits the home of his friend Lazarus just after raising him from the dead.  While he and his disciples are sitting in the house, Lazarus’ sister Mary pours a bottle of expensive burial perfume mixed with nard (a burial spice) on Jesus’ feet and wipes his feet with her hair.  Judas, who eventually betrays Jesus (John never tires of telling us this) is indignant and claims that they could have sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.  Jesus responds by telling Judas, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”

It’s important for us to notice that this story takes place immediately after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead.  It is in the story of Lazarus’ resuscitation that Mary’s sister Martha approaches Jesus and says, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus’ tells her that Lazarus will rise again, to which Martha says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day,” as if to imply, “that’s not much comfort now.”  In response, Jesus proclaims, “I AM the Resurrection and the Life.”  Resurrection, in other words, is not the product of a distant future; it is an undeniably present reality.

These words of Jesus are still hanging in the air when he and his disciples gather with the recently resuscitated Lazarus and his siblings.  John makes sure we know that this is the context by reminding us that Lazarus was the one whom Jesus raised from the dead (as if we had forgotten from the previous chapter).  When Mary pours burial perfume over Jesus’ feet, she may well have been thinking of his theophanic proclamation that he is the Resurrection.  Perhaps she realized that the nard she had been keeping for his burial was unnecessary, because the grave would not be able to hold Jesus.  And so she pours out the superfluous perfume, filling the house with a worshipful testament to Jesus’ identity as the Resurrection who destroys the power of death.

I think that it is in this context that we are meant to hear the statement of Jesus that concludes this passage.  It’s easy to read it as narcissistic: “You always the poor with you, but you don’t always have me!”  We might be tempted to imagine that Jesus is saying, “Pay attention to me!  I’m the important one!”  If we read this in the context of Resurrection, however, the statement is far from narcissistic: “You always have the poor with you.”  In other words, you always have to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves; you always need to give to the poor from your abundance because this has implications in the Resurrection.  The things we do in this life matter, the things we transform in this life will be transformed in the Resurrection.  We can’t assume that those who are poor deserve their lot in life, we can’t agree with Hobbes that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” for most people, because we affirm our faith in the Resurrection, our faith in life that continues and brings transformation to the world.  During Lent, we are called to affirm our faith in the Resurrection, to give to the poor, and love with wasteful abandon, just as our God loves us.

Habemus Papam

urlFor the past two days, the eyes of the world have been watching a smokestack outside of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.  Many observers (including me) anticipated that we would be watching in vain for several days, that there would be significant wrangling as the cardinals struggled to elect a successor to the pope emeritus.  Instead, the conclave elected Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, an Italian-born bishop from Argentina, on the fifth ballot.  Bergoglio is the first pontiff from South America and the first Jesuit.  Though he is known for his conservative stances on issues like abortion and gay marriage, Cardinal Bergoglio has exhibited an incredible devotion to the poor and downtrodden.  Apart from his public work on behalf of the poor, Bergoglio has also eschewed much of the pomp traditionally associated with the Roman Catholic episcopacy: sources say that he insists on cooking his own meals and resides in a simple cell rather than the sumptuous episcopal apartments in Buenos Aires.  Perhaps his attitude toward the powerless is best embodied in his selection of a papal name: Francis, the first in this history of the papacy.  A friend of mine summarized the new pope’s election well: “He’s a humble bishop who took the name Francis.  This could be interesting.”

Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy merchant born in the twelfth century.  Though he spent the early part of his life reveling and vainly trying to attain military glory, he had an encounter with God that caused him to change the direction of his life.  While he was praying in the country chapel of San Damiano, Francis saw an icon of the crucified Christ say, “Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins.”  Though Francis initially took this to mean the building in which he sat, this charge to rebuild the Church eventually blossomed into a movement that transcended Francis and his hometown.  Though he has become known as “the guy who talked to animals,” Francis dedicated his life to living among and caring for the poor, and called the Church to do the same.  His love for animals, some of the most vulnerable creatures in this world, was symbolic of Jesus Christ’s call for us to care for “the least of these.”  A monastic order was eventually founded in his name to give a voice to the downtrodden, represent the needs of the world to the Church, and call the Church’s leadership to renewal.

While we can’t be sure that Francis I chose the friar from Assisi as his namesake, I hope that the new pope intended us to recall Francis’ message of renewal.  This is a challenging time for the Roman Catholic Church, but it is also a challenging time for the entire body of Christ.  We are all faced with questions about the truth and  relevancy of our proclamation of Christ crucified and risen.  We might be tempted to shrink back, to retreat into our church buildings out of a fear of being ostracized.  But I think we must remember that the Church serves an inescapably important purpose in this world.  Like Francis, the Church is called to give a voice to the downtrodden, to lift up those who have been bowed down by unjust and evil powers, and call the world to renewal.  During this season of Lent, I hope all of us can give thanks that the world’s most recognizable Christian leader has reminded Christians of their call to renewal.