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.