“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?”
Such thoughtful, generous words. Words oozing with righteousness, Torah faithfulness, purity. But ultimately words that betray a raw grasp for power and wealth, words that betray a heart corrupted and wicked, a heart that cares nothing for the poor or anyone else.
In this season of Lent, as we journey with Jesus to the cross, the veneer is slowly pulled back to reveal what lies beneath the surface. Kingdoms are gearing up for war. The heavens are preparing for cataclysmic battle.
And while the battle rages beneath the surface, a group of people sit down to eat together. All the characters are present: Lazarus—the dead man brought back to life, Martha—ever the servant, Jesus—the savior, Judas—the betrayer, and Mary—the one who loved lavishly. The characters are almost larger than life. They leap off the page, and in some ways represent battles that continue to live on today—between doing and being, between giving and taking, between loving and using.
It’s a risky prospect to go to a dinner party with Jesus. The masks that we wear seem to unexpectedly get stripped away leaving our true selves exposed for all the world to see. As readers of this story many centuries later, we see not only Lazarus, Martha, Mary, Judas, and Jesus sitting down to dinner together, but also an ominous foreshadowing of what lies ahead.
At the heart of this story lies the values of two competing kingdoms. Judas represents his kingdom—the world’s kingdom, our kingdom—well. His bid for wealth and influence was subtle, couched in terms of pious Torah observance. In other settings, Judas probably looked pretty good. But when he came face to face with Mary’s lavish, over-the-top, wasteful generosity, his cold calculations were exposed. “It was worth a year’s wages!” Judas knew the value of things. He was no fool. He calculated and counted his way to wealth as the keeper of the purse, and he wasn’t about to let go of that much wealth without a fight.
We live in that world. We are surrounded by subtle bids for power and wealth. Bids that are couched in terms of righteousness, justice, responsibility. We see this language in politics, in corporations, even in churches. Anywhere that power and wealth are available for the taking, there are cold calculators saying the right things, getting themselves positioned to have access to the money bag.
And then there is Mary’s kingdom—a kingdom that seems like it can’t last. Giving away a year’s worth of wages in a moment? People who live like this will be destitute in a matter of weeks. This kind of kingdom cannot stand up against the calculating, power-hungry, wealthy kingdom. This kind of kingdom doesn’t stand a chance!
But Jesus turned Judas’s so-called Torah righteousness on its head. He responded to Judas’s criticism of Mary with a nod to Deuteronomy 15:
7If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. 8Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. 9Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. 10Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. 11There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
This kingdom isn’t based on a strategy. It’s based on a power that goes deeper than the number of zeroes in a bank account or the position in the political hierarchy; it’s based on the lavish generosity of the One who sustains the universe.
Today’s text from Isaiah describes the power of this kingdom well, referring back to the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. “Chariots and horses, the army and reinforcements together, and they lay there, never to rise again, extinguished, snuffed out like a wick…”
As easily as pinching out the flame of a candle, so the Lord can extinguish even the most powerful armies and kingdoms. It is the task of the people of God not to grasp for power, to calculate and strategize to get to the top of the heap; it is their task—our task—simply to trust in the power of the eternal kingdom and to give all that we have freely, without considering the cost.
When we read a description like this of an event close to the end of Jesus’ life, I think many of us instinctively want to condemn Judas’s greed and celebrate Mary’s wonderful gift. We know what’s coming. We know just how far Judas’s greed will take him. And we know that Mary will encounter a gardener who is much, much more than a gardener. We want to imagine that we are on the right side of history, on the side of generosity, on Mary’s side.
And yet, history goes on, and the Judases of this world continue to rise to positions of power and prestige. We find ourselves buying their smooth words of righteousness. We find ourselves admiring their ability to calculate and strategize and make a name for themselves.
Meanwhile we question the wisdom of those whose lives seem to be poured out senselessly—whether a couple who contracts ebola while serving in an African medical clinic or a family who loses their house because they can’t seem to hang onto their money long enough to pay their mortgage. “Fools,” we say. “Don’t they understand how the world works?”
This is a story of extremes. Pouring out perfume that is worth a year’s wages. A betrayer who steals from the common purse. Can’t we fall somewhere in the middle? Can’t we calculate just how generous we can afford to be? But that’s the problem. We live in a world at war, in the midst of competing kingdoms—a kingdom that is eating people up on its way to power and a kingdom that is open-handed, giving freely to the poor, without calculation.
“I regard all things as a loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” wrote Paul. Not some things. Not the “luxuries” or the non-necessities. All things.
As the cross looms larger and larger in the weeks to come, the task before us is pulled into stark outline. We are called to give all. Our very lives are at stake. There is no middle ground, no “safe” offering. The cosmos is at war and by living with lavish, over-the-top generosity, we declare our allegiance to the kingdom of love. We align with the side of Mary. We give and love freely.
For a compelling (and extremely secular) portrayal of competing kingdoms, check out Lady Gaga's song and video, Judas. Money, sex, and power take center stage as Lady Gaga is pulled into Judas's world, but her wedding day is also her death. (Or come up with your own interpretation. The video is chalk full of metaphorical imagery!)