In Jn 12.1-8, we read a short story regarding Jesus’ stay at Bethany. This occurs in-between the time when he raised Lazarus from the dead, and his parody of a ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem. From a literary perspective, this pericope heightens the sense of doom that is now beginning to engulf Jesus. Thus, in Jn 11, after raising Lazarus, the politico-religious leaders begin to plan how to kill Jesus — and Jesus is driven into hiding. Then, in Jn 12.1-8, Mary (likely the sister of Martha and Lazarus) anoints Jesus with a costly perfume — which Jesus tells us was reserved for the day of his burial (cue ominous theme music). Things only get worse in 12.9-10 where we read of the plot to kill Lazarus, in 12.19 where the plot to kill Jesus is confirmed, and again in 12.27-36 wherein Jesus speaks of his imminent death.
However, literary approaches aside, the focus of most popular readings of Jn 12.1-8 is upon Jesus’ rebuke of Judas. When Judas accosts Mary for wasting an expensive perfume on Jesus (‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’), Jesus responds by saying:
Leave her alone… You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.
Now, it seems to me that contemporary Western readers of this text almost universally interpret it in the following way: Jesus is telling us that we will never ‘solve’ the ‘problem of poverty’, so we shouldn’t get too caught up in trying to give everything away for the sake of the poor (thank God we have this passage to balance out what Jesus says to the ‘rich young ruler’!). Instead we should realise that we are entitled to live comfortably ourselves. Thus, if anyone tries to tell us to sell our nice things (like the expensive perfume Mary bought for Jesus) we should rebuke that person just as Jesus rebuked Judas.
It is my contention that this is exactly the opposite of what this text actually says. Let me explain why.
First of all, when Jesus says, ‘you always have the poor with you’, he is actually quoting from Deut 15.11 — from a chapter explaining the outworkings of the Sabbatical year, marked by its concern for the poor. Thus, Deut 15 begins by talking about the remission of debts, and based upon this principle it asserts: that ‘there will be no poor among you.’ However, it then goes on to say the following:
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be… Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so… For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore, I command you saying, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land (I’m combining readings from the NRSV and the NASB).
Now this puts an entirely different spin on Jesus words that ‘you will always have the poor with you’. Our popular reading of these words is used to justify hard-hearted and tight-fisted behaviour towards the poor, but Deut 15 would suggest that Jesus means precisely the opposite. So, what then does it mean to say that the poor will always be with us? Well, according to Deut 15, that the poor will always be with us, means that we should be sure to give openly and generously to the poor. Assuming that the people of God are actually taking seriously their talk of God’s ‘provision’ and ‘abundance’ (instead of just affirming this in some superficial way), this shouldn’t be a problem.
Second, how does this understanding of these words fit with the passage in Jn? Easy. It fits because Jesus himself was poor. Jesus was a vagrant (cf. Mt 8.20), dependent upon the charity of others (in the passage at hand, Jesus is living off of the charity of Lazarus and staying at his home) or the abundance of God (cf. Mt 17.24-27). Thus, anointing Jesus for burial with an expensive perfume, is a perfect illustration of what Deut 15 requires because Jesus is a poor man on the way to his death (not surprisingly, at the hands of the wealthy and powerful).
In this way, Jesus continues to demonstrate his mastery of rhetorical battles. We are all aware of the various ways that Jesus overcomes the scribes and teachers of the law, by speaking subvesive truths while also not explicitly implicating himself (Mt 22.21 is a fine example of this). However, it is far less frequently noted that Jesus has achieved the same thing here (actually I don’t know if this is noted anywhere because it has been a long time since I’ve read any commentaries on Jn). Here is what has happened: Judas, out of his greed to steal from the money made by selling the perfume, masks his greed by pretending to be concerned for the poor (or so the author of Jn tells us). In response, Jesus affirms a genuine commitment to the poor, while challenging Judas’ greed (he really was that good!).
Third, and finally, the specificity of this event needs to be noted. Part of the reason for Jesus’ rebuttal of Judas is that he, the eternal Word (according to the author in Jn 1.1-18) and the great ‘I Am’ (Jn 8.58), is on his way to his death, and will soon no longer be with the disciples. Hence, the second half of his sentence: ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’
Consequently, from this perspective, Mary’s act can be perceived as an act of worship — of giving generously to God. However, this perspective does not contradict the thoughts I have developed above. Rather, it confirms those thoughts because giving to God, and giving to the poor are not mutually exclusive acts. This is evident all throughout Scripture, but one of the most cited passages on the interconnection of worship and generosity to the poor is Is 58.6-12. Through the prophet the LORD proclaims:
Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? … Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your ight shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…
Thus, although the person of Jesus is no longer physically with us, we can continue to engage in the form of worship demonstrated in this passage by giving generously to the poor amongst us.
In conclusion, I hope that I have adequately demonstrated the false nature of popular understandings of Jn 12.8. Jesus is most certainly not telling us to relax because the problem of poverty will be resolved. Rather, he is telling us to give generously to the poor in our midst. So, the next time you’re talking about solidarity with the marginalised, and somebody throws this passage at you (as they inevitably will), you will at least have a response prepared!