Friday, March 18, 2016

The Poor Will Always Be With Us?

John 12:1-8

Philippians 3:4b-14

Can we eliminate poverty? More than fifty years ago President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. It is certainly a noble cause, but how is it going? We live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world and yet poverty, hunger, and homelessness are still a reality for millions of Americans. The situation in poorer nations is of course far worse. Certainly we cannot remain indifferent and yet some people throw a wet blanket on the whole idea. Another former president of this country once declared, “We fought a war on poverty and poverty won.” This leads some to ask, “Is the war on poverty even a battle worth fighting? In the words of today's gospel, didn't Jesus say, you will always have the poor with you?”

The novelist Kurt Vonnegut—who described himself as a Christ-worshipping agnostic (the best kind of agnostic by the way)—was  once invited to speak at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in New York City. He chose as his subject this particular gospel story. The text of his sermon is published in his book of essays entitled “Palm Sunday.” In it he recounted his youth growing up in Indiana,

“Whenever anybody out that way began to worry a lot about the poor people when I was young, some eminently respectable Hoosier, possibly an uncle or an aunt, would say that Jesus Himself had given up on doing much about the poor. He or she would paraphrase John 12, verse 8: "The poor people are hopeless. We'll always be stuck with them." The general company was then free to say that the poor were hopeless because they were so lazy or dumb, that they drank too much and had too many children and kept coal in the bathtub, and so on. Somebody was likely to quote Kim Hubbard, the Hoosier humorist, who said that he knew a man who was so poor that he owned 22 dogs. And so on. If those Hoosiers were still alive, which they are not, I would tell them now that Jesus was only joking, and the He was not even thinking much about the poor.” (Read the rest of the sermon here)

What did Vonnegut mean by saying Jesus was only joking? It gets a bit lost in translation he said, but Jesus was actually ribbing Judas with a bit of sarcasm. Judas was putting on airs and acting self righteous when he said the expensive perfume that Mary poured on Jesus' feet should have been sold and the money given to the poor. After all, as John adds, Judas was all the while stealing from the Treasury. Jesus shot back with a sarcastic remark that is perhaps better translated,

"Judas, don't worry about it. There will still be plenty of poor people left long after I'm gone." Vonnegut, himself a gifted humorist, commends Jesus for his biting wit and says, “This is about what Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln would have said under similar circumstances.”

So is that it? Was Jesus really just having a bit of fun at Judas' expense? There are a few points to be made that I hope will clarify what Jesus actually meant.

First, Jesus' comment about the poor always being with us needs to be read in conjunction with what he says next, “but you will not always have me.” Jesus is predicting his own betrayal and death, a fact of particular relevance to Judas! Mary is anointing him in preparation of his burial. He is making a comparison. God had put it in Mary's heart to perform this kindness for him now because this may be her last chance to thank him for all that he has done for her. It is a matter of urgency. It is similar to sending aid to a region recently ravaged by a flood. Does that mean that other valuable causes are unimportant? Of course not. This situation is immediate and grave, but we don't forget about the ongoing problem of poverty.

Second, Jesus is actually quoting scripture on the importance of giving to the poor. The words he quotes are from Deuteronomy 15:11, “There 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.” Far from being indifferent to the plight of the poor, God commands to give generously to alleviate their need. But is this just about charity? What about addressing the deeper systemic problem of economic injustice?

If you read the rest of Deuteronomy 15 you will find that God does indeed care about economic justice and commanded his people to take measures to eradicate the presence of poverty among them. God commanded that a percentage of the wealth of each house hold be given to provide for the foreigners, the fatherless, widows and other poor in their midst. He forbade the wicked practice of usury, or charging interest on loans. He also commanded that the end of every seven years all debts should be canceled.  In verse seven he directly contradicts the wet blanket attitude that says that poverty is inevitable social reality that we simply need to accept. He says, “there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the  Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” So when God says, “there will always be poor in the land” it is actually an indictment on the people for failing to be faithful to his commandments. 

This leads me to the third point, Jesus' words are an indictment of Judas' hypocrisy. Kurt Vonnegut may have had a point about Jesus ribbing Judas. Whats he saying? Jesus is employing the common Jewish practice of alluding to a larger scripture by quoting a part of it. He is reminding Judas about Deuteronomy 15 and challenging him his own lack of generosity. Isn't it ironic how we can be full of zeal for compassion to the poor in the abstract, and yet be so ungenerous to those specific individuals in need that God has placed before us? God commands us to be open hearted and generous to those in need and this is exactly how Mary has acted to Jesus. She has gone above and beyond in following the call to generosity. The expensive jar of perfume probably represented all her savings, and yet she extravagantly pours it out on Jesus. This is an act of sacrificial love and gratitude. It mirrors the sacrifice that Jesus himself will make in pouring out his very life blood for our sake.

 In his miserliness, Judas can only see Mary's extravagant giving as waste. His reference to the poor is little more than posturing. He fails to recognize what our Epistle reading calls, “the surpassing value of Christ.”  The world will always disparage such sacrificial devotion to Christ as waste. They will tell us it is foolishness to ignore the pleasures and rewards of the present for the world to come. The world lives only for what can be seen, but the Christian lives for what is unseen. Therefore we do not cling to material things.

Paul writes, “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him...”

Mary sees all that she has as a fair price in order that she might honor Christ. In contrast Judas saw thirty pieces of silver as a fair price for his loyalty and the life of his Lord. What did he hope to achieve by his thievery and betrayal? What good is it to gain the whole world but loose your soul?
Jesus has taught us, what we do for the poor among us we do for him. If Jesus has been so extravagantly generous to us in laying down his very life for our sake, should we not give sacrificially for the sake of those in need? Be openhanded toward your fellow sinners who are poor and needy in your land. What is given for his sake is never waste.

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