‘Gospel Extravagance’

Posted: April 4, 2019 in Uncategorized

5C, 2019
John 12:1-8

‘Gospel Extravagance’

This morning’s theological storyteller we call John, has told a very old story and this story seems to have been reworked several times as it appears in various guises in at least three other gospels. In John, it is a good woman. In Luke, a sinful woman. In Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head. In Luke and John, she anoints his feet. Later generations wrongly imagined the woman was Mary Magdalene. And the differences go on.

In John, Judas objects. In Matthew, the disciples object. In Mark, it was some of those present who objected. In Luke, it was Simon, the pharisee who objects. In Matthew and Mark, all this took place in the house of Simon, the leper. In Luke, it happened in the house of Simon, the pharisee. In John, it took place in the home of Lazarus. About now one might be excused for being confused. This is quite a story!

So, amid all the changes to this story, where do we go? Where is the story’s focus? Maybe it’s on the response of the woman. But we need to be careful if we go down that road because we know the woman’s response is not always welcomed. Looking at the wider context of the story we see that the protests in many of the stories surrounding this one seem to focus on the waste of resources, with those resources going to assist the poor. So as a guide, Uniting Church theologian Bill Loader offers this comment: He says: “It is not that we should see [her response] as stroking the ego of Jesus, but rather as indicative of her response…  A person is responding to love and acceptance.  It is not the time to talk budgets, but to value the person” (WLoader Web site 2004).

A Girardian note on this story suggests that we find ourselves in Lent and the cross looms large ahead of us, bringing us closer to the revelation of God’s extravagant love – reflected in Mary’s scandalous generosity – juxtaposed against humanity’s imposition of blame and cruelty. This passage contains layers upon layers of scapegoating and misappropriated blame, but cutting through it is truth, beauty and compassion.

A frequent misinterpretation of this passage is that Jesus is acquiescing to the inevitability of impoverishment, as if poverty is a natural phenomenon to which some are necessarily doomed. But if God is Love – if Love fashioned the universe and all that is in it and formed humanity to reflect Love – then the suffering that comes with destitution is not divine design. No, there is abundance for all, so why does Jesus say, “You always have the poor with you?”

What if poverty is a way that the consequences of negative mimesis have become entrenched over time? As people live over and against one another and exclude and marginalize or exploit and manipulate others for their own benefit, the abundance of creation is horded by some and denied to others?

Furthermore, the escalation of human conflict, as desires for wealth, power, and influence clash against each other, erupts into war that further impoverishes those who already have little. The poor are often those conscripted into battle or sent to the front lines to fight for profits claimed by others under the guise of patriotism. Spilled blood poisons the soil, and today tools of modern warfare destroy homes and livelihoods and wreak havoc on the land and water, rendering them unable to provide for the people as intended. I don’t think Jesus foresaw bombs and missiles, per se, but I do think he understood the escalation of violence and the advancement of weaponry over time which would be put to use in the service of fear and greed and deepen the poverty of the people.

Jesus has seen how God’s commands to welcome and love strangers and foreigners have been neglected. He has seen instructions on forgiveness of debts ignored and the further entrenchment of poverty through the generations. He has seen how people and nations have defined themselves over and against others and how claiming the exclusive This extravagant focus raises the question of an exclusive God who has pushed out scapegoats within communities and fostered enmities between them. Thus the Poverty that results and metastasizes from these patterns of human behaviour is something Jesus intimately understands precisely because he has placed himself at the center of it. The same forces that impoverish ultimately kill Jesus.

So, when Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you,” he is lamenting, not acquiescing to, human sinfulness – which can be summed up as the brokenness of human relationships that compels us to find our identities over and against, rather than with and for, one another. We become unbalanced, left brain prioritized and adversarial responsive. And then Jesus says, “You do not always have me.” He is affirming that his challenge is to see the need to challenge our assumptions that are not balanced.

Yes, he is very likely foreshadowing his death. But he is not contrasting himself with the poor but rather standing in solidarity with them. He is not seeking any focus on himself but rather highlighting the need for constant vigilance in the face of responses that are not tested against reality as we know it. And he is saying, “Unless you can see the unique and beautiful face of each person right in front of you, you will never truly care for the poor.” Poverty comes from dehumanization and exclusion, from casting people aside from the human community, from violence that violates and destroys bodies and souls. If you want to help those who are poor, see them! Welcome and befriend them, Jesus tells us. “And do not begrudge an act of extraordinary kindness and generosity toward them, as Mary is doing for me.” The issue of debate between The Friends and ourselves about what is the better way to deal with homeless who use our doorways as shelter is a perfect example of this challenge. Ban and police them or work with them in the needs. The poor, disaffected, unable to work with the system are always with us.

Yes, there is so much more in this action, in this anointing for burial as both preparation for death and the beginning of death’s undoing itself – the undoing of the victimization and ritualization that grafts sacrifice into the lifecycle of communities and destroys them from the inside out is another half dozen sermon.

What I think is important here is the idea that poverty as a consequence of the dehumanization that is pinpointed against a single individual or group in the scapegoating mechanism, as the widespread result of scapegoating from the foundation of the world. Because in an age and a society where the poor are still scapegoated, and violence – in the form of destruction of social programs and the diversion of funding to wars that further entrench poverty – violence that harms the poor is whitewashed and cloaked in pseudo-righteousness.

The Girardian approach to this suggests that we must see the social and political dimension of Jesus’s words, as well as the personal. At the core of it all, to say “You always have the poor with you,” is to say that the fullness of humanity is always denied.  I would prefer to say unfinished. In our story Jesus draws the focus back to himself; ultimately to affirm the dignity of everyone and to show us that dignity that we may see it in ourselves and others, and not to offer us a supernatural escape clause.

If we follow the Girardian approach and see poverty itself through the lens of scapegoating, we can see how this passage presents further layers of scapegoating as well. These are layers that can lead to marginalization and poverty. Judas scapegoats Mary. He chastises her for her extravagant generosity as she spreads the perfume over Jesus’s feet. The evangelist scapegoats Judas. He says that Judas has no concern for the poor, but wanted to steal from the treasury.

Commentaries say other scholars are more sympathetic to Judas. And, yes, the story has Judas betraying Jesus, but so do we all. To give in to and turn to the ways of violence for self-protection or enrichment is to betray Jesus. To build ourselves up over and against others is to betray Jesus. Entrenched biases and prejudices are betrayals of Jesus that permeate our world and infect our souls.

For the evangelist to hone in on Judas’s faults and judge his motives is to detract from the deeper truth that everyone witnessing such extravagance on Mary’s part was very likely scandalized by it. And today, while giving to the poor is considered a virtue, programs that uplift the poor and attempt to restructure society so that poverty is reduced are often maligned as “hand-outs.” “Do away with foodbanks because all they do is perpetuate people who cheat the system”. Ban the homeless from our CBD because we are damaging out tourism potential. We must ask, to what extent are we scandalized by our extravagant abundance, and how much more must we open our own hearts to acts of extraordinary generosity and kindness?” As I implied the other night to our leadership team. Maybe we should build rooms in the old church and give them to the homeless.

The chief priests scapegoat not only Jesus, but Lazarus as well, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting their Judaism and were believing in Jesus.” And let’s remember that this was Jews moving between their own faith expressions. They were not becoming pagan or any other form of religion but rather within a world of diverse practice. Fearing loss of authority and power, and fearing destruction of their particular community by Rome, they conspire to put Lazarus to death… again.

The challenge to us in this text is to acknowledge that generations of Christians have scapegoated Jews because of an anti-Semitic reading of this text. We have scapegoated many who can’t keep up or fit in to our norms of society and we have set Jesus apart from every other victim by making him carry the burden of being supernatural and we see his execution as something unique and more offensive than that of anyone else, we miss his solidarity with the victims of violence in all times and places, and we mistake the violence done against him as worse than our own. We push to the background the fact that many in his world were crucified.

But what do we do about this?  Well maybe look again at Mary who, being herself, marginalized, models the generosity and vulnerability that Jesus later displays when he washes the feet of his disciples. In our Hebrew Scripture for today God declares “I am about to do a new thing,” foreshadowing perhaps the forgiveness and undoing of the ways of blame and violence that lead to death that spring from the cross and resurrection…

So, what do we do about this? What is our response to this reality? How do we interpret Jesus’ words about the poor, Mary’s extravagant generosity, or Judas’s chastisement, or the reaction of the chief priests? And if “we always have poor among us,” what does that mean? What does Jesus have to say to today’s social and political and economic systems? What does he have to say to the ways we see, or don’t see, those who are poor among us? What hope does he offer the poor themselves, who comprise the majority of the world?

Well, lets go back to the story again, in fact lets see if we can put this story into context.

Stories such as: The man who had two sons; A man with a hundred sheep, and
A woman with ten coins. In the parable of the man who had two sons we meet the younger son who, after collecting his share of the family’s estate, leaves home and spends it all on extravagant living. When he returns home, broke, he is welcomed back by his father, who bankrolls, out of the other brother’s inheritance, an extravagant homecoming party. In the parable of the one sheep missing from a flock of 100, the fellow goes off searching for the lost one until it is found. And when he finds that one sheep, throws a party in an act of extravagance and maybe even offering the sheep as part of the party food!

Likewise, in the parable of the woman who loses a coin. With a sense of urgency, she lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and goes searching. She is in charge of the household finances.  Indeed: “her power and status derive from maintaining orderly household management” (Reid 2000:187) So she doesn’t give up until she has found that coin. Then she throws an extravagant party, probably spending that coin and several others,
in honour of the recovered coin and her selfhood.

Extravagance and joy characterize these Lukan stories. As it does, I suggest, in this morning’s story by John. But what of John’s added comment: ‘There will always be poor around, but I won’t always be around.’ Well, again if we go back and ‘hear’ that again, checking the passage from Deuteronomy which many scholars feel John has been inspired by. this is what we hear: Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land’ (NRSV). Open your hand…  Be compassionate to others! Com- passion.  Feeling with. From the very depths of your person.

So, with the broader Deuteronomy text ringing in my ears, I think along with others that this story from John implies that it was: Mary – with the lotion and the touch, and not
Judas – with the speech and the pious-sounding advice, whose response was genuinely compassionate. The speech by Judas sets up a competitive situation and a closed hand. The action of Mary sets up common likenesses and an open hand. Matthew Fox of ‘creation spirituality’ fame, and who is to be our Ferguson Lecturer this year has some interesting comments on compassion which I think could be helpful: “Competition isolates, separates and estranges.  Compassion unites, makes one and embraces…  If we can move from competition to compassion we will have moved from dull and moralistic and ungrateful and legalistic (thinking)… to celebrative thanking… Celebration leads the work with The Friends on the restoration of our building.

Extravagance and celebration and joy! For of such are the images of the ‘glimpsed alternative’, and ‘revelation of potential’ called the realm of God. It seems here that Jack Spong got it right when he said: love wastefully!

Notes:
Fox, M 1979.  A spirituality named compassion and the healing of the global village, Humpty Dumpty and us. NM: Santa Fe. Bear & Company.
Reid, B. E. 2000.  Parables for preachers. Year C. MN: Collegeville. Liturgical Press.
Scott, B. B. 2001.  Re-Imagine the world. An introduction to the parables of Jesus. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press.
Scott, B. B. 1989.  Hear then the parable. A commentary on the parables of Jesus. MN: Minneapolis. Fortress Press.

rexae74@gmail.com

 

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