The whole world watched with great anticipation this week as the largest denomination within the world’s largest religion prepared to be introduced to their new leader. Even many of us who are not Roman Catholic found ourselves very intrigued by the process for finding a new bishop of Rome and a spiritual leader for 1.2 billion followers.
The man who was selected, Jorge Bergoglio, is not without controversy. It is too early to know what sort of influence his ministry will have on the Church, but there are, most likely, some issues he and I would not see eye to eye on, (including, for example, my standing in this pulpit).
Yet strangely, I’m finding myself interested in and inspired by this man, the first Jesuit and Latin American to be pope.
A few days after he was chosen, the new pontiff spoke out about his choice of his name: ‘Francis’. He shared that, as the cardinals began to realize that he would be the next pope, one of his cardinal friends leaned over and whispered to him: “Don’t forget the poor.” He had only a few moments to choose a name. and taking his friend’s words to heart, he thought of St. Francis of Assisi, a man who rejected his wealthy birthright, choosing instead a life of peace, prayer, and intentional poverty, and who has never been a pope’s namesake before. He said, “And this is how the name came to me,
in my heart: Francis of Assisi. The man of the poor, the man of peace, the man who loves and cares for creation–in this moment when we don’t have a very good relationship with creation, no? […]
A poor man…Ah, how much I would like a poor church, for the poor!”
This was Francis’ first extended explanation of why he chose his new name, and it signals potential priorities for his ministry: being faithful stewards of the environment, promoting peace, and caring for the poor.
In addition to the stories coming out about Pope Francis I, we’ve also seen photos of him embodying this commitment to the poor. Some of the most powerful photos that have been circulated show him as a cardinal in Argentina, on his knees, kissing the feet of AIDS patients, or kneeling to wash the swollen feet of a poor nursing mother. These photos are beautiful and inspiring and when I saw them, they reminded me instantly of today’s Gospel lesson. The feet of poor people are often tired, dirty, and in pain. Jesus, being poor himself, was probably no exception. His feet, which carried him all over Palestine, were surely in need of some fragrant oil and a little TLC. And his friend Mary provided these things.
But first, some background: We encounter Jesus today at the home of siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. The dinner party they gave was very nearly a post-burial wake, for, you see, as we heard:
Lazarus is the one, “whom he had raised from the dead.” Jesus’s raising of Lazarus only just occurred in Chapter 11, so at this dinner party, the memory is still fresh in everyone’s mind. And the smell of death may have still lingered in the air. This was the occasion when Jesus uttered the words, “I am the resurrection and the life,” hose familiar words heard at the beginning of every funeral in the Episcopal Church.
Lazarus was dead,but because of Jesus,here Lazarus sits, very much alive, dining with his sisters, his Savior, and some of his Savior’s followers. It starts out as a lovely evening—a shared meal and a celebration of a second chance at life. Then things take a bizarre turn.
I’m going to go ahead and posit that Mary was a Myers-Briggs INFP. Mary’s strong intuition told her that somehow, that this evening with Jesus was sacred, and that these sorts of opportunities would be coming to an end soon. Her intuition told her that the moment needed to be ritualized. And so she produces a vessel of expensive perfume, kneels before Jesus, and proceeds to cover his tired, dirty feet with luxuriously fragrant oil, wiping the excess away with her own hair. It’s strange, it’s intimate, it’s generous. But, according to Judas, it’s wasteful and irresponsible. Even though our narrator, John, is quick to tell us, the audience, that Judas is bad news, he raises a fair point, right?
The perfume was worth nearly a year’s wages. If we adjust for inflation, we’ve got ourselves a bottle of Old Spice worth tens of thousand dollars. It was costly. Had the perfume been sold
like Judas suggests, the proceeds surely could have fed many hungry people. But Jesus dismisses Judas, And this is where things go from bizarre to complicated.
It’s hard to wrap our minds around. Jesus defends Mary’s gift. He tells Judas to leave her alone.
Not because Judas was wrong, but because Mary was right. And he says one of the most frequently
misinterpreted statements in the whole bible: “You will always have the poor with you….”
This phrase has been used to justify complacency, indifference. Jesus said there will always be poor people, so what’s the point of trying to do anything about it?
But I truly believe that this phrase was not meant to be an excuse. I believe it is a challenge to change it. Friends, poverty is what happens when people stop caring for one another.
Now. when Pope Francis says he wants to serve a poor church, I don’t think he means he’s going to sell off the Sistine Chapel or the other lavish, beautiful parts of the Vatican, in the spirit of Judas’s plan. Or that we should never spend money on extravagant things, like this beautifully appointed sanctuary. But I do think it means we must think critically about the ways we use our resources. We must always ask ourselves, “How will this act of extravagance uplift Jesus? How might it uplift people like him, i.e. the poor?”
I think he means that he wants to serve a church where the poor are welcomed and uplifted, where those who are not poor become friends and advocates for those who are.
Mary’s act was a powerful demonstration of her love for Jesus. In the coming chapters,
Jesus will go on to demonstrate this sort of love to his disciples. He will wash their feet and then command them to wash one another’s feet. Like in those photos of Pope Francis, we will reenact that scene on Maundy Thursday.
He will teach them to not only serve the poor, but to advocate for them. But Mary has already demonstrated this kind of service. The experience of anointing Jesus turns Mary into a true disciple.
And Jesus does not let Judas take that away from her. Mary’s act is one of extravagant devotion to a poor man. When she anoints this poor man, she anoints God. Our proper response to Mary
is to show our own devotion to God through anointing.
When we serve the poor, when we give to the poor, when we advocate on behalf of the poor, when we listen to the poor, when we treat the poor with dignity, when we become a little less rich so that
someone else might become a little less poor, we anoint them. But not only that. We anoint Christ.
And the poor are always with us…in our hearts, guiding our choices and actions.