Sunday, September 18, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Three Hundred Denarii/The Poor You Have"

John 12:1-11

Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. 3 Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. 4 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, 5 “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (6 He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.) 7 Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.” 9 Many Jews learned that he was there. They came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too. 11 It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus. (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week Two

How much money would you be willing to give back to the police to find its rightful owner if you found it just sitting on the street, waiting for you? Would you give back all of it, or help yourself to some of it (whilst calling it a "finders fee" to help you sleep at night), or just not bother turning it in at all?

I’m asking you these questions as you sit here, in decent clothes and under a sturdy roof, worshiping God at a million-dollar church campus. I realize many of us are poor, but none of us are as poor as a homeless man in Canada who was faced with that very question when he happenedupon $2,000 (I mean, it’s in Canadian currency, so it’s basically monopoly money, but it is legal tender) in the street.

So now, ask yourself that question again, but this time, imagine that you are homeless. Do you still keep all the money? Do you keep some for yourself? Do you keep all of it for yourself?

The homeless man—who is, to my knowledge, anonymous—returned it all. In gratitude, the community in turn raised $5,000 for him to give him a real home to live in. Families donated together, kids put on lemonade stands, dozens of different households pitched in to raise the cash.

He turned that money down too, asking for it to instead be donated to a local charity that provides food.

That’s $7,000 in total—the equivalent of four months’ wages at the American federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour. So, not quite as much as the three hundred denarii that Mary sacrifices to honor Jesus. But it is in that exact same spirit of utter selflessness from the least of those among us.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer is at long last giving way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

(The best—and funniest instance—of this I’ve seen is a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”)

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We began this series last week with one of the most famous pronouncements of the prophet Jeremiah: that God knows the plans that God has for you, and they are plans for peace, not disaster, and of a future filled with hope. This week, we move onto an equally famous pronouncement of Jesus found in John 12: the poor you will always have with you.

It is a rebuke that Jesus makes to Judas Iscariot, and that is the very first salient detail of this particular teaching. Judas ostensibly object to the spikenard ointment that Mary used to anoint Jesus because of its expense—it cost three hundred denarii, and a denarius was a coin worth one day’s pay for an unskilled manual laborer. In modern terms, it would be worth the equivalent of 8 hours pay at the federal minimum wage.

Mary uses three-quarters of a pound of the nard—if you can imagine being anointed with twelve ounces of perfume, it’s an obscenely lavish amount, but it is meant to be lavish. Not only is it, as Jesus said, an honor done to Him in anticipation of His upcoming crucifixion, death, and burial (and John reports that at that burial, Jesus will be covered in *one hundred* pounds of aloes and spices), it is, I have to imagine, an act of sincere and profound gratitude as well.

Why? Because Mary is not just the sister of Martha, she is also the sister of Lazarus, the man whom Jesus has just raised from the dead one chapter prior. So this monetarily expensive act of devotion by Mary is also likely an act of gratitude as well. So Judas is not just sneering at Mary’s way of expressing her devotion to Jesus, but at her way of expressing her deep thanksgiving that her brother is once more among the living. That is the first crucial part of context that we forget here.

But let’s circle back to Judas. John tells us that Judas’s real motive wasn’t about a concern for the poor, but because those three hundred denarii—or at least some of that sum—might have seen their way into the disciples’ common purse, which Judas both kept and embezzled from. And Jesus says to him, “The poor you will always have with you.”

Well, obviously. If you steal from the poor—and make no mistake, the Twelve, aside from probably Matthew, who, as a tax collector, was likely rather well-off, were all dirt poor—to enrich yourself, then the poor you will indeed always have with you because they are going to remain poor. This statement is not a reflection of Jesus’s obliviousness to the plight of the poor (a cursory reading of Matthew, Mark, or Luke would tell you quite the opposite: Jesus uplifted the poor and the outcast at every turn, sometimes at the direct expense of the wealthy).

Rather, this statement from Jesus is a reflection on how Judas is treating the poor among him—his fellow apostles. Judas will always have the poor, because Judas’s thievery keeps them poor.

There is a dimension of spiritual poverty to this as well—for as long as we sneer at the sacrificial acts of devotion by our fellow believers, we will have the spiritual poor with us because we will have become that spiritual poor. Mary’s anointing of Jesus cost the equivalent of ten months’ wages—this isn’t her posting one of those inane “Click and Share if You Love Jesus” images on Facebook (because everyone knows that memes are what our faith is measured by), this is her making a tremendous sacrifice to show her love for, and gratitude to, her Messiah.

Quite simply, as New Testament scholar Gail R. O’Day puts it, “Mary acts extravagantly towards Jesus in love and devotion, while Judas acts out of greed.” They are total counterexamples of each other. And Judas, in turn, is a counterexample to our anonymous homeless man who turned down first the two thousand dollars he found lying in the street, and then the five thousand dollars that his community raised for him out of gratitude.

You do not need to have the means and wealth of Mary, who can afford a jar of spikenard that costs three hundred days’ wages, to show that extravagant love, devotion, and selfless sacrifice to the other. This anonymous man teaches us that quite plainly.

But before he ever came along, before we ever came along, before Christianity ever came along, we would do quite well to remember not only the devotion of a woman in Bethany named Mary, but that her devotion provoked a teaching from that object of her devotion that is not even remotely an excuse for us to remain complacent in the face of poverty.

The poor that you have, and I have, with us is, like with Judas the poor of our own making. Jesus’s teaching is indeed not an excuse.

It is a condemnation.

Let us treat it, then, with the gravity and seriousness that it, like all His teachings, deserves, rather than dismissing it as a trite commentary on the sad state of the world in which He, and we, live. Let us not allow ourselves to be beaten into submission by a world that, like Judas, will always have the poor because of how it treats the poor. We as Christians do not get to submit to such greed and such sin.

Let us live out of the richness of devotion, rather than the bankruptcy of our own selfishness.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 18, 2016

No comments:

Post a Comment