Jesus surprises us with today’s truth. When he says something will be told in memory of someone, I imagine we assume it would be something to do with evangelism or some heroic deed of faith. But it doesn’t. Jesus says that we will remember Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, for anointing Jesus’ head and feet with perfume.
Some of the people at Simon’s house didn’t like what Mary did. By some, we mean Jesus’ disciples, especially Judas. If they were going to talk about it anymore, it would only be to point out the waste and destruction Mary caused. She poured thousands of dollars of ointments and lotions on Jesus; ointments and lotions they thought could better serve the poor.
Jesus says, “You’ll always have the poor with you.” Some might see this as callousness on the part of Christ, a dismissal of the Church’s charitable function to help the poor. Far from it. Jesus goes on to say, “You can help them any time you want.” Literally, “Whenever you wish you are able to do good for them.” Jesus assumes, with the rest of Scripture, that Christians will help the poor always. “Whenever you wish,” Jesus says. He doesn’t say, “Don’t bother,” he says, “Get busy.” He agrees with Proverbs, “Giving to the poor is lending to the Lord.”
Jesus subtly calls the bluff of those unhappy by Mary’s offering. They make it sound like if they had their way they would liquidate this money and all other useless luxuries and give them to the poor. If only, they say, we’d stop wasting money on ourselves, we’d finally solve this poverty problem.
We talk real big about stuff like this, about the poor, and missions, and charity. We talked as if the Church, as if our Synod, as if our church, Bethel, would only swing our budget away from building big buildings and paying exorbitant salaries to all kinds of unnecessary called workers and spending so many thousands of dollars on schools that teach so few, and if instead we dedicated our congregation’s, our Synod’s, the Christian Church’s dollars to missions and the poor, then, then we’d be rolling in the dough and finally accomplishing things. As if our budgeting priorities are why churches are always just a bad month away from being in the red. As if it has nothing to do with our own selfish hearts.
Judas didn’t care about the poor. John, in his account of this, tells us that Judas just wanted to bank the funds so he could keep stealing the disciples’ funds, as he had been doing.
What Jesus shows us today is that we have choices and we don’t always need to judge. Some help the poor. Some give gifts to pastors and teachers. Some like supporting schools. Some like supporting missions. Some support this charity or that. Some use their extra, their wealth, their abundance, their God-given abundance on other things. As Paul says, “Let us stop passing judgment on one another.”
What we have no choice about, Scripture also makes clear. We have no choice about being generous or cheerful in our service and giving. We excel, as Paul exhorted the Corinthians, because “Christ’s love compels us.” We excel, giving, even out of our poverty, like that widow Jesus pointed to in the temple. We give out off our radical trust in Christ. A trust that compels us, because he died for us, one man for all, the richest of the rich becoming the poorest of the poor, so that, as Paul says, “you through his poverty might become rich,” so that, as Psalm 112 says, “even in darkness light dawns for the upright,” and “a righteous man will be remembered forever.”
Mary had her eye on that, Jesus said. “She’s getting me ready for my burial.” We’ll only know in heaven if Jesus was crediting her with more than was in her heart, but let’s take him at his word. Mary understood, because Jesus had said so in so many words, that Jesus faced death soon. Sooner than all could know, because this moment, Mark hints, spurred Judas to go to the priests and promise to betray Jesus to them.
And while we remember Judas forever for what he did, only about Mary did Jesus speak and say, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” These words, and the words of Psalm 112 just mentioned don’t teach us to give out of expectation of reward. Nor do they suddenly make heaven contingent on how radically I give everything I have all the time to everyone. Radical poverty, monastic like poverty, gets you nowhere with God. He doesn’t command it. He commands the opposite. He says charity should be done so that the right and left hand don’t know what’s happening. You don’t need your name on everything. He says fasting should be done so that no one knows you’re fasting. Not everybody needs to look like a martyr. He says prayer is between you and God. Not everybody needs to know what a pious chap you are all the time.
Again, Jesus surprises us by praising not outreach and evangelism, but an act of love. For him. Luther likes to say over and over again ad nauseum in his Large Catechism, how when we obey the Ten Commandments we do more good works than all the monks and nuns combined. The washer woman hangs her laundry to the glory of God. The nursing mother nurses to the glory of God. The child obeys his parents to the glory of God. And so too all the works of piety and charity done in church, they are for the glory of God…or they are worthless.
This isn’t Jesus minimizing outreach, evangelism, or the church’s work. Not one single bit. In fact, this deed does have a connection to the ministry, Jesus’ ministry. It’s all about him. It’s preparing him for his work, his priestly work, his gospel work. Notice he says, “Wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world.” This work of Mary we only hear about and talk about in connection with Jesus. We only smell her perfumes and ointments as we see Joseph and Nicodemus take down the body of the one who did the most beautiful thing for us, the one who took our punishment so we could have peace, the one buried so that our coffin could become a bed, a place of rest until the resurrection of the body.
These words call us to keep our eyes open and look for Jesus. “You can help them anytime you want. But you will not always have me.” We do one and we don’t leave the other undone. God calls us to take care of our families, to help the poor as we can, to pay our taxes. He speaks these words plainly and clearly in Scripture. And these things surround us, so much that they almost seem legitimate excuses to dedicate everything to them. And yet, he also says, “Look at me. Give to me. Serve me.” That service happens in taking care of families, the poor, and taxes, but it also happens by serving in God’s Church. We do one and make sure not to leave the other undone, for God has equipped us to do so. Again from St. Paul: “Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”
Yes, we can and we will quibble about how to budget and prioritize. We won’t like every project our congregation or synod chooses to focus on, just like we don’t agree with every priority of our spouse, family, or friends. But maybe when we see how our Savior Jesus frees us to make choices, we’ll judge a little more slowly, find the plank in our own eye, and see how Christ’s Gospel may be served by the choice someone else made that we didn’t or wouldn’t.
Lent offers us this opportunity to talk about charity and stewardship and the use of our resources. It also gives us a prime opportunity to repent. To repent of our stinginess. To repent of how we’ve scolded others needlessly. To repent of our hypocrisy. To get down on our knees like the tax collector and say, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
And thankfully, since it’s Lent, we get to look at Jesus, Jesus who heard our cry for mercy, who turned his ear to us, who in our great need saved us.
We lift up the cup of salvation, into which Jesus poured his blood for us, a cup God pours out upon us in the waters of Baptism and the food of his sacrament, a cup that runneth over with the words of our God: “I have mercy, I have mercy, I have mercy!” A cup that wants to do nothing but preach this Gospel to us, that he died for all, that he was buried for all, that he rose for all, and that that all is me and you, and in faith I died with Christ, and rose with Christ and now, as Paul says, I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, pouring out all I have, no longer for me, but for him who loved me. Amen.