THE WORD John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
MESSAGE “Repair the Breach” Rev. Jim Renfrew
Every time I read this story from John’s Gospel there is one question that shouts out at me, not only a question for those people long ago, but a question for every single person who hears the story in the present day. Here’s the question: “what are you doing about poverty?” There are many answers: we contribute food items and money to organizations that feed the hungry, we support programs that teach poor people to become more self-sufficient, we help serve meals at a free lunch program, or we write letters to elected official urging policies and funding that will help the poor. But whatever answers you or I give there is one answer that we will never give: “I’ve done enough”. We never do enough.
Years ago, during a Bible Study at a Presbyterian church in New York City, we were reading a Bible text about poverty. I don’t remember which story it was, but that doesn’t matter, because the Bible is filled with stories about poverty. It might have been this text from John about the woman who poured very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet, with Judas wondering why the money wasn’t spent, instead, for the poor. So, as is usually my style in leading a Bible study, I began with a question: “Who do you think is Jesus speaking about when he talks about the poor?”
I thought the answer was pretty obvious, given that we were doing that Bible study at a church on West 57th Street, in the historic neighborhood of “Hell’s Kitchen”, a name synonymous with poverty and hard, desperate living, a century of overcrowded tenements, whole families sharing a single dirty mattress in unheated buildings inhabited by rats and worse.
Who is Jesus speaking to when he talks about the poor? It was obvious to me every step of the way from the subway stop at Columbus Circle on 59th street from where I walked to the church; panhandlers, beggars, people trying to sleep on the sidewalk shivering under thin blankets, or just passed out, using bits of cardboard as a mattress, hoping that passersby would toss a few coins.
I thought it was obvious who the poor were, as obvious as could be, it was all of these people that I could see. So much poverty in every direction that it was overwhelming. As far as I could see, the exact people Jesus was talking about were right in front of us.
So I was surprised, OK, even shocked, at the answers I heard during the Bible study when I asked who Jesus was talking about when he talked about the poor. More than a few people seated around the table said that Jesus was speaking about them, speaking to them, about being poor. How could that be, I wondered? These folks at the Bible Study all had jobs or retirement pensions, apartments to live in, and food on the table, yet they described themselves as poor, and they believed that they were the exact people Jesus was speaking to.
Before he died, my dad suffered from macular degeneration, which he described to me as a growing big black spot in the center of his vision. I wonder if all of the people in the Bible study had some form of macular degeneration. They could look right at poverty, but they didn’t see it, like there was a big spot in front of them. A breach in reality, a breach in their way of apprehending the world, as if they were unable to see horror of poverty all around them, and then hijacking Jesus’ words, appropriating his words for themselves who were not poor at all.
So we talked about this at length that night at the Bible study and I learned something. These were good-hearted people who saw in their own selves a deep poverty, not of things like food or shelter, but poverty of the Spirit. They felt that what Jesus offered to the world had so far left them out, left them behind. They knew that there are people in the world spiritually happy, filled with an abundance of grace and joy, people confident in faith, people able to live with incredible hope. But such people were not them; they felt that spiritual abundance like this had passed them by. So when Jesus speaks to the poor, they felt like he was speaking directly to them. I learned something that night, that there are many ways to describe and measure poverty; some focus on material poverty and some focus on spiritual poverty. I have no way of predicting how people will connect to Jesus’ words about poverty, but I do know this: to heal this breach in the human condition, this breach between abundance and poverty, it’s going to take all of us.
I am always surprised when people read Jesus words about “the poor will always be with you” as an excuse to do nothing about poverty, as if poverty has been ordained by God. I disagree. If anything, poverty is always an opportunity to react, to respond, to help.
In the weeks leading up to Easter we participate in a special offering of the Presbyterians called One Great Hour of Sharing. It was created in the years following the Second World War to help rebuild communities shattered by hunger, violence and war. I remember putting coins into a One Great Hour of Sharing coin bank when I was a little boy, and now my granddaughter is putting her coins into the very same coin bank. This year a theme for the offering is “repairers of the breach”, and I am happy to welcome you as a participant in One Great Hour of Sharing, no matter the kind of poverty you may have seen or experienced, whether the poverty you have seen is material or spiritual. Because there is a breach, a gap, a division, a chasm, a blind spot to be filled, to be repaired, to be healed.
Let us be repairers of the breach, seeing the poverty around us and in us as the places to join with Jesus on our journey to Jerusalem.