Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii 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 kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
John 12: 1-8 NRSV
The political season is an unfortunate reminder of what political rhetoric is all about. Candidates get behind podiums on stages and paint pictures of utopias (some worse than others) and a country that is perfect. The audiences that they pander to eat up their words as if it’s a delectable German chocolate cake. More often than not, when someone opens the box for the cake they ordered on election day, they find a saltine cracker and a napkin.
That’s hardly satisfying.
This is where we join Jesus in John 12:1-8. Mary anointed the feet of Jesus with her perfume infused hair and Judas Iscariot questions the act. The question Judas asks, on the surface, seems to indicate a sincere care for the poor and oppressed in the society he was a part of. The writer of John flips that idea on its head in two ways.
First, the writer indicates that Judas was going to betray Jesus. This makes his question a prompt for the second revelation. The second revelation is that Judas had no concern for the poor and frequently stole from the purse of money he was entrusted to keep. In other words, Judas wanted the perfume to be sold so that he could line his pockets. It should not be surprising, then, that Judas would later betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.
We are reminded of the false promises of government officials by the actions of Judas in this pericope. Politicians often say that their actions are in line with the need to help the oppressed in our society. They ask questions of our commitment to helping our neighbors in an attempt to reflect a sincere care and love for those who need help.
In reality, they are already bribed and bought off by special interest groups. Like Judas, they are found to be in line with the work of satan and evil in our world in opposition of the care and love for the oppressed that Christ calls us to.
This makes the answer from Jesus all the more interesting. Jesus insists that what Mary did was justified and correct. He asserts that she had bought this perfume for the day of His burial. He also says that the poor will always be present in society.
By saying Mary did a good deed, Jesus rebukes Judas. This should hardly come as a surprise. Jesus knows that Judas will betray Him and knows that the question Judas asked is superficial. Judas essentially inhabited the role of a Pharisee trying to catch Jesus off guard and was promptly corrected.
When Jesus alludes to the perfume being bought for His burial, He is predicting His death. This seems straightforward, but in the context, it becomes profound. First, Jesus doesn’t just throw this fact in. He says this because He is continuing to relay to Judas that He knows what Judas is all about and He knows that Judas will betray Him and offer Him up for death.
Second, we know that the tomb was empty when the women approached it to anoint Jesus’s body with perfumes and spices. That makes this act the anointing that could not occur later. Another way Jesus could have asked this question is: “Is this not what you wanted?”.
Then we have Jesus saying that the poor will always be present. This begins as an indictment on Judas and that indictment branches out into an indictment on the government and political officials in our time. This is, perhaps, one of the hardest things to swallow in all of scripture, and yet, it is our present reality just as much as it was reality back then.
Already established is the fact that Judas was interested in selling the perfume to fill his pockets. That means that his disingenuous interrogation of Mary’s act was a smokescreen to disguise the truth of the matter. The truth is that Judas would have stolen the money for himself and there would be none left for the poor. Thus, the poor would continue to be present and grow in that time due to the thievery of Judas. Mary foiled this particular opportunity for theft, but Jesus knew why the purse was empty before that and why it would continue to be empty: Judas had no care or compassion for anyone other than himself and was only interested in trying to improve his life at the expense of others.
In our time, we have a wealth inequality that is inexcusably vast. The rich in the United States take their money and buy politicians. In turn, the politicians stand before us questioning why we resist putting money into the government’s purse. The answer is that we know that the money that goes in every direction other than where it needs to go: war, pharmaceutical companies, drones, wiretapping, and the list seemingly goes on forever.
One thing is for certain, the money never makes it to the oppressed where politicians promise it will go. They assume the position of Judas as they hoard the money for their own income, power, and cycles of oppression.
Many do this in the name of Christ knowing full good and well that Christ is not with them and is instead with those who are oppressed.
Because of their negligence and our glorification of politicians and human created government, we continue to have the poor among us. We do this to the point that we boast about our candidate’s perceived perfection knowing full good and well nobody is perfect other than God and Christ. We silence people who point out the flaws of the government and the flaws of politicians. We refuse to believe that we contribute to these cycles and become a reflection of Judas ourselves.
Through our idol making of politicians and slander of one another in the name of politics, we become just like Judas: Concerned only with ourselves, those that agree with us, and the advancement of faulty human made ideologies of hatred, division, and death.
This pericope serves as an invitation to place Christ at the head of our lives and care for the oppressed instead of the oppressors. The indictment Jesus delivers is not to be taken lightly and needs heeding now more than ever.