'Sometimes ‘just’ listening is what people need. (Why do we say ‘just’ listening as if listening is somehow not really important? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the first service we owe to others is to listen to them.)'
Text – John 12:1-8
‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ This was what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, something we last heard on Ash Wednesday.
There is treasure in this Gospel reading, and where your heart is determines where you see the treasure. Judas sees the treasure in the money that Mary’s perfume could have made, and he criticizes Mary’s ‘waste’ of it. Of course, he only does this because he sees his hope of skimming from the profits draining away with every drop of ointment dripping from the container.
But Mary sees the treasure in a different place. Jesus is the treasure – the one who had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead; the one who had taught in her house, as she sat at his feet, counted as a disciple.
And that’s what you do, isn’t it? You do what Mary does – you give of what is valuable to show what is truly of worth. This is what it means when Jesus says, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also.’
If Mary had sold the perfume and given the proceeds to the poor, I don’t doubt that Jesus would have heartily approved. But he receives the gift she gives – the outpouring of her offering; and he interprets it in at least two ways.
Firstly, he interprets it as a premonition of his death and burial. In this day, this kind of perfume would have been used to mask the odor of putrefaction from a corpse. It’s the same reason that in our culture, flowers used to be sent to a home in which a dead body reposed. Jesus’ body would be buried, but would not putrefy. So this would serve, as the act of devotion owed to a beloved one at death.
Secondly, he says something enigmatic: ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ It seems egotistical. Does Jesus put himself above the poor as somehow more deserving of expenditure?
He is saying that when his body is no longer able to be ministered to, his disciples’ treasure is to be lavished upon his body in his poor ones. This may be the Gospel of John’s equivalent to Jesus’ parable towards the end of the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Truly, I tell you, when you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
For he has already identified himself with those in need. Everything he has is given to him. He has no home, no status, no citizenship. And on the hill of Golgotha, they will even take his clothing.
And so as Mary poured out her treasure on him, and he poured out the treasure of his blood on the cross, so we may pour out ourselves as gift to others.
As he saw in us the image of God, though marred and disfigured by sin, so we may see the image of God:
- in the refugee;
- in the single mother with another on the way;
- in the child she bears, no matter the circumstance of conception;
- in people with Alzheimer’s Disease and in the people who care for them;
- in the person who is wrong;
- in the enemy.
We always think of money when we talk of pouring out treasure. And money is important. For some people it may be what they most need. But sometimes people don’t need money. Sometimes ‘just’ listening is what people need. (Why do we say ‘just’ listening as if listening is somehow not really important? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the first service we owe to others is to listen to them.) When we have opportunity, we can pour out upon the one who bears God’s image the costly treasure of time.
In Tegel prison, in 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following poem:
1. People go to God when they’re in need,
plead for help, pray for blessing and bread,
for rescue from their sickness, guilt, and death.
So do they all, all of them, Christians and heathens.
2. People go to God when God’s in need,
find God poor, reviled, without shelter or bread,
see God devoured by sin, weakness, and death.
Christians stand by God in God’s own pain.
3. God goes to all people in their need,
fills body and soul with God’s own bread,
goes for Christians and heathens to Calvary’s death
and forgives them both.