Monday of Holy Week: ‘You always have the poor with you.’ - Revd Dr Fiona Haworth
Each year, the pattern of readings during Holy Week take us through the events of the last week of Jesus earthly life. We begin with Palm Sunday and the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. On Monday we remember the meal Jesus shared at the home of Lazarus in Bethany, where Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. On Tuesday we remember the Greeks in Jerusalem who asked to see Jesus; and in response to their request, Jesus speaks of his glorification. On Wednesday we remember Judas setting in motion his betrayal of Jesus.
Collect for Palm Sunday
True and humble king,
hailed by the crowd as Messiah:
grant us the faith to know you and love you,
that we may be found beside you
on the way of the cross,
which is the path of glory. Amen (Church of England Additional Collects)
Bible Reading: John 12:1-11
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.’
When the great crowd of the 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. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (NRSV)
Monday of Holy Week: ‘You always have the poor with you.’
Reflection Fiona Haworth
The lectionary readings for Holy Week carry a sense of urgency as the drama of conflict and betrayal unfold. The timings in the gospels are a little slippery, but we begin with the dinner in Bethany where Martha and Mary have prepared a meal to celebrate the restoration of their brother Lazarus to them. We know from elsewhere in the gospels that this was a family that Jesus knew well and loved. They offered a generous friendship, a refuge from the intrigues of the world, a safe place for Jesus to simply be.
It is unsurprising that Jesus seeks them out in the week before the Passover. Were they aware of the danger Jesus was in? The raising of Lazarus so close to Jerusalem was not an event that could be easily hidden. Having raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus would have been aware of the growing conflict within the religious authorities of the day. We know from John’s gospel that two members of the council, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, together went to Pilate to request the body of Jesus in order to bury him. Perhaps these men were in touch with Jesus, warning him of the danger he was in.
A beautiful painting of the dinner from a Book of Hours from around 1503 shows Jesus seated behind a table with the disciples arranged in a line along it, and around the ends.
The disciples are looking at each other, gesturing, shock and disapproval etched upon their faces. Jesus looks back at them. Mary is kneeling, bending low, pouring the oil over Jesus’ feet, her golden hair unbound. By her a small dog chews a bone. Judas alone stands, his back to the table, looking at Mary, whilst holding a purse which is shielded from the view of the others by his body position. It seems he has already turned his back on Jesus and his friends.
The text does not attribute any motive to Mary, she simply acts. During the meal Mary took a pound of costly perfume, made of pure nard, the Greek translated pure in fact suggests ‘faithful’, hinting perhaps at Mary’s faithfulness amongst those who sat at Jesus feet to learn from him. Mary, bending to the floor, anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair. For Mary to have her hair uncovered in the company of men not her relatives was deeply shocking and transgressive. It was an intimate act to publicly caress Jesus’ feet. It was also an act of astonishing extravagance. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Judas is appalled. The perfume was worth a full year’s wages for an ordinary working man. Judas asserts that the money that it cost would be better spent serving the poor. Jesus is gentle with Mary, ‘Let her go,’ the Greek says, the word used of releasing tension, or releasing slaves or prisoners. It is also the word used by Jesus when he tells those gathered around Lazarus’s tomb to untie Lazarus from the grave cloths binding him. Jesus defends Mary, attributes to her the motive of anointing him in preparation for his death. The language used is mysterious, the stories overlapping, flowing into and out of each other. It is as if Jesus is reaching back into the past, and forward, anticipating inhabiting the tomb himself.
‘You will always have the poor with you,’ Jesus says to Judas. The irony is that Jesus numbers amongst the poor himself; homeless, dependent on the generosity of wealthy women to finance his mission, the hospitality of friends to shelter and provide for him, an ancient sofa surfer always moving to the next place. It is a tender and beautiful story given a harsh edge by the conflict over use of resources which play their role in betrayal. But it is an important story, because more than ever our times have thrown into stark relief the conflict between caring for others and the market driven economy that values profit over and above compassion.
The poor are indeed still with us today. This passage offers us a timely reminder that our ways of measuring poverty and wealth have undergone a real change since the time of Jesus. What was missing in Jesus day was the notion of the deserving and the undeserving poor. The presence of poor people in society was, until the Victorian era, a reminder that life was fragile and poverty could come to almost anyone; poverty was a reminder to be generous and compassionate to our fellow humans, whatever their state in life. There, but for the grace of God…
The response to the Corona virus has reminded us all that those we depend on for our health and wellbeing are often the working poor, the cleaners, the supermarket staff, the delivery drivers, the porters, bus drivers, refuse collectors, many of whom work on zero hour contracts. We have also seen the extent of our reliance on carers and nurses, who fall into the category of unskilled workers judged according to their level of pay in the government’s immigration policy. Some 13% of carers and NHS staff are foreign nationals, and as I write, the five doctors who have so far lost their lives, and one of the nurses named, are all from immigrant families serving our nation in the NHS.
We will always have the poor with us. However, the challenges posed by this serious global pandemic have revealed fault lines in our society that are down to political choices. Perhaps this challenge will provide us with an opportunity to reassess our priorities and to better value and reward the people who work so hard to ensure that we have what we need to live well in the world, so much of which we have taken for granted. We can show our gratitude by pressing for a system that properly rewards people for their efforts and begins to address the inequality that research shows has exacerbated social problems. The worker, the bible tells us, is worthy of their hire. The sacrifice that those of us who have benefitted from the status quo can offer is to rightly value all those who bear God’s image in the world and work towards ensuring that they are properly rewarded for their labours.
as we enter in to Holy Week
open our hearts and minds to receive you,
and to perceive you in the face of the poor;
for you were poor,
dependent on the charity of others,
thankful for the hospitality of friends.
May we always remember
that what we do to the least of your children on earth,
we do to Jesus,
flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone,
present to us in the broken places of the world.
May we be tender and compassionate
in our service of others.
In Jesus name.