John’s story of Mary anointing Jesus is a bit different than the other Gospels. I’ve often wondered why the writer of John’s Gospel has Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as the one who anointed Jesus with nard. Mary is the star of the story and it takes place in her home rather than the home of Simon the leper (Matthew and Mark) or in the home of a Pharisee (Luke). John does give it a more personal feel and it’s clear that Jesus is comfortable in the home of Mary and her siblings. It’s the last line that gets me in this story. The line is also included and Matthew and Mark. And I think we’ve translated it wrong for centuries.
It sounds really snarky in English. The disciples are asking Jesus why he let Mary (or another woman) anoint him with costly oil when the oil could have been sold with the proceeds benefiting the poor. It sounds like Jesus just tells them to get over it because the poor will always be around – “You will always have the poor with you.” And, of course, his time with them is coming to an end. Snarky, right?
Maybe not. What happens if we look at what Jesus might have meant and translate it a little less literally. What if he meant something more like “The poor will always have you with them” or “You will always be with the poor.” Imagine what a difference this might have made in the history of church. What would it mean for us today if we heard this passage as an invitation to extravagant love among those who are poor – in finances, in resources, and/or in spirit?
There’s a reason the traditional translation has leaned toward snark rather than extravagance among the poor. Human beings haven’t changed all that much in a couple thousand years. The truth is that those who have less than we have, make us uncomfortable. Add to the discomfort the mistaken notion that our respective prosperity is earned from God as a form of blessing or reward, and the church tends to avoid those who are poor.
Think about it. We blame those who live in poverty for not being able to “improve” themselves. We blame people who have persistent symptoms of mental illness for not being able to “will” or “pray” themselves better; they don’t try hard enough. We take credit for any prosperity or privilege we have. We don’t like to look at our outdated theology or consider how White supremacist, patriarchal culture thrives on keeping those who are poor, poor while making sure the rich do, indeed, get richer.
We blame people for their circumstances as if those situations are contagious. And I suspect this comes from an unexamined theology based on sin and punishment as well as the messaging from the White supremacist, patriarchal culture. It’s these things and long centuries of tradition that keeps the church trying to bring people to “us” rather than go to “them.” Jesus told his followers exactly where we need to be. Be there. And be extravagant with love. It’s that’s simple.
Imagine a world in which church is built among those who are the most vulnerable. No snark, just love poured out for all. Maybe we should ask God to remove the sense of “us and them.” May the light of God’s love shine on the hidden places within us and in our churches that feed the fear and keep us separate from those with the need to have us with them, always. Then we, too, might be among those who anoint Jesus with extravagant love.