Tuesday, March 8, 2016

How Much More?


Whenever my friend Steve Pankey quotes me in a blog post of his, I usually end up learning what I should have thought about before I opened my big mouth. This time, however, we both seem to be tracking on the same line of thought, and, after kicking some ideas around in staff meeting this morning, it seems that we're not alone.

What can Judas teach us in John 12:1-8? Although John, through his editorial comments about Judas' betrayal and thievery, takes great pains to make sure that the initial answer to that question is "nothing," I still think we should give Judas another chance. No, I don't mean reversing history's condemnation of his treachery. (That's another post.) I mean letting his question to Jesus stand as genuine and valuable. Why wasn't the nard perfume sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?

Since a denarius was what someone would make for a day's work, 300 denarii is basically a year's wages for a day laborer. You could argue that it's as little as $15,000 (what minimum wage earns you for a year's work) or as much as $48,000 (what a $20-an-hour skilled tradesman would earn for 300 days of work). Regardless, it's a lot. That's a lot of help for poor people. Imagine what an extra $20,000 would mean to the poorest family in your town. Wouldn't Jesus want to help them? Would he prefer that the cheap perfume be used on his feet so that the good stuff could be sold and the money spent to make a lasting difference in the lives of poor people? Didn't Jesus teach us to care for the poor?

Yes, he did. And that, I think, is the point of this passage. No, it's not a lesson upon which to build a theology of mission or a strategy for ending poverty. Jesus would surely be disappointed if we eliminated our outreach budgets and spent that money on incense. But this is a story that depends upon Jesus' genuine preference for the poor and, therefore, asks how much more valuable his sacrifice must be.

Jesus does care for the poor. He has a preference for them. The poor are the ones to whom and through whom the kingdom of God is revealed. That's a given. You can't read the gospel ("blessed are the poor..." and "sell all that you have and give it to the poor..." and "it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle...") and come to any other conclusion. Judas' question, therefore, is a good one. It's a reasonable one. And that forces us to wonder just how valuable the pre-burial ritual really is.

Often in the parables of Jesus, the implicit question is "How much more?" Occasionally--as in the story of the father who gives bread to his hungry children instead of a stone--it's explicit: how much more will your heavenly father give you good gifts? I think that's the attitude behind this story. We're supposed to be shocked that Jesus would say to Judas, "You'll always have the poor with you." Likewise, we're supposed to be shocked at how incomparably valuable the sacrifice of Jesus is.

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